A group of the territory’s farmers have created the Virgin Islands Farmers Alliance to fight for their voice amid big agriculture and local government, but they say they need the public’s help.
Farmers Alliance President Nate Olive said the alliance was born a year ago, after a group of licensed farmers sat in a room waiting on Property and Procurement Commissioner Anthony Thomas to explain the loss of various contracts between the Department of Education and local farmers to supply fresh produce for the School Lunch Program.
“We wanted to talk with the commissioner of Property and Procurement because we were very concerned that contracts that we had previously been awarded, in the next cycle, were awarded to an importer who is, still to this day, bringing in produce from out of the country,” Olive said.
This aggravated the local farmers because, Olive said, the federal money spent towards the School Lunch Program is supposed to be prioritized for farmers within the region creating a Farm-to-School Program. Schools in the St. Thomas/St. John District has instead contracted with importers whose bids were higher than that of local farmers seeking the same contracts.
“Even though we were the lower bidders on many of the crop items, we lost the contracts. Why did we lose those contracts when we had the lowest bid,” Olive said.
“To be clear, we still have several items with them under contract. However, they have yet to place one order, and all of the more desirable crops we lost. We only won the contracts that the importers did not bid on. And they have not ordered anything from us since,” Olive added.
With the loss of contracts came a loss of product and ultimately a huge loss to the bottom line of farmers in the territory. Olive said because these contracts require large quantities of produce to be delivered, it entails an incredible amount of planning from the farmer to seed appropriately and have the proper equipment. Farmers had invested in such things as irrigation equipment to support the amount of produce required contractually, only to find out that their contracts would no longer be awarded.
The island farmers say they have still not received a proper response as to why their bids are not being awarded and instead are going to the higher-priced importers. Olive said in place of answers, all he and the other farmers got was “just a bunch of finger pointing” between the school system and Property and Procurement officials.
Olive said he and a handful of individuals, tired of being pushed around and ignored by government entities, launched the alliance during St. Croix’s Agrifest in February, “because we just don’t believe we have gotten a fair shake.”
“If the government is ever serious about viable agriculture for the Virgin Islands then the local farmers have to have some sort of consideration in the local market,” Olive said.
Now the alliance has grown to 32 members, but the organization is seeking thousands of residents to join in on the fight for a “sustainable, locally produced food system in the Virgin Islands that honors food producers’ right to fair prices, living wages and a high quality of life,” Olive said.
Not only would Olive like to see all licensed farmers join, but also aspiring farmers, friends of farmers and residents who can offer support. If collectively large enough, the alliance would represent a voting block of food advocacy minded individuals that the government would be forced to listen to.
Membership in the alliance is a $10 annual fee. Through a joint effort with the Trees That Feed Foundation, the alliance will gift a breadfruit tree sapling to each paid member.
“We don’t have to wait on the government to act, we have been waiting long enough, so we are going to act now, and we would like the territory’s residents to help,” Olive said.
The Source has reached out to the Department of Education and Property and Procurement for answers to the VIFA’s questions and is still awaiting a response.