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HomeNewsLocal newsAg Commissioner Hosts Farmers' Town Hall Meeting

Ag Commissioner Hosts Farmers’ Town Hall Meeting

Agriculture Department Commissioner Designee Louis Petersen Jr. listens to farmers talk about business issues Wednesday during a town hall meeting. (Susan Ellis photo)

Agriculture Commissioner Designee Louis Petersen told a group of farmers Wednesday evening he believes the agriculture industry can be improved and outlined how he hopes to change the department.

“I don’t think anyone would disagree with me that agriculture needs improvement. Improvement means change and change needs to involve all of us,” he said at the beginning of the meeting with around 100 farmers at the Rudolph E. Shulterbrandt Agriculture Complex.

Petersen encouraged people to speak “respectfully and say what you want to say” during the forum about their issues and plans to improve agriculture. He said he hopes they can eventually “speak with one voice” and create a good relationship between the planters and the department.

The commissioner said the government supports agriculture with recent funding and the 2021 Agriculture Plan. The plan was crafted by a task force comprising the University of the Virgin Islands president, the Agriculture commissioner, assistant commissioner and deputy commissioner, deans from the UVI School of Business and Agriculture and three farmers.

Recommendations in the Agriculture Plan include building a comprehensive irrigation system and water supply, enhancing infrastructure, tools and equipment, adding staff to the department, supporting an orchard development initiative and increasing grant applications.

Petersen told the group that the Agriculture Department will help solidify relationships among the farmers so they can begin to pool resources by forming cooperatives, sharing equipment and lobbying the government for their causes.

The commissioner promised to improve programs and services from the department, beginning with land preparation, which is a frequent request from farmers. Currently, a lack of staff and equipment has caused delays in helping farmers with this basic need. With funding from the Legislature and the support of the governor, needed equipment will be purchased, according to Petersen. Hopefully, there will be three new heavy equipment operators within a year, he added.

The Agriculture Department will have better communications soon, as well. According to the commissioner, a public information officer will be hired to provide current information on new programs and services for farmers and the public.

The commissioner and farmers talked about water catchment and storage — when water is scarce, farmers suffer. Several in the audience applauded when Petersen suggested they use water more efficiently. He recommended a drip system over a hose to conserve the precious liquid.

Another topic that was discussed at length was how to get younger farmers involved in agriculture. The average age of Virgin Islands farmers is 60-something, Petersen said. All agreed succession plans needed to be in place and the Agriculture Department will help farmers with workshops on that and other subjects.

After Petersen’s goals had been outlined and clarified, farmers added comments and asked questions. A few growers expressed frustration and needed help getting through the red tape of the government. Others expressed support for the department’s new goals.

One man said he has been waiting two years for help with his land with no response from the department. He said he left messages for the newly appointed commissioner three weeks ago but has not received a call.

Petersen promised to help him with his problems and the others asking for assistance with water lines and land preparation.

The commissioner made one request and asked that all farmers buy a farming license — it costs $1. He said grantmakers want to know how many farmers there are to decide on grant funding.

After the two-hour meeting, Petersen and other Agriculture staff stayed to talk individually with members of the audience.

 

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