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Growing Our Own: Agriculture in the Virgin Islands

Nov. 3, 2008 — When asked whether the territory is able to sustain itself through agriculture, the most common answer from most local experts and business owners is "no." But ask a farmer — particularly one who depends solely on the soil for his livelihood — and you'll hear something different, something about what can be done to revive the industry and cut out the islands' dependence on imported food.
Lucien "Jambie" Samuel Jr. is a full-time farmer on St. Thomas and has been for the past 20 years. His one-acre farm in Estate Bordeaux is home to all kinds of crops, including bib lettuce, spinach, pepper, papaya and celery. His land has been terraced by hand, with each crop neatly lined up in rows and set up next to drip-irrigation lines timed to disperse water at certain times during the day. He works the land from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, and at the end of the year brings in about $10,000 from what he is able to produce and sell.
But Samuel puts approximately $15,000 to $20,000 into the farm annually — not counting the cost of labor. Though he gets help on various tasks from his wife, Benita, and son, Lukata, such as working in the farm's nursery to plant seedlings, several extra sets of hands are still needed to bump up the farm's production levels so the crops can be distributed on a more consistent basis, Samuel said. The lack of manpower is currently his biggest challenge.
"If we had 35 farmers like me, we could produce year round and do things like rotate our crops, alternating between lettuce, beans and sweet pepper, for example," he said, pointing to several leafy trees laden with ripe purple and orange berries. "Right now, it's guavaberry season, and I don't even have time to pick all the fruit I have on my trees. If I had some people here — maybe for a few hours a day — then we could do other things with it, like make wines, tarts, other products out of them, especially now you see it's coming up on Christmas season. But the problem is, I don't have the manpower."
A lack of infrastructure in the area, namely water stores, also poses a challenge. The Bordeaux area is home to a number of dams, which gravity feeds water to nearby farms through a simple drip-irrigation network. Samuel also has a 13,000-gallon storage tank for water, and another 2,000-gallon tank for mixing his own blend of fertilizer — a combination of water, compost and fish emulsion that is sprinkled "like a tea" over the plants.
"It takes seven years after planting the seed for a regular mango tree to produce — three years for grafted," he explained. "With the kind of technology we have, we can get it to produce three times a year, but then we don't have the kind of infrastructure we need, especially when it comes to water. It doesn't make any sense — we're surrounded by water, yet the Water and Power Authority lines don't run to Bordeaux. We need somebody to get in there and make these kind of things happen to make the change we need and to make agriculture work."
Samuel puts his money where his mouth is — not only does he farm full-time, but he also supplies fresh, organic produce to local markets and takes orders for parties and weddings. The greenhouse nestled into the bottom part of the farm is presently home to 100 heads of bib and red oakleaf lettuce that have been transplanted into pots and Clorox Bleach bottles.
At just two weeks old, the lettuce is leafy, a bright shade of green, and looks good enough to pick and pop right into your mouth. Running alongside the pots are two other crop beds, presently empty and ready to be cultivated.
"We've grown cucumber, tomato, sweet pepper and bell pepper in here, and now we're looking at lettuce, which is a cool season crop," explained Richard Pluke, an agronomist with Fintrac, a local Economic Development Commission beneficiary that sponsors agri-business development projects all over the world. Fintrac supplied the materials for the greenhouse and, in 2006, Pluke and other volunteers helped Samuel to build it.
Pluke comes up to the farm every week to check on its progress, and to provide whatever other support services Samuel needs.
"Each one of the lettuce here, if they grow to full size, can sell for $4 to $5 each," Pluke said, explaining that each head takes about two to three months after being planted to fully bloom. "If the lettuce really takes off, we can definitely do a system that's really independent of the soil, and keep it going. That way, we can calendarize the planting, and have a continuous supply coming out, because that's what the restaurants want, to know every week they're going to be getting something like 20 heads of lettuce."
Making the most of the space in the greenhouse and on the farm is also important, Pluke said.
