The lush, rolling hills of the West End of St. Thomas are dotted with farms that yield a variety of crops, but farmers Nathaniel Tuitt and Alphonso Wade III harvest additional products like meat and honey.
Tuitt has a farm in the Dorothea area where he raises sheep and goats. He said he cares for them “like they’re my own kids. When they are sad, I am sad.” He feeds them, shelters them and looks after them, until the day he must send them to St. Croix to be slaughtered, something that Tuitt said he does not like to talk about.
The V.I. Department of Agriculture has an Abattoir Division which the department’s website says provides “safe, sanitary and humane slaughtering services for livestock farmers in the Virgin Islands.” The Abattoir Division includes Director Cardinal Richardson, personnel trained in quality control and sanitation, a chief butcher along with other butchers, an industrial engineer and a livestock attendant. Virgin Islands law requires that all animals whose meat will be offered for sale, like Tuitt’s animals, are slaughtered at government-controlled slaughterhouses.
Tuitt said he currently has about 25 heads of sheep and 25 heads of goat, but he doesn’t produce milk or cheese, just meat. “We are small and because we are small, we only produce meat on the farm.”
“As you can see, I am still recovering from after the storms, it is not completely repaired. And during the droughts the pond goes down, all the way down. No water, no grass, no nothing and just brown. But as the rain comes, it comes back,” Tuitt said. He added that during this year’s droughts he did not lose any of his livestock. “During the hurricanes I only lose some young baby lambs.”
Tuitt said his largest cost is the feed since it is imported and can get very expensive. The farmer feeds the herd hay but also grain. The most important thing, Tuitt said, is the amount of protein in the feed.
To supply water to the animals Tuitt uses a water catchment system that fills tanks on the top of his property with water that is then is released to the lower part of his property where his sheep and goats are sheltered and an underground storage tank is placed. “When the rain comes it’s going to cross into the drum and then down into the tanks. When the tanks up there are full then I have a big tank below here where the water flows through the pipes and comes all the way down,” Tuitt said.
But Tuitt is not the only farmer to use ingenuity on the West End to produce something that can’t be plowed. Alphonso Wade III also makes a living from farming a unique commodity. Wade is a beekeeper who harvests honey on his farm called the Organic West Farm. He then sells his honey at local farmer’s markets.
At first it can appear that handling bees is dangerous or that you can be stung but Wade said he loves bees “and I don’t call them aggressive, because bees sting only for two reasons. Either to protect themselves or their resources, the resources meaning the honey or their queen.”
The queen is identified by her size and differentiating in look said Wade, which takes a keen eye to distinguish. “A queen can lay 100 eggs per day and lives for two years. And is the most important part of a hive.”
Wade said there is an important distinction between a hive and a swarm. A hive, he said, is when there is a queen and a comb where honey can be produced. Swarms on the other hand are void of a comb. Sometimes, Wade said, he will be called to assist island residents when swarms of bees become a nuisance.
“Recently I got a call and took off. I went down to the main street and got there to see all these bees swarming an alarm box. I requested a ladder and went up there to get the bees into my bucket. I got them in there but then saw that more bee clusters were starting to form, so I went up again and shook the bucket down, opened it up and put some more in. I close it again and thought ‘I hope I got the queen,’ because once you have the queen all the others will follow. And while I am looking to see if the bees are going to follow, here comes the queen running across the wall. So I grab her,” Wade said.
Because Wade was without a “queen cage” at the time, which allows him to safely house a queen bee, he had to do with a makeshift box that ultimately resulted in the queen perishing.
Wade said if it had been a hive and this had happened, he could take some of the comb and tie it up into frames which would likely have eggs more than three days old and would produce their own new queen.
This process occurs when the bees “feed a three day old egg royal jelly and they would produce their own queen.” When it is a swarm Wade said he will just find a location to release them and let them fly. He added that they may be able to integrate into other hives but that it is unusual.
Wade said his hives are still recovering from the hurricanes, but he is still able to harvest honey.
“I have a lot of work to do to restore the farm but in addition to honey I am also doing pineapples. I have about 200 pineapple plants now,” Wade said while adding he is also raising turkey, chickens and growing various other crops on his farm to sustain his living. “But bees are my favorite,” he said.
Both Tuitt and Wade agree that agriculture is an important, if not the most important, part of any country, but is especially important in the V.I.