Farmers on St. Thomas have a variety of suggestions for what should be in the U.S. Virgin Islands’ agriculture plan, but as much as any one thing, they’d like to see consistency, not a plan that bends with the changing administrations.
On Thursday, the USVI Agricultural Task Force held a town hall meeting at the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Thomas. People of the community, farmers, and teachers shared their concerns over the new agricultural plan.
The proposed plan was mandated by the Legislature, which in October passed a measure requiring the Department of Agriculture to develop a territorial agriculture plan in conjunction with the University of the Virgin Islands.
“This is not an academic exercise, this is your life,” UVI President David Hall said. “It is what you do every day and the commitment of this task force is to try to come up with recommendations and solutions that can make your life better, which makes the lives of everyone in the territory better.”
Farmers attending Thursday’s meeting said they hope the new plan doesn’t die, as previous ones have, once a new administration takes over.
Benita Martin, retired educator and Bordeaux farmer, wants a plan that will last no matter who is in office and believes that the Department of Agriculture should help finance the matching needs for grants being submitted.
“If you put in a plan, and you do not put in something that requires that this plan has some longevity, that it just does not stop after Bryan comes out or after (Ag Commissioner Positive T.A.) Nelson comes out, but that it’s there permanently and that it can grow,” Martin said.
Martin also called attention to the differing circumstances for growers on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
“I don’t think people who have not farmed understand that it is very time-consuming as a farmer in Bordeaux over a farmer on St. Croix. The laborious work that we have to do to build rock barrier terraces. I don’t think the people in administrative positions have that respect,” Martin said. “The farmers in St. Thomas, we love agriculture. We love the people of the Virgin Islands. It’s not about trying to get rich or wealthy. We are here to feed our people. We are looking for food security.”
Farmers write grant proposals, but the grants require cash to match that they often cannot afford. If the Department of Agriculture could provide the cash match, more farmers would get awarded grants.
Anna Wallace Francis, a farmer and retired science teacher, said Agriculture should hire more local farmers to fill positions within the department.
“The IRB (Internal Revenue Bureau) is talking about we don’t have enough CPAs or people trained to work at IRB or audit the taxes,” Francis said. “Instead of bringing in people from other places, I would like to see a plan where we train our farmers into the type of industries that we would like. Not just going outside.”
Attendees also mentioned the need for increased communication and education at all stages of development, and more education for the farmers.
Chinwe Osaze, retired educator and farmer, is considering researching agricultural cooperative business models and how they can be used to help in the territory as part of her doctoral dissertation at UVI. Osaze discussed the cooperative business model at the meeting and how she supports the model for smaller farms.
“I’m in support of the cooperative business model. Small farms need to work cooperatively,” Osaze said. “And until we have the education, support, and infrastructure that will help us build cooperatives, I think we’re going to be behind.”
The task force wants input from the public, including those involved in the agriculture industry, by passing out surveys, hosting town hall meetings, and developing focus groups with the hopes that people will be involved. Those surveys are shaping the kinds of programming being prepared.
Extension communication specialist DaraMonifah Cooper said the UVI Cooperative Extension Service is planning more education in technology.
“Responding to their requests after a survey, we are preparing to offer Zoom, WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams training to farmers to support their need for technology training and to help increase their access to information or meetings from local, national and international opportunities,” Cooper said.
Once the information is collected, the USVI Agriculture Task Force plans to come back with another set of town hall meetings, and further discuss what’s right or wrong with the new draft of the agricultural plan before it’s submitted and finalized.
Anyone with thoughts or concerns for the Agriculture Task Force can send them by email to email@example.com or call 340-693-1003 and leave a message. Emails and voice messages are reviewed every Friday.