Mention of the governor’s new commissioner nominee for the Department of Agriculture set the tone for Wednesday’s hearing of the Committee of Agriculture and Economic Development. Chairman of the committee, Sen. Javan James Sr., announced that DOA nominee, Louis Petersen, would have to go through the process and come before the body to solidify his position permanently.
David Hall, president of the University of the Virgin Islands, stated the university may be at a loss with the recent nomination of Petersen for commissioner. Petersen is currently the assistant director of the St. Thomas/St. John District for the School of Agriculture at UVI and is “the prime mover of the UVI AgDiscovery Summer Enrichment Program,” according to Hall.
The Enrichment Program is federally funded and open to high school students, both locally and throughout the country, and is held primarily in the St. Croix District. Students are given the opportunity to experience agriculture in its various parts and components, such as visiting farms and engaging with speakers.
“Even if Petersen leaves we would be able to still seek that funding and to keep the program up. It serves as a way to show our kids how rewarding a career in agriculture can be,” said Hall.
Sen. Angel Bolques’s concern for students’ overall development pointed out that of the degrees listed during Hall’s testimony, there was the absence of an agriculture entomology degree. With the rapid development of insecticides and harmful chemicals used to produce food, the study of beneficial insects and pests for fruits, vegetables, and field crops plays an integral role.
Usman Adamu, dean and director of the School of Agriculture, assured senators that there are about two courses pertaining to entomology within the program as well as the extension program. Solely in the extension program, students receive hands-on experience from an experienced entomologist.
“We have a generation of students we must pursue to convince them to get into agriculture as a primary profession,” said James.
Sen. Marvin A. Blyden, placing Hall and Adamu temporarily in the hot seat, inquired about the collaborative efforts between UVI and DOA about both the preservation and distribution of seeds.
In December 2021, both Blyden and Sen. Samuel Carrion collaborated on Act 8504, which requires DOA and UVI to plan, create and develop a program of community seed banks to store and preserve seeds. The purpose of establishing the program is to battle the dangers of climate change, natural disasters, and the overall destruction of crops and plant life.
Both Hall and Adamu stated that the former commissioner of DOA did not reach out to them regarding the matter, and they were not aware of the Act’s existence. Adamu did, however, place on the record that they are working with DOA on the distribution of seeds, more recently during the annual Agriculture Fair and other events.
Hall stated that UVI is currently utilizing technology from the “data science folks with the green science division” in surveying locations throughout the territory. The survey is to assist with pinpointing areas suitable and sustainable for further agricultural use.
“UVI works closely with DOA and with the new agriculture plan and the upcoming development of the advisory board, one of the primary focuses is education. The plan has given half a million dollars to assist with the integration of agriculture into the curriculum, into the early stages, and I look forward to it,” Hall stated.
Wayne L. Biggs, Jr., chief executive officer of the USVI Economic Development Authority, provided testimony that the authority is also working collaboratively with sister agencies and plans to resume more regular meetings that were interrupted due to COVID.
Biggs began to express his plan for collaboration, including coming to the Senate body with amendments regarding the loan program for farmers and fishermen. He pointed out that one of the requirements to obtain the loan through the program is a commercial farmer or fisherman has to be in business for a minimum of two years.
“We can do better to serve our community, and we don’t think that is a very good way to build that industry up. Some of these things we need to remove so we can pool our resources and variously address other areas and industries,” said Biggs.
Another one of the primary focuses of the USVIEDA is to attract investments into the territory, such as light manufacturing and assembly, that does not cause pollution to the environment. As a United States territory, the Virgin Islands has the authority to label things that are manufactured in the territory as “Made in the U.S.” on products that have an added value, according to Biggs.
“We are targeting various industries who want to get into the U.S. market, and making St. Croix the gateway to get into the U.S. market, but also the gateway to get into South and Central America. We are really trying to create that gateway on St. Croix now that we have that trade zone,” said Biggs.
Sens. Javan James Sr., Angel Bolques, Marvin A Blyden, Alma Francis Heyliger, Diane T. Capehart, Dywane DeGraff, Donna Frett Gregory and Novelle E. Francis Jr. were present at Wednesday’s meeting.