"That's why we have three different beds," he explained. "Once one crop is finished, we can put in two other crops and have some outdoors in order to maintain production. We could also divide the bed and get six plots in here, but those kind of decisions should be made after the farmer goes to the market to make their production decisions so they can know what to plant and in what volume."
At the Market
On St. Thomas, very little produce or meat being sold in local markets come from farmers in the territory. In fact, much of what local consumers buy on a daily basis gets shipped from farms in places like Florida, California and Texas, or other Caribbean islands such as Santo Domingo.
"Most of our produce is shipped from Florida on a weekly basis," said Kalaf Suid, manager of Gourmet Gallery. "The only thing we get from within the Caribbean are bananas, which come from Santa Domingo. The quality of produce from off-island is much better and some of the products — like blueberries, peaches and apricots — you can't even get locally. The distribution is much better, too — the trailer takes about two days to get to St. Thomas, and sometimes we even get it the same day. If I were able to buy the things here, with the same quality and price, I would, but I just don't see that happening."
Pueblo Supermarket on St. Thomas gets much of its fruit — oranges, grapes and strawberries — from Miami, while vegetables and other fruit, such as bananas and apples, comes from Puerto Rico. The market stocks pork from Puerto Rico and beef from cattle farms in Texas, according to Pueblo's manager, Manuel Andujar.
"On St. Thomas, it doesn't seem like there's much available, but we also haven't been contacted or approached by local farmers about selling their produce and meat," he said.
The Fruit Bowl in Wheatley Center is also a popular stop for many St. Thomas residents, and the constant demand for certain kinds of produce is what keeps the store importing goods from Florida, California, Costa Rica and Dominica, said James Clarke, the store's manager.
"If farmers come to us with produce and it's of good quality, then we buy it," he said. "But most of the time the produce is extremely limited in supply, and limited in availability."
The Fruit Bowl buys pumpkins, mangoes, green bananas, avocadoes and carambola from local farmers, but about 99.9 percent of the store's stock still comes from off-island, Clarke said.
But there are still other factors, such as the lack of workers in the territory needed to harvest the crops, Clarke said, explaining that the store continues to buy coconuts from Costa Rica because there is no labor force available on the island to shell them.
"There is also no grading system for produce here," he said. "Let's look at a 1,000-acre pepper farm in California. The land is flat, can generate acres and acres of produce and supply small, medium and large peppers. Now the average consumer also wants the perfect pepper. Here, they come in all shapes and sizes — what&#39
;s called a 'choice' pepper. It tastes the same, but the aesthetic is different. Tomatoes too — everyone wants a round, red tomato. Locally, it's not nice and round, it would be misshapen. Also, the supply would come on a very limited basis — there's never any kind of consistent volume, and when the customers come in, we have to have it available for them."
Fruit Bowl's produce orders are also placed about a week and a half in advance, Clarke said.
"Farmers in the territory, when selling produce, place their calls to grocery stores with no advanced notice," he said. "A farmer on St. Croix would call me up one day and say that he has 2,000 pounds of cucumbers to sell. I would like to buy them, but I can't move 2,000 pounds in a week, especially when I've already ordered cucumbers from somewhere else and know that they'll be coming in soon."
Most of the island's hotels and restaurants get their produce from Merchant's Market, which in turn buys its goods from Florida, Texas and California, says Manager John Brittain.
"There's no replacement for California lettuces anywhere in the United States," Brittain said, explaining that the market generally brings in a 40-foot trailer loaded with "fruits and roots," everything from leafy greens to pineapples and mangoes.
"Almost nothing is available here in the quantity we need," he said. "We don't have enough land mass, we don't have enough water and we're plagued with tropical bugs. Our local environment is basically conducive to growing sweet potatoes and tropical fruits, but in places like Santo Domingo, which is a huge land mass with lots of water, you have a variety of crops like eggplant and okra. Most of the stuff you're going to find on your salad bar in the restaurants can't be grown down here."
