Farmers Say They Are Not Part of Decision Making for Ag Plan

Results of a survey of V.I. farmers by the Agriculture Task Force. (Screenshot)

The V.I. Agriculture Task Force released a plan, ordered by the V.I. Legislature, to sustain and enhance the industry, but farmers say they were not consulted about their needs and ideas to help their livelihoods.

On Friday, farmers asked the task force for an extension so they could have more input.

“We humbly ask for the creation of a task force sub-committee comprised of farmers from each island to review each section of the plan once a draft copy can be made available from the Ag Plan task force. We request a minimum of 2-3 weeks to review the draft plan, and to suggest amendments, revisions and additions to the plan,” Nate Olive of Ridge to Reef Farms wrote to the Source.

Olive is also involved in the V.I. Farmers Alliance and the Territorial Agriculture Group and wrote on the group’s behalf.

The Source met Wednesday and Thursday with several farmers and their supporters to talk about their concerns. The Territorial Agriculture Group is comprised of more than two dozen stakeholders striving to address farmers’ needs and advance the industry.

The Agriculture task force was charged by the Senate and Act 8404 to include “policy and funding recommendations to support and expand the local food system.”

There were seven challenges the task force was to include in the plan, such as business models, hiring a food and farm coordinator, creating a fund and an advisory committee, and developing brand and education programs. They also were charged with collecting data and assessing the progress of growing the industry.

The agricultural group attended all three of the agriculture task force’s town hall meetings virtually or in person. David Hall, president of the University of the Virgin Islands, and Agriculture Commissioner Positive T.A. Nelson, chairs of the task force, ran the meetings and talked about the work they were doing, including public surveys. In each meeting, they said they wanted more feedback from farmers.

However, during the Sept. 23 town hall meeting, virtual participants weren’t able to chat with the task force. Only those in attendance were able to ask questions. Dale Browne, of Sejah Farms and the Territorial Agriculture Group, said it was “kind of a censoring” and brought to the forefront other issues.

The food producers have several complaints about the process of developing the Ag plan, especially the absence of a farmer on the task force.

“A task force has been chosen. However, that task force doesn’t have any farmers on it. To have a farmer on the board would have been a bias situation, we were told,” Browne said.

Another complaint was the survey information recorded by the task force. Browne pointed out they tabulated only about 25 percent (169) of the more than 600 growers in the territory. Since 80 percent of the respondents said they were “backyard farmers,” the survey wasn’t a true representation of the farming community, Browne said.

A page from the Agriculture Task Force’s plan for V.I. Farmers with comments from farmers. (Screen shot)

When the task force announced the plan was ready, the growers asked for a copy in time to review it and ask questions. Instead, farmers were emailed a copy on Monday and asked to review it by the Friday town hall meeting. Farmers harvest and prepare on Friday for farmers’ markets on Saturday’s, Browne and others said.

St. Thomas farmer Royce Creque of Greenridge Guavaberry Farms said most St. Thomas farmers were not even aware of a survey. He said the Agriculture Department has contact information for all of them.

“I was present at the town hall and went over the document. The feedback that I get, from you know, the farmers in the community, is they didn’t know about the survey. Not all farmers have emails or have access to internet. They need mail or a visit. No mail, no visit,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of them have not seen the survey. Have not received a visit from anyone, which is easy – you just come down to the market and talk to all of them at the same time.”

Creque said farmers feel insulted that there are no farmers on the task force, although three were called for in Act 8404. Additionally, the Farmer’s Advisory Board was not consulted throughout the process, he said.

“All I see with their plan right now is UVI getting rich. Pushing the School of Agriculture,” he said.

Sommer Sibilly-Brown, a member of V.I. Good Food Coalition, talked about best practices for community engagement. She pointed out that the plan doesn’t include fishers or ranchers who would give a more well rounded view of the industry.

“You can’t develop something for people without people,” Sibilly-Brown said. “Farmers’ successes attracts others to the business.”

Before Friday’s town hall, the agriculture group sent an email requesting more time before the plan is presented to the Legislature. After the three hour meeting Friday, they said they feel like the hearing may be delayed for a short time, at least.

“We need to put a little pause on this and include farmers,” Creque said.

The others who met with the Source were St. Thomas farmer Shelli Brin and Benita Martin of We grow Food.