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U.S. Virgin Islands Agriculture Advances with Novel Approaches to Address Water Shortages

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Water scarcity continues to be a significant hurdle for agriculturists across the U.S. Virgin Islands. Recognizing the urgency, the Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture convened recently to discuss actionable solutions.

At the forefront of this dialogue was Chair Senator Javan James who sought clarity from Louis Petersen Jr., the proposed commissioner for the Department of Agriculture, about the steps in place to tackle this looming challenge.

Highlighting a multifaceted approach, Mr. Petersen elaborated that collaboration is underway with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to draft a strategic blueprint to bolster water resources. This includes accessing federal funds geared toward enhancing water storage, distribution channels, and metering systems. While this broader plan is more of a long-haul initiative, Petersen stressed that there are more immediate projects on the horizon.

A case in point is the project centered around Estate Bordeaux in St. Thomas. With financial backing from the Department of Interior, efforts are on to refine water distribution networks benefiting numerous farmers. Petersen unveiled plans to repurpose water from a neighboring wastewater treatment plant, producing roughly 18,000 to 20,000 gallons daily. Interestingly, an assessment revealed the plant’s output already aligns with the “tertiary” water quality standard deemed suitable for agricultural activities. Building on this, the USDA-NRCS will play a pivotal role in extending pipelines from this plant to Estate Bordeaux and ensuring the water meets quality benchmarks.

Parallelly, there’s a blueprint to erect high-volume cisterns at select locations within the estate. Presently, there’s a search for a seasoned engineer to undertake a detailed land survey and provide cost estimates for these reservoirs.

An equally promising venture is the revival of an erstwhile neglected 50,000-gallon cistern at Estate Dorothea. Having undergone external cleaning and leak assessments, the cistern is now up for bids to restore it to its former glory, with aspirations to service a broader farming community, as Petersen indicated.

Switching the focus to St. Croix, efforts are afoot to utilize wells in the vicinity of the department’s headquarters. The goal? To stretch water lines to nearby community gardens, thereby amplifying water accessibility for regional farmers.

In wrapping up, Petersen was emphatic in stating that these initiatives are merely the tip of the iceberg. He reassured the committee of grander plans in collaboration with USDA-NRCS, all converging toward a singular goal – to ensure efficient water storage, distribution, and metering mechanisms for agriculturists throughout the region.

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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

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

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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

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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