Richard Pluke has worked hand in hand with local farmers for the past four years, implementing sustainable technologies. Now he’s about to move on to new adventures.
He has become a familiar face, a part of the Bordeaux community. Pluke is senior agronomist and entomologist at Fintrac, an international agricultural-development firm, which made St. Thomas its headquarters in 2005. Fintrac partners with public and private business-development service providers.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is the company’s biggest client. The company also works closely with non-governmental organizations, educational and research institutions. The company is an Economic Development Authority beneficiary on the island, which is where Pluke’s expertise comes in to play.
When the agronomist took his first look at what he had to work with, he shook his head.
"The soil, the lack of water, the hills — all of these things work against the farmers," he said at the time. "This is some of the worst land for farming I have ever seen."
He knew he had his work cut out for him.
"We wanted to teach farmers how to produce profitably in adverse conditions," Pluke says today.
The hills of Bordeaux offer those conditions liberally. However, it’s been a challenge he embraced. Pluke has been up and down those hills on an almost weekly basis over the past four years, consulting with the farmers, suggesting new planting and pest-control methods, even supporting the building of two greenhouses.
"Agricultural productivity is low, and even though markets are strong and prices high, very few people can commit to full-time farming," Pluke says.
He suggests a new approach: "Establishing a productive agricultural base that can economically support producers and justify continued government support may require the institutional support of non-traditional producers, including small-scale home gardeners."
He sees the new Yacht Haven Grande farmers’ markets as an outlet for smaller producers.
"We need a couple farmers to lead the way," he says. "They have to believe they can make it happen."
This week, Fintrac is sending Pluke on a two-year assignment in Tanzania, a turn Pluke looks at with mixed feelings. On the one hand, he loves his new community. On the other, Africa is home: He was born in Zimbabwe, where he spent his first 14 years, before moving back to England with his folks.
"My dad is from Zimbabwe," he says. "Both my parents were teachers there."
You might find Pluke one week conducting a workshop on integrated pest management at the University of the Virgin Islands and the next at the annual St. Thomas-St. John Agricultural Fair, supporting the work of the farmers the new technologies have helped.
One of those farmers is Charlie Leonard. On the steep hills of Leonard’s 2.5-acre farm, he increased his scotch bonnet pepper yield to 249 plants, which have produced more than 10,000 peppers. At first Leonard was wary of the new methods.
"Richard told me to plant them closer together, and I wondered, but my yield has increased 300 percent," Leonard says.
Saturday morning at his Market Square stand, Leonard lamented Pluke’s departure, but then he smiled.
"We’ll just have to share him with someone else," Leonard said. "He’s too good."
Pluke has a gentle nature and an unassuming manner, and he’s a compelling teacher. He can discuss aphids and nematodes at length, eliciting nary a yawn. His enthusiasm for what he does is more that of a teenager than a 39-year-old man. His travels have left him with an eye to adventure, and a creative lens to look at new ideas.
When he really was a teenager, he only had a vague ide of where his life’s journey would take him.
"At 14, you don’t know yourself, yet I always had a feeling for the tropics," he says. "The story was unfinished in my mind."
And it’s one that continues to the islands’ benefit.
"I count myself lucky to have been part of so many things in the community," Pluke says. "I am comfortable in the farming community, I feel a part of it."
He has worked with first lady Cecile deJongh on her compost and school gardens programs. Earlier this year, he inaugurated the Addelita Cancryn Junior High School garden, along with Carlos Robles and Albion George of the UVI cooperative extension service, teacher Wendy Diaz and Chloe Byer of GrowVI.
He is, in fact, one of the founders of GrowVI, a determined group of farmers, restaurateurs and activists focused on the promotion of sustainable agriculture in the Virgin Islands. It’s goal is to build a sustainable bridge between farmers and restaurants to get local produce on local restaurant tables.
Now Pluke is taking his expertise to a new land.
"Richard will be gone almost two years, working with 1,000 small farmers in Tanzania, expanding the volume of products," Fintrac President Claire Starkey says. "He’ll be directly coordinating activities with the farmers and shippers. It’s a wonderful adventure — he brings so much talent to the equation. He’s very excited to be going to such a magical place."
Pluke has some definite magic in mind. He and his wife, Maria, have a 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Daniele.
"I can’t wait to see the expression on her face when she first sees these animals in person that she’s only seen in pictures," he says.
Pluke earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from Durham University and his master’s degree in agronomy from the University of Nottingham in England, earning his doctorate in agronomy from the University of Florida, where he took a special interest in Spanish, marrying his teacher.