They can be grown on St. Croix, though. On Saturday mornings, the La Reine Farmers' Market is the place to go for local produce. With two dozen or more full-time, part-time and hobby farmers manning the stalls, it attracts hundreds of customers.
Items available there on a seasonal basis include lettuce, herbs, bush tea, seedlings, tomatoes, peppers, okra, cucumbers, mangoes, sugar apples, golden apples, rose apples, spice apples, star apples, starfruit eggfruit, carrots, sweet corn, fresh gandules, guava, passionfruit, mespil, spice apple, rose apple, citrus of all kinds and local cinnamon.
Look for the smiling, bespectacled face of Aberra Bulbulla to find some of the more hard-to-find items, such as guava berries, Java plums and custard apples.
Glennor Smith, an Antigua native and a Virgin Islander on St. Croix for the last 14 years, has gallons of homemade Mauby for sale. It's crisp and tangy, with a liquorishy tone to the bitterness of the mauby bark. Smith sometimes also has Antiguan sarsaparilla, tasting nothing like the rootbeerish sarsaparilla of the American southeast, but more tart, like Russian Kambucha tea or dandelion wine.
A tall, thin Rastafarian fellow, Feli, who you will think is a decade younger than he is, has a good selection of fresh, local drinks, from sorrel to chlorophyll, individually packaged under the label Feli's Roots Drinks.
Lucy Cochrane has homemade guava jam and greenlime jelly, essential for making traditional Vienna cake.
Mary Adnana Adwoa Lewis' stand is stocked with volleyball-sized bright green local watermelons, in season, and a variety of fresh greens. She can't be missed in her brightly colored African garb. Lewis, originally a native of Ghana, sells African fabric and clothing as well, and sometimes has fresh, natural shea butter.
Southgate and Creque Farms, two larger farms on the island with a variety of specialty produce favored by restaurants, both sell at the farmers' market and at their farms. During the week, UVI's Agriculture Experiment Station runs its farm store, with local lettuces, lots of basil, peppers, greens, locally raised tilapia, both whole and filleted, and a sporadic array of other produce, including very good sweet corn. The station keeps regular business hours, and can be contacted at rps.uvi.edu/AES/.
Up Mahogany Road, in the hills of St. Croix, is the Country Snack Stand, with a small variety of local produce and homemade candies, local cooking and their specialty: a $7 smoothie made from a mix of frozen local fruits, from gooseberry to passionfruit.
Smaller corner stores sell a few limes, mango and avocado when they are in season.
It is common to see someone with a small table next to the road with three avocados, two breadfruit and an array of mangoes for sale — or a single 100-pound bunch of bananas. Toward Christmas, piles of sorrel calixes will be mounded and sold by the roadside. In season, children pick and bundle genip all over the island, selling huge bunches for $2, both from small stands placed at strategic locations and by walking up to people at bars and restaurants.
Southgate Farms, on St. Croix's far eastern end, sells high-end organic produce to local restaurants. Their biggest item is fresh microgreens of all kinds, for fine dining restaurants to use as garnish and ornament. They also sell a wide variety of fresh herbs and tomatoes, which come in heirloom varieties and specialty hybrids, such as Super Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. Creque Farm on St. Croix's northwest hills grows a wide variety of produce, but has a primarily educational mission and is not set up to be a reliable, commercial source. It sells regularly at the farmers' market and sporadically on site. The farm also sells memberships, where you pay in advance and periodically get a bag of mixed fresh seasonal produce.
For local meats, the main outlet is Annaly Farms, which has a butcher shop selling local beef and goat alongside shipped-in meats.
More than 80 percent of St. Croix restaurants purchase at least some local produce, versus less than 50 percent of St. Thomas and St. John restaurants. Most restaurants also have local seafood. St. Croix restaurant owners cite consistent availability, quality, ordering and delivery as the primary obstacles to using more local produce. Farmers cite access to water as a major factor in production, along with labor and the cost of available land. The V.I. Farmer's Cooperative is working to establish a farmer-to-chef project, bringing more local produce into restaurants.
