Fencing and water are the top needs of V.I. farmers, officials told senators at an oversight hearing Wednesday.
“We are still struggling to bring water to our farmers here in the Virgin Islands,” Sen. Allison Degazon, chairwoman of the Economic Development and Agriculture Committee said as the oversight hearing opened.
“Water preservation, storage and distribution,” are major parts of the Agriculture Department’s mission, acting Commissioner Positive Nelson told the committee a little later. He said he would like to see several projects to collect, store and distribute rainwater, through dams and other methods, during his tenure as commissioner.
Later, near the end of the hearing, Eldridge Thomas of We Grow Food Inc. on St. Thomas cited water, a cistern, distribution pipes and a backhoe among the capital items he would like to have.
“Based on all the testimony, the main issue is water,” Sen. Marvin Blyden (D-STT) said before asking how soon a cistern in Estate Bordeaux was likely to be complete and in service.
A U.S. Department of Interior grant of $185,000 is earmarked for a 100,000 gallon cistern for Estate Bordeaux.
“If all goes as planned, within four to five months it should be completed and ready for use,” Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Erroll Chichester said. They had a pre-bid meeting and contractors have visited the site. Next, they have to submit bids to property and procurement, he said.
On St. Croix, farmers can have water for free at the Community Gardens in Estate Upper Love. Most have to pay to transport it to their farms – or get a tank, put it in a pickup, fill it and carry the water themselves.
Most farming is on St. Croix. In 2017, there were 253 licensed farmers in the St. Croix District. By 2018, that shrank to 171. Chichester said about 40 to 50 farmers are in the community gardens and able to directly irrigate for free.
The Agriculture Department installed PVC irrigation lines in 2017.
Dr. Bethany Bradford, the head of veterinary services at the department, said livestock farmers needed fencing most.
“In general livestock farmers receive little help from USDA, FEMA, SBA or the Department of Agriculture. … Fencing materials are the number one item needed and to date nothing has been provided in that area.” Bradford said.
Farm-to-school and farm-to-store programs have been moribund since the 2017 storms, officials said.
But there is room for growth in local food production and sales to schools, the hospitals and stores, said Billy Abraham, director of marketing at the Agriculture Department. Both schools and stores have expressed interest but are frustrated by an inability to get enough to stock the shelves and to know ahead of time what is coming in.
Abraham said they have had some luck with a “crop of the month” concept. The idea, he said, was to get several farmers together to all plant a single crop to bring into the schools and to the stores.
He said they got several farmers to focus on cucumbers.
“In August, the harvest of the month was cucumbers. And the management of Plaza (Extra) canceled a shipment of cucumbers because they had the crop of the month,” he said, touting it as a concrete example of a small but measurable reduction in importation of food.
The Agriculture Department has 51 employees, with 32 classified, union members; one nonunion and 18 exempt employees. Of those, 41 are on St. Croix. The department’s 2019 budget is $4.5 million.
Of the 171 licensed farmers, there are 115 livestock farmers, with 83 on St. Croix; 24 on St. Thomas and eight on St. John, according to data provided at the hearing. Goats account for the largest number of livestock, with 7,500 on St. Croix, 500 on St. Thomas and 150 on St. John. Sheep are next, with 3,000 on St. Croix among 22 farmers; 500 on St. Thomas among five farmers and 75 on St. John among two farmers. St. Croix has 500 cows, St. Thomas has 15 and St. John has 10. St. Croix has 551 pigs, St. Thomas has 50 and St. John has 71.
The abattoir on St. Croix is running but will close during the upcoming Agrifest, Feb. 16, 17 and 18, Chichester said. But the St. Thomas abattoir is closed indefinitely and needs major renovations.
Committee members present were: Degazon, Blyden, Sens. Novelle Francis, Oakland Benta, Athneil Thomas, Novelle Francis, Kurt Vialet and Donna Frett-Gregory. Sens. Myron Jackson and Dwayne DeGraff were absent. Senate President Kenneth Gittens, not a committee member, also attended briefly.