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Southern SARE Sowing the Seeds of Sustainable Agriculture

Farmers on St. Croix listen attentively during the meeting at Sejah Farm of the Virgin Islands. (Photos by DaraMonifah® Cooper, Southern SARE communication specialist)

Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, or SSARE, has been sowing seeds for sustainable agriculture in the U.S. Virgin Islands. DaraMonifah Cooper, Southern SARE communication specialist, said that over the past few weeks, a team of representatives has visited farmers on St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John.

The representatives conducted farm tours individually and in groups. They also met with staff, faculty, and students at the University of the Virgin Islands, representatives from different agriculture-related agencies, and representatives from the agriculture business center.

Cooper said the mission of these meetings served different purposes; however, the real topic was the funding of the program for research and education as well as professional development, travel scholarships, and event sponsorships pertaining to sustainable agriculture. The team met with different stakeholder groups, exchanging insights on their activities, needs, and challenges, and in return, SARE shared its program solutions and suggested other programs that might be helpful.

Meeting with university staff and other agencies/NGOs on St. Croix: Brennan Washington (SSARE), Vanessa Forbes (UVICES), Silmarie Crespo Velez (USDA Caribbean Climate Hub), Gabriela Cotto (USDA Caribbean Climate Hub), Gabrielle Soto-Velez (NCAT), DaraMonifah Cooper (SSARE), Torhera Durant (RT Park), Commissioner Louis E. Petersen, Jr. (VIDOA), Linda Muhammad (Farmer), Sherron Carlos (Farmer). (Photos by DaraMonifah® Cooper, Southern SARE communication specialist)

“Visiting small farms on the Virgin Islands has shown me the resilience and dedication of local communities in their pursuit of sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty. By partnering together and sharing simple technologies, we can enhance production through soil conservation and improve food security through post-harvest education. True progress comes from mutual respect and working hand-in-hand with those who know the land best,” said Gabriella Soto-Velez, sustainable agriculture specialist at the National Center of Appropriate Technology.

Cooper said the SSARE program, hosted administratively through the University of Georgia, covers 13 states from as far north as Virginia and as far west as Oklahoma or Texas along with Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Each state or territory has a SSARE program state coordinator and program assistant who usually works within the Cooperative Extension Service office at the local land grant institute. In the Virgin Islands, Vanessa Forbes is the program assistant who can be contacted at vforbes@uvi.edu. Along with distribution of free educational resources and assisting farmers with learning more about Southern SARE funding and other resources, Forbes’ main responsibility is serving as the horticulture specialist at the University of the Virgin Islands School of Agriculture.
She continued to say that the previous state coordinator for many years was Louis E. Petersen Jr., Ph.D., current Agriculture commissioner, as part of his Extension Service role at the University of the Virgin Islands. He utilized funding from the SSARE program for many years to offer various educational programs to local farmers including those related to forming cooperatives, helping with professional development both in the territory, through farmer travel to conferences as well as assisting with farmers to be awarded SSARE grants for their research and educational projects. All related funded projects in the Virgin Islands can be found on the SSARE website page specific to the Virgin Islands.

Cooper said that the most recent outreach received an excellent reception and great cooperation from the farmers. “To give an idea of what comes next, within the next weeks, SSARE will compile and analyze all of the data collected to develop a strategic funding plan for the territory based on what we learned from the farmers as well as those supporting them within the government,” she said.

“This plan will contain an overview of the opportunities and challenges facing agriculture in the Virgin Islands, identification of key stakeholders and the development of a contact list, and an analysis of the grant opportunities that could fund potential projects on the islands and go through a matching process. The plan also involved an analysis of the gaps that could prevent successful access to grant opportunities and the development of a plan to remove them. Last, SSARE will develop a timeline to apply for identified grants and a goal for the total dollars that could realistically be brought into the Virgin Islands,” said Brennan Washington, Southern SARE Southeastern Outreach coordinator who lead all of the meetings along with Cooper, who coordinated them.

Motali Sofer Greer shows Brennan Washington the soil type from the land he will soon be farming in Coral Bay, St. John. (Photos by DaraMonifah® Cooper, Southern SARE communication specialist)

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education has provided over $1 million in total funding and 25 grant projects since 1988. Grants range from $3,000 to $400,000. Some are competitive grants, and others are not.

“We are not replicating any services that already exist. We are working together with the Department of Agriculture, the School of Agriculture, and the University of the Virgin Islands,” said Cooper.

“A lot of times these external agencies come in and basically replicate services we offer here. This is something we strategically did not do because we met first with Commissioner Petersen from the Department of Agriculture and asked him what he thought the areas that needed support were,” she said.

Cooper said that SSARE continues to look forward to working closely with the Agriculture Department and Cooperative Extension Service to elevate USVI agriculture and help keep them informed of their progress.

Cooper said that the team will be following up with fisheries and those who were not able to attend. If you are interested in learning more about SSARE and were not able to attend their outreach, contact communication specialist DaraMonifah Cooper at dcooper@sare.org or visit www.southern.sare.org.

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