Members of the Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance appeared happy Friday to welcome back Louis Petersen Jr. as the nominated agriculture commissioner as he defended his 2024 budget request of $8.4 million.
The request reflected an increase of over $2 million over the previous year. Petersen had served as agriculture commissioner during the John de Jongh administration. He was nominated to return to the post in May by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.
However, senators were not happy with some aspects of his department’s operation.
The abattoir on St. Thomas has been closed for several years and sinking into disrepair. The abattoir on St. Croix, where St. Thomas residents have had to send their livestock to be slaughtered, has also had many problems.
Sen. Franklin Johnson said he had a friend on St. Croix who was killing his livestock and burying it because the abattoir was such a problem. Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said the same thing was happening on St. Thomas.
Petersen said the problem on St. Croix was the equipment was so old that replacement parts were hard to find. He cited incidents where the abattoir had to close once because a part could not be found for its hoist. Another time a part could not be found for a broken boiler.
He testified the St. Thomas abattoir was scheduled for demolition to allow a new modern abattoir. He said the department was going to purchase a mobile slaughtering trailer to be used while the replacement was being built. However, under questioning by Frett-Gregory, he was not clear on how the long-term and short-term plans for slaughtering livestock would work during demolition, nor did he have a definite timeline for the process. The department spends about $500 a month to transport animals to St. Croix for slaughtering.
Another problem on St. Croix, according to Petersen, is a series of coolers in the marketing building. The coolers which are used to store farmers’ excess produce are routinely in disrepair and in need of replacement.
Sen. Diane Capehart questioned why residents who wanted to lease government-owned land for farming had to wait so long.
Petersen responded that he had acquainted his staff with an Inspector General report issued during his previous tenure as commissioner. The report found that the lease program suffered from lax record-keeping and a lack of formalized policies and procedures. Investigators discovered that major policies governing the program – such as requiring business plans be submitted before a lease was approved or requiring private landowners to use land cleared by the department for agricultural practices for one year – were not written down in any type of policy document.
The audit also criticized Agriculture for not verifying that its policies were being followed.
Concerning the budget increase, Petersen testified it would be used to advance the mission of the department and the territory’s new Agricultural Plan.
He reported the V.I. Agricultural Advisory Board and the newly re-established V.I. Conservation District have been actively engaged with the department and the first meeting of the Food and Farm Council was convened this week as mandated in the Agricultural Plan.
He broke down the budget request as follows: $4.4 million for personnel and fringe benefits, $265,876 allocated toward supplies, $160,000 toward utilities, and $2,5 million toward other services.
Other services include $1.5 million to support local farming initiatives.
Animal shelter service contracts call for $400,000 and the Industrial Hemp Program calls for $300,000. They are listed in the miscellaneous section of the budget.
Petersen said the department anticipates receiving $271,000 from the sales and services of planting materials such as seeds, seedlings, and trees to the community.
Sens. Marvin Blyden, Angel Bolques Jr., Diane Capehart, Samuel Carrión, Dwayne DeGraff, Ray Fonseca, Novelle Francis Jr., Donna Frett-Gregory, Kenneth Gittens, Javan James, and Franklin Johnson were in attendance at Friday’s hearing.