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HomeNewsLocal governmentProject Tot Lot, Food and Farm Council, and Inner Brass Purchase Discussed...

Project Tot Lot, Food and Farm Council, and Inner Brass Purchase Discussed at Dorothea Farmers’ Meeting

Green space at the Department of Agriculture’s Dorothea office. (Source photo by Adisha Penn)

The Virgin Islands Agriculture Department hosted a meeting with the Dorothea farmers at their office in Estate Dorothea and discussed concerns relating to infrastructure, the use of $8 million to purchase land, farmers’ approach to issues, improvements, and staff changes within the department.

Louis Petersen, commissioner nominee for the Agriculture Department, led the discussion where about twenty persons (80 percent of the Dorothea farmers) were present.

Louis Petersen addresses farmers during the Dorothea farmer’s meeting. (Source photo by Adisha Penn)

“How can we mend and improve the relationship with the Department of Agriculture,” asked Petersen to the audience. “We all have a love for agriculture. We want to see agriculture get better and better.”

He emphasized early in the meeting the need to improve the relationship between the department and its clientele and shared that for the first time, a public information officer will be added to the staff for the Agriculture Department. He also shared goals that the department has. They include creating an outreach unit for farmers and developing an on-the-job training program for farming. He also shared areas where he wants farmers to improve, including purchasing a $1 farmer’s license, using water more efficiently, and forming co-ops.

Regarding the license, one farmer, Wadeh Waba El, said the concept is “absurd to a lot of people” on the mainland. He further added that one “needs land to get a license.”

Petersen replied, “Really and truly, it is your registry with the V.I. government.” He added that it allows for easier accounting of farmers.

Petersen also highlighted in the meeting that $8 million will be added to the annual budget through the forestry division in the department. Some of the money will be used to buy a piece of Inner Brass, one of the island cays near the Northside, and serve as a natural reserve.

Farmers shared some of their concerns with Petersen and his team during the meeting, one being the Senate’s establishment of the local food and farm council. According to Senate bill 35-0049, the council, in accordance with mandate five of the Virgin Islands Agricultural Plan, will be established within the University of the Virgin Islands for budgetary purposes only and will be made up of 11 members, with each nongovernmental member serving a three-year term. It also mandates that five community members be appointed by the governor. According to Petersen, St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix will each only have one farmer appointed by the governor to serve on the council.

“They created a government entity that won’t advocate for farmers. Farmers won’t have much of a voice,” said one farmer in the audience.

A farmer shares concerns with the Department of Agriculture about group co-op advocacy. (Source photo by Adisha Penn)

James Hendersen, property inspector for the Agriculture Department, replied, “If the farmers of the V.I. really get together and form cooperatives, they can push this industry wherever they want it to go.” He added, “The department, the Legislature, with all of these plans, may go one way, but you all can really have a lot of power where the industry goes.”

The farmers noted that on the mainland, big industry farmers have “big pockets” to pay for policies to be advocated in a specific manner. They also mentioned one co-op group they established in 2012 that was recently dissolved in July through the lieutenant governor’s office. They shared hopes of re-establishing the group to advocate for their needs.

The Dorothea farmers were also concerned about the lack of water provided for their crops. Part of Petersen’s infrastructure improvement is to establish more water storage tanks. Currently, some water is being used from the housing authority to supplement supply and a new 3,000-gallon water truck with air brakes will be bought for St. Thomas. Additionally, according to the commissioner nominee, the department “will revive the cistern by the playground.”

The Tot Lot project aims to revive a 50,000-gallon cistern by the Dorothea playground that has been unused for about 50 years. According to Peterson, the department’s last blow in water supply came when they lost 19,000 gallons when the Berry Fire Station was built.

With creating more water cisterns, Petersen said that they will also add meters to the system. This will occur at Bordeaux, Dorothea, and Community Gardens on St. Croix. Some farmers challenged the idea, but some had no issue. Waba El said he doesn’t “want metering money going into the General Fund” and added that 24/7 access to water should also be allowed.

Currently, water use is only allowed during government working hours, which Petersen said allows everyone to have an opportunity to access the limited supply. However, until water use is increased, farmers said they would like to explore the availability of water use very early in the mornings or very late in the afternoons.

“I want to take full responsibility. We at the Department of Ag have a lot of improvement to do. We have a lot of improvement to make. We have identified them,” said Petersen.

He concluded by asking that farmers be willing to make adjustments and changes just as the department is and called for improvement among and between farmers as well.

“We can’t expect change to happen unless we are a part of the change,” said Petersen.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the purchase of land on Inner Brass, one of the island cays near the Northside, will serve as a natural reserve. It is not intended for farmers or farming.
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