Sustainability
Unlike the mainland, the sun shines on the territory 365 days a year, providing the perfect climate for planting, according to Samuel. Looking around his farm in Bordeaux, he explained that the biggest part of the job is yard work — terracing the land, building retaining walls to safeguard against erosion and sifting the soil to make it more porous.
"Most of the earth here is clay, and that sometimes causes buildups and doesn't allow the water to get through," he explained. "But once you aerate it, get the clay out and get the right mix of fertilizer — I use everything from chicken manure to compost material and old mahogany tree leaves — you'll be fine, anything will grow."
Recent agricultural census data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that in 2002, there were 52 farm operators in the St. Thomas-St. John district — only five of which were full-time farmers. The 52 farmers cover about 460 acres of land — of that amount, only about 44 were considered "harvested cropland," according to Pluke, who recently wrote a paper on the subject of the sustainability of agriculture in the Virgin Islands.
The statistics — along with the various limitations associated with farming in the territory — support a few of Pluke's theories, namely that agriculture on a smaller scale would do better in the Virgin Islands, given the topography, availability of water and the lack of money being invested into the industry. The islands' small population and even smaller labor force support the i
dea of urbanized agriculture, which explores alternatives such as home gardening, government subsidies and crop farming, Pluke wrote.
Economics also has a key role to play, he said. It's a concern, for example, that land zoned for agricultural use is under constant threat of being rezoned to make room for more development. The lack of agricultural stores in the territory forces farmers to buy their equipment and other products online, absorbing high shipping costs, Pluke said. Local garden centers may provide an alternative, but that selection is also limited, he said.
Local farmers have also not yet tapped into the niche market for organic produce — therefore, there is no difference at the market between the price of their crops, which are organic, and those that are not, Pluke said. Small-scale farming would allow organic produce — such as Samuel's lettuce — to be marketed to high-end restaurants and specialty shops, which would in turn create a sustainable business, especially as the price of food and oil in the world markets continue to rise, costing local wholesalers more money, he said.
Pluke, working alongside the Department of Agriculture and the University of the Virgin Islands, is currently involved in a pilot project spearheaded by St. Thomas business-owner Shanna James called Grow V.I., which will ultimately provide local farmers with a business plan that would enable them to sell their produce at the island's restaurants.
The initiative grew out of James' efforts to bring organic, free-trade products to Barefoot Buddha, the coffeehouse and creperie she co-owns in the Havensight area.
"When we started making efforts to get local produce, we began seeing firsthand some of the obstacles our farmers our facing," James said. "We started talking about how Barefoot Buddha could begin to serve as a model for addressing some of these issues, like having one local farm dedicated to supplying us with our food, and that evolved into something bigger. Within Grow V.I., we're looking at sustainability in agriculture on St. Thomas and a volunteer and farmer/restaurant project that will look at different farms and what they're producing."
Currently about six restaurants are on board with the project, along with four or five farmers, James said.
"We're going to give the farmers a produce list, and work with the farmers to give them the support they need to service us," she said. "We've really looked at who can work the restaurants, and the restaurants have been flexible as well in trying to help the farmers overcome some of their obstacles on the business end, such as deciding how they're going to organize themselves, price the crops, decide what they need to grow."
The initiative is centered around a core group of volunteers — about 200 people who will go out one a month and dedicate time to helping farmers compost, terrace and plant.
"Anything they need," James said. "The more connected our community becomes to this — the more connected to the earth, the more connected they become to each other — the more we can begin to protect our environment and food sources. We need to help our farmers grow. We have about 125 volunteers right now, and one of the things we're also really trying to push is composting, and creating a couple of sites where the farmers can come out and get the kind of fertilizer they need. This will also create jobs, and we can sell it to residents, as well."
The group is planning the first trip out to the farms within the next week or two, James said.
"We're committed to this for the long run," she said. "We need to get people's hands back in the earth again."
To become a Grow V.I. volunteer, email James or call Barefoot Buddha after 2 p.m. at 777-3668. Residents can also stop into the store, located in the Guardian Building, to sign up.
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