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St. Croix Farmers Criticize Government’s Neglect of V.I. Agriculture

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Yvette and Dale Brown, founders of Sejah Farm on St. Croix. By V.I. Legislature

Two prominent farmers from St. Croix have criticized the Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture for what they see as the slow progress in developing the agriculture sector.

Yvette and Dale Brown voiced their concerns during testimony before the Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance on Tuesday. They sought the committee’s support to extend their lease on government-owned property where their farm is situated.

Yvette Brown, who runs Sejah Farm as a full-time venture, stated that “agriculture in the Virgin Islands has gained a poor reputation for income generation and lacks significant social and economic contributions.” She attributed this to the local government’s failure to regulate and support the agricultural industry effectively. Brown emphasized that the sector has been “without significant government support for over 59 years.”

The absence of support has left “farmers with no choice but to operate in survival mode,” she said. Brown called on the Department of Agriculture to actively contribute to improving the sector’s reputation, describing the change as “timely and vital.” She outlined the benefits of such a turnaround, including improved local food availability and accessibility, attracting markets, increasing farmers’ income, and developing new market opportunities. These changes, she argued, would significantly bolster the local food system and food security. A report by the Iowa State University Food Systems Team highlighted the USVI’s “overwhelmingly high food import rate” of 95 to 99 percent.

Brown warned that without regular food shipments, “we do not have the sustenance to maintain ourselves.” She advocated for promoting and supporting local agriculture to build a robust, resilient food economy that benefits everyone in the territory. She also pointed out that agriculture could create new employment opportunities for Virgin Islanders.

While Sejah Farms remains committed to revitalizing the territory’s agricultural sector, Dale Brown expressed doubt about the Department of Agriculture’s capability to meet this challenge. He cited the recent closure of the St. Croix abattoir and the lack of a “vetted veterinarian,” which he said disadvantages livestock farmers.

Lawmakers expressed agreement with the Browns’ concerns. Senator Javan James, chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture, announced plans to hold a committee meeting with the Department of Agriculture soon. The last scheduled meeting was canceled because Commissioner Louis Petersen could not attend. “They got away, but this time, they better come ready,” warned Sen. James.

Senator Donna Frett-Gregory expressed frustration with the slow implementation of Act 8716, which established the Local Food and Farm Council. “There are 11 members of that council. Six are government officials and five are appointed. Not one person has come down to the Legislature for approval.” Sympathizing with the Browns, she agreed that “there is no support for the work that they’re doing.”

Frett-Gregory highlighted the potential of St. Croix’s extensive farmland, insisting that the lack of priority given to the agriculture industry is inexcusable.

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Agriculture

UVI Launches State-of-the-Art Aquaponics and Livestock Research Facilities

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The University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) inaugurated two advanced research facilities on Wednesday, marking a significant milestone in its commitment to sustainable agriculture and resilience. The Aquaponics Facility and the Agricultural Experiment Station Livestock Facility were officially opened during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at UVI’s Albert A. Sheen campus on St. Croix.

The event saw attendance from UVI administrators, local elected officials, and a small group of faculty, staff, students, and community members. The ceremony began at the aquaponics facility, where speakers recounted the long path to its reopening following the extensive damage caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

Adrienne Williams-Octalien, Director of the Office of Disaster Recovery, emphasized the significance of the project. “This project represents resiliency, food conservation, and sustainability,” she said. “These are the essential steps needed to ensure preparedness for future disasters.”

After the ribbon-cutting, Dr. Henry Awika, Interim Assistant Director and Research Assistant Professor of Horticulture and Aquaculture, led a tour of the aquaponics facility. He explained how the facility will cultivate fish in tanks, with the water being repurposed as a natural fertilizer for plants.

Dr. Awika highlighted the facility’s goals to produce research that benefits local communities. “We are working on lowering the cost of feed by exploring locally available, plant-based materials for the fish diet and reducing energy costs,” he said. He added that in anticipation of an “above-normal” hurricane season, his team is developing structures that can be quickly dismantled and rebuilt to protect farm equipment from storm damage.

The event continued with the introduction of the Small Ruminant Livestock Facility, also known as the sheep farm. Alana Jackson, a former UVI student researcher, discussed the practical applications of their research. “We aim to apply our research to the community by reaching out to farmers and providing sheep for breeding and meat,” she stated.

Local entrepreneur Vicente Cotto, who attended the event, expressed his enthusiasm for the new facilities. “Starting something new comes with many challenges, but these research facilities help smooth out those issues so that farmers like us don’t have to face the same obstacles,” he said. Mr. Cotto described UVI’s new facilities and other opportunities as “hidden gems” that more people should utilize.

The unveiling of these cutting-edge research facilities underscores UVI’s dedication to advancing agricultural research and supporting local farmers in the Virgin Islands.

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Agriculture

Virgin Islands Good Food Receives $30,000 Grant to Enhance Local Agriculture

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Virgin Islands Good Food has secured a $30,000 grant from the Better Food Policy Fund, facilitated by the Tides Foundation’s collective action fund. This grant will support the Territorial Agriculture Group (TAG) project activities in 2024, with an additional $30,000 expected in 2025.

