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Not for Profit: Barefoot Farms

Shanna James stands amid her plant beds at Barefoot Farm.Barefoot Buddha Cafe owners Shanna James and Justine Callwood had the seed of an idea for years before they finally planted it: grow their own organic food to supply their St. Thomas eatery.

Less than six months after the first shovel hit their rocky hillside plot above Dorothea Beach, the two are running Barefoot Farm and serving its freshly picked crops every day.

So far, it has been a real labor of love, James said, yielding small but diverse harvests and providing a good working model for those wishing to grow their own low-cost organic produce on St. Thomas.

Barefoot Buddha uses kale, a nutritious, robust grower, to make popular smoothies every day. Other crops feature in the daily specials as soon as they are picked and driven down the hill.

“Our goal is to supply all our kale, tomatoes, greens, herbs, and eggplants, but that will take at least a year," says James, in torn jeans and a straw hat, kneeling down to check on some shiny green bell peppers.

Shanna is a self-taught advocate of permaculture, an approach to agriculture based on natural ecological relationships and self-sustaining loops in which waste becomes resources and outputs become inputs. The symbiotic loop even exists between the cafe and the farm.

Each night, the cafe’s vegetable waste, newspapers, used biodegreadable paper supplies and eggshells are carried up from Havensight to Dorothea to make compost and to feed the 22 young free range chickens that will soon be laying eggs for Barefoot Buddha breakfast customers. The roof of the henhouse, which Callwood built, is a water catchment system to quench the birds’ thirst. The bird droppings are used as fertilizer.

Simple old-fashioned farm cycles like this are mixed with new or newly popular sustainable technologies such as vermiculture (farming earthworms and their byproducts,) aquaponics (cultivation of plants and fish in a symbiotic environment,) and hydroponic cloning (plant propagation from cuttings in a soilless watered container). All of them are designed to put more into the farming system than they take out, to continue producing with a cycle of soil enrichment and water preservation, and to enhance local wildlife.

James scoops gently through her hilltop vermiculture box, where worms tunnel away determinedly through layer after layer of earth. She points out the worm castings which will be used to enrich the earth used in her plant beds.

Just past the worm farm, on a crest with a panoramic Atlantic view, where any plant would thrive if it could grow on beauty alone, a functionally elegant setup starts with a tank of wildly darting tilapia. The fish waste is collected in a settling tank where it is mixed with water and then pumped to several plant-filled trays lined with local rock. Along with many organic farmers of broad-leafed, pest-ridden plants, James is very enthusiastic about this soilless closed loop production cycle. Its irrigation process is gravity fed and therefore has low energy costs, about $10 a month, and it is enclosed so she can grow the most pest vulnerable plants. The waste-to-resource circle will be complete when her ponds start growing duckweed to feed the fish.

Her newest piece of propagation equipment is a miniature hydroponic cloner, which enables her to use plant cuttings to start plants in a week and a half, outpacing the traditional method from seed, which takes at least a month. Tiny rosemary sprigs lined up like baby Christmas trees in serried ranks will soon be moved to plant trays that are cement-mixing tubs from Home Depot.

James encourages other St. Thomians and potential restaurant suppliers to try their hand at permaculture farming, but warns them to expect some frustration and a long learning curve.

“We started out our growing in the wrong place for the sun and we had to move it. Then we didn’t use enough beneficial plants to attract the insects that would eat the pests attacking our crops. We were up every morning picking worms off of eggplants and finally said uncle. We had to pull them all out, along with all of our cucumbers and zucchini.”

She is planning to attend some courses at the V.I. Sustainable Farm Institute (www.visfi.org) in St. Croix and also recommends would-be farmers get help from the cooperative extension service at the University of the Virgin Islands (www.uvi.edu).

Even with these setbacks, she is uplifted by the harmonious systems she has created: toads jump and shelter in specially designed plant bed edges, butterflies, lacewings and ladybugs fly around a startlingly beautiful mix of flowers and food plants with exotic names, such as callaloo redleaf amaranth and Malabar spinach. Nearby, old stalwarts, such as Brussel sprouts, kale and tomatoes receive beneficial protection from fennel, parsley and dill. The garden gives spiritual sustenance to James.

“In terms of beginning to understand the patterns of nature’s design, we have gotten disconnected and this kind of work makes us feel more connected.”

The farm also led her to discover islanders who shared her dreams. Her top helper, Kyle Kivela, is an artisan carpenter and fellow Montanan who hand-plowed the plots, wheelbarrowed in the soil, dug a water-saving swale line (a mulch-filled trench which catches water and supports water-loving plants such as banana trees and sugarcane) and played a huge part in the hardest parts of the setup. They both developed great respect for the backbreaking work and knowledge of older local farmers to whom they frequently turned for advice.

James’ plans for the project include an orchard of guava, avocado, citrus fruit and pomegranate trees. She is also starting to grow moringa trees , which are drought resistant and have edible, nutritious leaves. A natural papaya tree patch will start bearing fruit soon and dozens of pineapple tops from the cafe’s nightly leftovers are re-growing in the rocky hills surrounding the vegetable beds.

Looking into the future, she hopes others will try growing food for their private use and for sale to the island’s restaurants. She will focus her own efforts on bringing more calorie sparse and nutrient dense superfoods to Barefoot Buddha.

“Kale is our number-one superfood and beneficial plant now, and we aim to supply more superfoods to our customers on a regular basis as soon as we can. This is really exciting. We are experimenting and will be for a long time, but you can’t be afraid of making mistakes.”

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