Funding for Ag Plan Moves Forward Without Ag Commissioner

From left, Harith Wickrema, David Hall and Vincent Richards at Monday’s Senate hearing. (Photo courtesy V.I. Legislature)

Senate members of the Committee on Finance noted no problem with moving forward on a bill funding various portions of the new Agricultural Plan. However, they did have one concern. No one from the Agriculture Department was at the hearing Monday to support the bill.

The Agricultural Plan Task Force submitted its plan to legislators last December and it was eventually approved, but farmers doubted that it would be funded.

David Hall, president of the University of the Virgin Islands and co-chair of the task force, said a farmer told him during a town hall session that the task force had a “very pretty plan but it wouldn’t get a date.”

Committee Chairman Kurt Vialet hung onto the farmer’s metaphor as his committee moved the funding bill forward to the Rules and Judiciary Committee. He said the plan now has a “date.”

The bill funds the establishment of an Agriculture Business Center within the Small Business Development Center. It also appropriates $250,000 to UVI to obtain federal grants to address water, irrigation, infrastructure, and other agriculture needs for the territory.

UVI will also receive $120,000 for a grant writer for the Food and Farm Advisory Committee and $13,000 for the establishment of the Local Food and Farm Fund for farmers to be distributed pursuant to the recommendations and guidelines established by the advisory committee.

The Department of Agriculture will receive $350,000 to fill positions, including the Local Food and Farm Coordinator, if the bill gets signed into law in its present form by the governor.

Another section in the bill would appropriate $500,000 to the Economic Development Authority to establish a public-private investment fund and a farmer’s grant matching fund in coordination with the local advisory committee.

The Department of Education would receive $500,000 to develop a curriculum and training program to secure a sustainable local food production system, to include pre-K through high school, and to develop a pilot program.

Harith Wickrema, president of the Island Green Living Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding sustainability and food security, testified, “Although I am pleased to see that significant budgeting has been allocated to support the plan, it falls short of what was proposed. It is my hope, however, that this marks a good first step and will herald in future increased investment.”

Wickrema, a member of the task force, added that 97 percent of the territory’s food supply is imported today, leaving the territory vulnerable to shortages, compromised freshness/nutritional value, and higher prices.

Vialet, noting the absence of Agriculture Commissioner Positive Nelson, said, “Something isn’t right over there.” He said two invitations had been sent to Nelson, who served as co-chair of the task force.

The bill would also appropriate $250,000 to UVI for the Food and Farm Advisory Committee for operations, marketing, data collection, and analysis and to create a short-term and long-term plan to address critical water and infrastructure needs in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture.

Senators attending the meeting besides Vialet were Donna Frett-Gregory, Javan James Sr., Novelle Francis Jr., Genevieve Whitaker, and Dwayne DeGraff.

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