Thousands of people poured through the gates of the St. Croix Agriculture Department grounds Saturday for the opening of the 40th annual Agrifest, basking in the bright sunshine and taking in all the delights of the biggest agricultural fair in the Caribbean.
There’s something for everyone at the Agrifest. Toward the east end of the grounds the air was redolent with the smells of traditional Cruzan foods, including Johnny cake, kalaloo and fungi. Merchants selling a wide variety arts, crafts and other goods lined the southern side of the loop, their displays of bright clothing, jewelry, paintings and more spilling out into the walkway.
Throughout the three days of the festival there will be classes on cooking local foods and growing crops. Music and entertainment are slated for the fairgrounds three stages.
At a variety of booths set up by different agencies, Fairgoers could learn how to lower their electric bills, how to recycle and make compost and purify water, or discover more about programs at the University of the Virgin Islands, or sign up with a variety of social agencies.
And of course, there was plenty of farming. The livestock area teemed with cattle, goats, chickens and rabbits, the walls of the pens lined with children eager to get a glimpse of the animals.
Each year the fairgrounds are named to honor someone who who has contributed to farming on St. Croix, and this year they bear the name of a man intimately familiar familiar with them. This year they are the Dr. Arthur Cedric Petersen Lr. Agriculture Fairgrounds, named in honor of the former V.I. Agriculture Commissioner, who helped build the festival into what it has become.
Petersen graduated from St. Croix Central High School in 1971 and went stateside to get his degree in agriculture, earning his doctorate in horticultural science from the University of Minnesota in 1985. When he returned to the island of his birth, he went to work for UVI, teaching agriculture there until he was appointed by Gov. Charles Turnbull as commissioner of the Department of Agriculture in 1995. During the three years he held the post he is credited with many of the improvements to the grounds that now bear his name.
But during the presentation Saturday morning, he disclaimed credit, saying he accepted the honor on behalf of all the people who worked with him over the years.
"We tend to think of the leaders, the officials, as people who get things done," he said. "But it’s our foot soldiers who respond to our vision, who come in every day and make things happen."
The presentation was part of a two and a half hour opening ceremony that opened with a bang provided by the St. Croix Educational Complex marching band. A host of government officials, including Congressional Delegate Donna Christensen, Senate President Ronald Russell, UVI President David Hall, and Agriculture Commissioner Louis E. Petersen Jr. offered tributes to the importance of agriculture both as an economic force and as a social force that imparts traditional values on the Crucian culture.
Gov John deJongh Jr. closed the ceremony by pointing out that farming has come full circle on St. Croix. At one time the island was considered the breadbasket of the Caribbean, but in the 1960s a switch to a more industrial economy became evident. But in the face of the global economic slowdown and the need for cleaner, more sustainable economic activity, farming is once again coming to the forefront.
"Agriculture is our past, and it is our future," he said.
Others who were honored during the opening ceremony were:
• Henry Schuster Jr., livestock farmer of the year. Schuster is considered one of the most accomplished sheep breeders in the territory, daily caring for more than 400 animals.
• Renaldo Vasquez, crop farmer of the year. Vasquez grows a wide variety of produce on his acreage, everything from such herbs as basil and chives to tomato and eggplant.
• Eric L. Bough, who worked with the Department of Agriculture from 1967 to 1994, and continues to be involved in the organization and preparation of the festival each year.
• Victor Murray Jr., a St. Croix native who grew up farming in the Castle Nugent area, growing sorghum and later hay, breeding and raising cattle, and operating a dairy, until he went to work for the Department of Agriculture n 1991.
• Donna Samuel, a St. Croix native and longtime farmer, selling locally grown produce and plants at the Saturday farmers market in Estate La Reine. The festival’s farmer’s market has been named the Donna Samuels Farmers Market in her honor.
• James Hamilton. His Hamilton Farms has been in operation for 24 years, raising goats and sheep on 20 acres in the heart of the island, even while he is employed full-time at Hovensa. The livestock pavilion this year is named in his honor.
• Cedric Armstrong, the scion of a family steeped in a century of tradition o ice cream making. The festival’s food pavilion is named this year in his honor.