Virgin Islands Good Food and the Better Food Policy Fund stress the importance of civic collaboration in improving food policy. This funding will aid TAG, a coalition of farmers, advocates, and agricultural professionals dedicated to enhancing food policy and systems in the Virgin Islands, according to a release issued Thursday. TAG, predominantly farmer-led, is committed to integrating accountability, equity, inclusive governance, and leadership into its initiatives to build thriving markets and equitable food access for all Virgin Islanders.

With over fifty farmers, TAG represents a partnership across several farming organizations, all focused on creating a resilient and inclusive food system in the USVI. Collaborating with partners like the Alaska Food Policy Council, TAG aims to drive meaningful change and foster a healthier, more sustainable community.

Since its inception, the Better Food Policy Fund has engaged over 300 food policy council stakeholders to co-develop its initiatives, ensuring alignment with the stakeholders’ needs, the release states.

“We are thrilled to partner with the Better Food Policy Fund to support our mission,” said Sommer Sibilly-Brown, executive director of Virgin Islands Good Food. “This grant will empower us to make a meaningful difference in the Virgin Islands and further our commitment to agricultural growth.”

Robbi Mixon, executive director of the Alaska Food Policy Council, added, “We are excited to deepen our relationship and knowledge sharing with Virgin Island Good Food. Despite being 5,000 miles apart, we have much more in common than not. Supporting each other through reciprocal learning and sharing is an incredible opportunity to support farmers and agricultural growth across the territories and non-contiguous US.”

Representatives from Virgin Islands-based organizations serving farmers and agriculturalists expressed their appreciation for the grant, which aims to build cohesiveness and alignment.

Benita Martin, co-chairperson of We Grow Food Inc.’s Future Development Committee in St. Thomas, stated, “I’m in TAG, representing We Grow Food, Inc. Now is the time we collectively work as one Virgin Islands to move our food system forward to feed the people of the Virgin Islands. Grassroots organizations have always been at the forefront of making positive changes in any community.”

Yvette Browne, a member of TAG and co-owner of Sejah Farm in St. Croix, commented, “This partnership not only fuels our mission but also amplifies our dedication to fostering sustainable agricultural growth in the Virgin Islands. Together, we are poised to enact positive change and cultivate a future where food security and environmental stewardship thrive hand in hand.”

Nate Olive, president of Virgin Islands Farmer Alliance and owner/operator of Ridge to Reef Farm on St. Croix, emphasized the value of TAG as a resource for farmers and others in the agricultural sector. “One thing I like about the group is that no one owns the group as it is everyone’s fellowship group. We originally came together as TAG in response to a government-sponsored farming competitor licensed in Florida that was imported to VI with the support of VI elected officials to compete with our local agricultural industry. Today we continue to stand for fairness in our industry and demand the proper use of both federal and local taxpayer dollars to elevate locally owned farms as viable, competitive endeavors for the ultimate benefits provided to all Virgin Islanders.”

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Agriculture

Governor Bryan Advocates for Health-Focused Food Stamp Program and Strong Support for USVI Agriculture in New Farm Bill

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During a pivotal session at the National Governors Association’s 2024 Winter Meeting in Washington, Governor Albert Bryan of the U.S. Virgin Islands took center stage to voice the pressing needs of the territory’s agriculture sector and propose innovative solutions. As the co-chair of the Community Investment Task Force, Bryan emphasized the unique challenges and opportunities that the U.S. Virgin Islands faces, particularly the stark reality that a mere 3% of the food consumed in the territory is produced locally.

Governor Bryan has ambitiously set a target to elevate this figure to 35% by 2040, aiming to tackle the high costs and accessibility issues surrounding food for island residents. The path to achieving this goal is fraught with obstacles, including the scarcity of crop insurance, the harsh realities of climate change, and the devastation left by hurricanes in 2017 that severely damaged the territory’s infrastructure and natural resources. Bryan’s advocacy for the upcoming federal Farm Bill to include measures that bolster the agricultural resurgence in the Virgin Islands was a focal point of his address.

Highlighting the significance of recognizing and integrating U.S. territories in national efforts, Bryan remarked, “Part of this is about inclusiveness, remembering that the territories are part of America, they’re your America.” He pointed out the current exclusion of Virgin Islands farmers from federal crop insurance programs as a critical area for reform.

Bryan applauded the efforts made since the 2018 Farm Bill, such as the Local Agriculture Market Program and the creation of regional food business centers supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). These initiatives have been instrumental in enhancing local food systems and resilience, further buoyed by the financial backing from the American Rescue Plan Act.

In a move to address broader societal issues, Governor Bryan praised the USDA’s summer EBT program, which ensures children receiving school lunch assistance continue to have access to meals during the summer break. He underscored the multifaceted impact of poverty, which affects both the economic and mental well-being of children and families. Advocating for a revision of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Bryan proposed a transformative approach where benefits would be restricted to healthier food options. This initiative aims to pivot consumer habits away from processed and unhealthy foods towards more nutritious choices, thereby fostering a healthier nation.

As anticipation grows for the new farm bill, set to replace the expiring legislation this September, Governor Bryan’s vision for the future of agriculture in the U.S. Virgin Islands is clear. He seeks comprehensive support for the territory’s farmers and ranchers, as well as initiatives to engage the youth with agriculture, emphasizing the importance of reconnecting with the land as a fundamental aspect of life.

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