Children looking very serious on very large horses, were led around a ring to the side of the fairgrounds, while adults swarmed over the bounteous displays of plants and produce, and others gobbled up tempting local culinary treats as the 29th Annual St. Thomas- St. John Agriculture and Food Fair opened Saturday morning at the grounds of the Reichhold Center for the Arts.
This year’s theme is "Agriculture: Key to Improving Our Economy."
The hills abounded with all manner of edible and decorative growing things. Farmers from all over brought their bounty – soursop, hibiscus, bougainvillea, cucumbers, fat shiny purple eggplants, tomatoes, green peppers, red peppers, plantains, bananas, papayas, squashes, avocados mangoes. It was a heady display that kept folks spilling over the gentle hillside, comparing notes on which might be the best.
Farther down, enticing cooking scents lured folks with booth after booth offering pates, johnnycakes, fruit tarts, jellies, banana and pumpkin fritters, vegetarian dishes.
People gathered with a pate or two and maybe a ginger beer, to sit under the tents and catch up from last year and comment on the action – a bunch of students from the 4-H Children, Youth, Families at Risk (CYFAR) program were practicing their lines for the opening ceremony program
while other youngsters simply enjoyed chasing each other around.
More organized activities were offered in workshops by the University of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service and the Department of Agriculture, which had tents offering everything from grafting demonstrations to batik making, and a texting contest, new this year.
St. Croix had a voice, too. Crucian Rondiel Allenbert of Virgin Island Pure Wildflower honey held forth with demonstrations of beekeeping, with a bunch of bees in a glassed in hive. Allenbert proudly said, "I’m a second generation beekeeper. We started in 1970."
Plant slips, bok choy, to tomatoes, spinach, cucumbers were on sale for $1, including planting advice, a popular bargain.
June Archibald showed off her artfully packaged Precious Produce jams, jellies, and drizzlers from her farm, ably assisted by Augustine Holder, who described himself with a broad smile as Archibald’s "cultural attache."
Local cultural icon Afreekan Southwell – painter, wood carver, sculptor, and wood turner – took a few minutes to explain the wood sculpture he was working on.
"It’s a woman sculpting a man, or a man sculpting a woman," he said. "It’s my version of the Genesis story."
Boschulte’s Solberg farm brought its usual display of little critters, guinea pigs, ducklings, chicks and bunnies for the youngsters to play with, and one decidedly not for playing; a full-grown emu. The creature looked discontented (unless that’s how they always look) prowling around in a cage curtained on three sides, with a sign, "Emu, stay away." From the looks of the parents herding their children away, the sign appeared unnecessary.
Back up the hill, Charlie Leonard was toiling away on his 2012 Farmer of the Year acceptance speech, due in about twenty minutes. "I’ve been running around all morning taking Britany to swimming and tennis," he said. "I just got back. I wish she were here, she’s better at this than I am."
Britany is Charles’ 11-year-old daughter, a budding athlete at Ulla Muller Elementary School.
Leonard, who also won Farmer of the Year in 2009 for the first time ever, is a constant presence at agricultural events.
"I haven’t missed a fair –– the Ag fair, Carnival food fair, the Rastafarian fair –– since 1980," he says. "Rain, whatever, I’m here." And Saturday was no exception.
He takes the honor in stride. Farming is his life; it’s what he wants to do, and if he receives recognition, that’s OK too.
Leonard has won so many prizes for his produce he said he can’t remember them all.
"I don’t know; I’ve stopped counting," he says. "I used to win all the time, once for five years in a row. It’s nice. They used to give out cash, but now it’s ribbons. I got a $300 special prize one year for my honey."
It’s been a circuitous route to becoming a farmer and beekeeper, Leonard says.
"When I retired from being an aircraft mechanic, I knew I wanted to be outside," he says. "I always liked to see things grow."
Leonard says the Virgin Islands is ideal for beekeeping.
"We have a year-round growing season, where bees can be active and produce honey."
Leonard says his bees dine on (or pollinate) cucumber, guava berry, genips, wild grape, and ketch and keep.
"It’s a pretty sight to watch them in the trees," he says.
The opening ceremony later in the afternoon, featured remarks by Gov. John deJongh Jr., Agriculture Commissioner Louis E. Petersen, UVI-CES director Kwame Garcia and UVI President David Hall, and the 2012 Farmer of the Year presentation to Leonard.
The fair continues Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults and $`1 for children younger than 12 years.