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Hearing Raises Questions about Future of Agriculture

Aug. 23, 2005 – The Senate Committee on Finance hearing for the Department of Agriculture on Monday was not your normal budget hearing. Instead of fielding questions about how to cut expenses and obligations, Agriculture Commissioner Lawrence Lewis fielded questions about how agriculture on the islands – especially St. Croix – could be expanded and how to pay Agriculture workers higher salaries.
Lewis asked for $2,671,630 from the general fund. This was up from the estimated spending of $2,587,748 this year but less than the spending in fiscal year 2003, when the Agriculture Department spent $2,819,676. Spending in 2001 and 2002 was also higher than this year's request.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, chairman of the committee, said St. Croix was once the breadbasket of the Caribbean. It now imports most of its food. Baptiste said, "We have to eat," and if residents consumed locally grown food, it would probably contribute to a healthier diet.
He asked Lewis what was being done to encourage farming in the Virgin Islands.
Lewis said much of the land is owned privately, and the owners were not interested in farming. He added, "If they decide to farm, we stand ready to help."
"Where do we go in agriculture from here?" Baptiste asked.
"Now was the time to invest in agriculture," Lewis said.
The machinery used by the department is in deplorable condition, and $500,000 supplemented to his budget request could be used to bring it up to standards, Lewis said.
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said the machinery was worse than "deplorable"; it was "pathetic."
Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville encouraged Lewis to not hold back and to ask for whatever he thought was necessary to improve the situation.
However, Figueroa-Serville differed with Lewis when discussion of a milk certification laboratory came up. Lewis said the location of the milk laboratory was just a "cosmetic" thing and because there are trained individuals on St. Thomas, it should go there.
Figueroa-Serville disagreed passionately. "This is just one more time when St. Croix gets the shaft," he said.
According to Lewis, the department has 74 active employees. Of this number, 64 are paid from the general fund while the others are paid from federal funds. He added there are three funded positions that are vacant, and when the vacant positions are filled, $2,498,688 of the budget would be used for salaries and benefits, leaving only $172,942 to purchase fuel for machines, vehicles, utilities, travel, office supplies and other costs.
Sen. Neville James said a budget that is 90 percent salaries was not going to move the department ahead. He said the budget needed to be increased.
Baptiste and Figueroa-Serville expressed concern over the low salaries of some the employees of the department. The Post Audit Division report shows heavy equipment operators making $16,000. Some of those employees have been in the department for decades, senators said.
Baptiste said he hoped his colleagues who were not present were listening on the radio because they needed to do something regarding the incredibly low salaries at the department.
In his conclusion, Lewis said the department controls hundreds of acres of land leased to farmers, and within the lease there are stipulations that can cause the termination. Some of those stipulations include non-payments of lease rental, non-existent or low production on the land and cultivation of illegal plants, he said.
"Without enforcement officers on staff," said Lewis, "property management control remains a challenge to us territory-wide. As a result of this oversight, some farmers choose to engage in the growing of illegal plants. On July 26, 2005, an estimated $8 million worth of marijuana plants were removed from farmland in Estate Bordeaux."
Nelson said that maybe some rethinking should be done about this potential "cash crop." After the meeting, he said hemp can be used in many ways, such as for clothing.

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