On Tuesday evening local farmers and fishermen learned about an array of programs and services that exist to help grow their businesses and strengthen agricultural productivity in the territory.
Representatives from federal and local agencies presented to about 50 attendees at the University of the Virgin Island’s Administration and Conference Center on St. Thomas. After the talks, the farmers mingled and visited the various organizations’ and agencies’ booths to get more information and ask questions about available assistance programs including grants and loans.
Agriculture Commissioner Carlos Robles and the V.I. Delegate Stacey Plaskett began the event by stressing the importance of farming. They called for a rebuilding of the territory’s agriculture sector, which is estimated to provide just 3 to 5 percent of local food.
“It is our effort to reach out and find all the available resources for small farmers and fishermen,” Robles said.
Plaskett said that farming is vital to the growth of the local economy and that she specifically chose to sit on the House Committee on Agriculture because of this strong belief. After noting that many farmers may grow for noble reasons, Plaskett explained that it’s still important for them to make a livelihood.
One of the ways farmers learned they could be selling more is through becoming an authorized Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program vendor. Formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, SNAP is a food assistance program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service that’s aimed at making nutritious food available to people with little or no income.
Once approved as an authorized vendor, farmers and fishermen can receive payments for their produce, meat and fish through SNAP bankcards, though they have to get equipment to process the payments and pay a transaction fee.
During his presentation, Eric Ratchford, the SNAP director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office that oversees the Virgin Islands, called participating in the program a “golden opportunity,” but noted that only three of the territory’s farms are certified to take SNAP payments.
Ratchford said that there’s plenty of SNAP money to go around: In 2015 the Virgin Islands received $56.5 million in benefits, issuing an average of $373.17 per month to 12,610 households.
Kimme Bryce, the area director the USDA’s Rural Development Office on St. Croix, spoke about the loan guarantee services and rural business grants available through her department. Bryce stated said not many farmers and organizations have been applying for the grants and only one has been awarded in recent years.
Attendees also learned about farm loan programs for agricultural producers that are unable to get private credit, as well as about disaster assistance programs that pay farmers for crop loss from a named hurricane or storm. These programs are available through the USDA Farm Service Agency.
Edmond Willie, a goat farmer from Bordeaux on St. Thomas, was most excited to learn about reimbursement transportation cost program that pays 25 percent of the shipping costs for farm goods.
“This program will help me pay for feed for my livestock, so I can think big, build my business and keep moving forward,” Willie said.
Drina Anthony, who farms in Dorothea on St. Thomas, hopes to receive some of the funding she learned about to expand cooking demonstrations on her farm. So far she’s had three different schools visit her farm to learn about traditional cooking over an outdoor fire.
Participating agencies included Small Business Administration, USDA Farm Service Agency, USDA Food and Nutrition Service, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA Rural Development, UVI Cooperative Extension Service, V.I. Department of Agriculture, V.I. Economic Development Authority and the V.I. Small Business Development Center.
A similar open house will take place Wednesday at the UVI Great Hall on St. Croix between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m.