St. Thomas farmer Nash West is in her element when she hikes her farm. She starts inspecting her crop as early as 4 a.m everyday, clad in her usual ensemble: old jeans, old shirt, mud-caked boots and a wide-brimmed straw hat. West, who was voted this year’s Farmer of the Year for the Bordeaux Agricultural and Cultural Vegan Food Fair, jokes that the title has been long overdue.
“I always feel like Farmer of the Year,” West laughed.
“But this is my time, my moment to say ‘Live Green, Think Green for 2019,’” she said, referring to this year’s theme.
West’s farm does require a fair amount of hiking. Nestled against north-facing hills on the western end of St. Thomas, it is reachable only by a tortuous stretch of red dirt road that can get precarious when the mud is softened by rain. The farm itself rests on roughly four acres of steeply angled, rugged terrain, only one of the challenges that most St. Thomas farmers face.
With barely a flat spot on the whole tract of land, West’s plants carpet the area starting from the level of the road all the way down to Santa Maria beach. The inhospitable terrain proves challenging, said West, but farmers adapt, planting crops and trees where they can grow, in a layout that seems to lack rhyme or reason. Here, a few banana trees grow in a cluster; a few feet away stands a lone guavaberry tree, and all around are random patches of knee-high grass growing wild on the hillside.
“There’s art to what we do,” said West, leading the way down meandering trails crisscrossing her land.
The art and science of farming is a generational heirloom for West. She grew up in a farming family in Montserrat, inheriting her green thumb from her grandmother, until her family moved to St. Thomas in the 1970s and settled on the island.
“When we came here, we were squatters. They called us squatters. That’s how long back it is,” West recalled.
According to West, her daily routine begins with giving thanks to the Almighty, before tending to her crops. She walks the length and breadth of her farm to assess each plant, and drags a green water hose over to plants that look like they need a dose of moisture. West plants a wide range of flora — coconut trees, sugar apple trees, mango trees, soursop, ackee and guavaberry. She also plants vegetables like bok choy, pumpkin and spinach.
Planting occurs at various times of the year. Around September, said West, is when the V.I. historically gets plenty of rain, so she makes sure the sturdy fruit trees, such as coconuts and sugar apples, are ready to plant by that time. Soft vegetables, on the other hand, may get bruised or washed away by heavy downpour so she carefully picks where to plant them.
Water from the well fed by a nearby dam sustains the plants until they grow to maturity, allowing West to somewhat sidestep an issue that farmers face: not enough water.
“I give thanks because where I’m at, we get water from the dam, and like I said, from the rain, you fill water tanks and stuff like that,” said West.
The ideal solution, said West, would be to build a larger, sturdier water storage structure, especially after the hurricanes blew away her smaller water tanks.
“Bigger tanks means more water means bigger produce means bigger everything,” said West.
“If it was up to us, then we would proceed.”
But land ownership issues stand in the way. West is still working on getting an official lease from the government for the four-acre plot she farms on, an effort that goes back 15 years, she said.
“I’m waiting. I mean, I never really had a lease,” she said. “I started a while back, but everything is a process and it takes time.”
Lease constraints coupled with the rugged terrain also prevent farmers from using modern technology that could make difficult tasks drastically easier.
“Everything done here is manual,” said West, flinging her arms in a sweeping gesture. “In some places where the machines could come, they can’t come. I don’t let them come because of the leasing issue. So just do it manually.”
Like many farmers in the territory, West is also dealing with the local deer population coming onto her farm and eating the crops. According to West, the deer eat the younger, more tender banana trees, and eat the fruits off of more mature trees that hang only a few feet from the ground. West said this results in smaller harvest, with deer consuming up to half of a bunch of bananas.
The deer problem has been around for a long time, said West, and while farmers are putting up their own fencing around their farms, some financial funding from the government to purchase materials for fencing would help.
“I could have a lot more produce if I have fencing,” said West. ‘If [the government] doesn’t have funds, then we will just have to pursue on our own to get fencing. It’s not like we’re sitting and waiting for the government. We ourselves is the government. We just make it happen.”
Over the last 30 years, farming on the island has gotten easier, said West, who has a growing list of regulars to whom she delivers bundles of various crops and produce. According to West, farmers’ image as squatters has also faded away with the passing years.
“They’re more recognizing and accepting what it is that we are doing,” said West. “We love the community and the community loves us. We’re all one.”
The farm’s future also seems secure, with West’s children getting involved in the family business, and her grandchildren taking interest in raising chicken. While West hopes more people would embrace farming as a lifestyle, she believes the practice is not for everyone. As for West, it’s the only life she knows.
“That’s our life, man,” she said. “That’s just our way of life.”
The 22nd Annual Bordeaux Agricultural and Vegan Food Fair will be held Saturday and Sunday at the Bordeaux Farmers’ Market.