June 23, 2006 – The 200 years of fresh milk production on St. Croix will come to a close by the end of August 2006, as St. Croix's last dairy cows are shipped to Puerto Rico. If you are a "born here" Cruzan you may scratch your head and wonder how did such a thing happen.
A combination of a lack of local government action and initiative, as well as insurance coverage limits/costs, inflation, labor shortages and international trade pressures have all contributed to the ending of St. Croix's fresh milk era. As a result we can say good-by to 43 jobs and $3.5 million in annual local sales (down from $5.2 million in the 1990s).
Was the loss of this import industry preventable? Yes!
Is it too late to save our local dairy? Yes and No. Let me explain.
"Yes" it's probably too late because it would take several miracles at this stage of the game, and some very speedy public planning, policy and action to save St. Croix's last dairy as we know it to today. Even though this is an election year, the required corrective government action, if it were to be completed tomorrow, would already come too late.
But "No" it is not too late to lay the foundation for the return of fresh milk production on St. Croix in less than five years. To get there we'll need a well-researched plan supported by creative public policy/legislation, targeted investment, a restructured Agriculture Department, and the implementation of new educational programs and cooperation between University of the Virgin Islands and the V.I. Education Department.
A plan is only as good as the process that's used to create it, and the process is all important if we, as a community, want fresh milk production and other forms of agriculture to return to and thrive in the Virgin Islands. Here is how we might go about putting such a plan together.
A "Citizens Agricultural Commission" (CAC), made up primarily of farmers, would be legislatively empowered to critically evaluate all of the existing programs/services of the V.I. Agriculture Department, UVI's Cooperative Extension Service and the Department of Education. Commission members would meet weekly for the first year and receive a modest stipend for their time. A public presentation of the CAC's findings would be made after six months.
With the help of experts in the field (agricultural economists, education professionals, marketing experts, etc.), the CAC would then use the next six months to draft a comprehensive five-year plan for the development of a viable agriculture industry in the Virgin Islands.
The "Devil" is always in the details, and such a plan would be heavy on detail; how should the Agriculture Department be revamped, what educational programs need to be instituted (K-1 thru university), what legislative action should be taken, what level of private and public investment should be made and when, what quantity of start-up capital should be made available to new farmers and at what cost, what water and production infrastructure should be built, what mix of products should be grown, what scale of production is needed for local and export markets, what's the financial and job impact on the local economy, etc.
The creation of such a plan, using local intellectual resources and industry experts, will bring together the vision, capital, expertise and human resources needed to rebuild a viable and robust agriculture industry in the Virgin Islands. The plan's creation, and its step-by-step implementation, will pave the road for a smooth return of the local production of fresh milk and many other fresh farm products.
And for those who think that agriculture can't play a significant role in the V.I. economy, I would ask them to consider the math. A meager $1 a day purchase of local farm products by the 110,000 residents of the Virgin Islands translates to over $40 million per year in local sales. That's equal to what a new 500 room hotel, charging $250 per room with near 100 percent occupancy would take in each year. There's a lot of gold out there in our fallow fields, don't you think its time we got serious about mining it?
Editors note: Mr. Gloger has been a resident of St. Croix for 11 years. He grew up on a dairy farm in Texas, has a masters degree in Fisheries and Wildlife form Texas A&M. He works for Sustainable Systems and Design International as a wastewater specialist and environmental planner. Between 2000 and 2005 he was the secretary for St. Croix Farmers in Action and remains active in farming issues in the Virgin Islands.
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