Agriculture Commissioner Positive Nelson had good and bad news for the Committee on Economic Development Wednesday. He testified his department “continues to experience growth as we have increased efficiency, improved our relationships, hired personnel; purchased equipment, repaired most buildings, and given salary increases. Morale is enhanced, but continuously challenged by break-ins and breakdowns.”
The conditions of abattoirs in the territory reflected the good and the bad. The abattoir on St. Thomas remains closed, as it has been for half a dozen years, and the abattoir on St. Croix was inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspection Service in mid-April and received commendations. Nelson said, “The assessment team was very impressed with the significant improvements that the establishment underwent and complimented the staff and management on their “dedication, knowledge, continuous strides in adhering to, and commitment to excellence in learning and meeting regulatory requirements.”
Senators questioned Nelson why, if half a million dollars has been set aside for the rehabilitation or relocating of the St. Thomas abattoir, nothing has been done yet. Nelson replied the Agriculture Department was simply waiting for a scope of work to be prepared by the Department of Public Works.
The abattoirs on St. Croix and St. Thomas, according to Nelson, “are the only abattoirs in the United States owned and operated by the government.” With the abattoir in the St. Thomas/St. John district being closed, farmers in that district can have their animals slaughtered on St. Croix with transportation paid for by the government. Nelson reported that since the beginning of this year 19 cows, 165 sheep, one goat, and 39 pigs have been slaughtered. Ten of those pigs came from St. Thomas.
Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger, who said her husband is a farmer, asked Nelson why most of the farmers she talked to said Nelson was not doing a good job.
Nelson said that many of the problems facing the department had been issues for decades and many of the projects he wanted to see get done were not moving as fast as he would like because “the wheels of government turn slowly.” He added that he did not believe it was a popular sentiment among farmers that he was not doing a good job.
Sen. Novelle Francis questioned Nelson about a project he said had been going on since 2015. He referred to Nelson’s testimony where he reported Agriculture was working with the Department of Property and Procurement to catalog all properties that belong to the Department of Agriculture and update the list. Nelson responded that this project was more extensive than the project referred to in 2015. He said this project was determining whether all Agriculture property was being farmed by those who had signed on for its use.
Sen. Genevieve Whitaker questioned Nelson about a letter that had gone out to a farmer who was farming Agriculture Department land. The letter reportedly said the land was going to be taken away from him.
Nelson said that he believed no letter went out saying farmland was going to be taken from a farmer, only letters saying that farmers had to meet with Department representatives to discuss land use. Nelson said farmers could be signed up to use five acres of land but only be using a half-acre and that practice had to end.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens, chairman of the committee, asked Nelson to submit a detailed report about two break-ins Nelson mentioned in his testimony and an incident when a miscreant drove a golf cart through an Agriculture Department fence.
Nelson said the Department’s $100,000 equipment should be secured with more than goat wire.
Francis also asked what the Department was doing about deer in the territory. He said deer were doing “real damage to gardens.” Nelson said farmers were allowed to trap the deer, then call the Department of Natural Resources, who would then shoot the deer.
Francis said he was glad to hear Nelson report that payments were being made to the territory’s animal shelters. He said the shelters were doing jobs the government could not do.
Nelson told Senators, “A bountiful V.I. agricultural industry is much more than an economic engine. It is a matter of territorial security. We are heavily reliant on imports which can be disrupted by COVID, national disasters, global conflicts, labor matters, and prohibitive costs.
Committee members in attendance were Francis, Wayne DeGraff, Whitaker, Gittens, Heyliger, and Milton Potter. Donna Frett-Gregory and Javan James were absent.