Nelson Tells Roundtable Ag Can Revive USVI

Carlos Rodriquez, with USDA recovery efforts, Commissioner of Agriculture nominee Terrence _Positive_ Nelson, and William Tirado, food safety and inspection investigator look forward to working together, Anne Salafia photo)

Commissioner of Agriculture nominee Terrence “Positive” Nelson told a gathering of local farmers Wednesday that he plans to revive agriculture in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The United States Department of Agriculture and its agencies gathered with local farmers and agricultural organizations Wednesday on UVI’s St. Croix campus to discuss the state agriculture in the territory.

Joe Woody, the USDA liaison to the territory, coordinated the event, which included updates from USDA agency programs and an opportunity for the local farming community to voice its concerns and ask questions.

Nelson hosted the roundtable and shared his views on agricultural initiatives going forward and encouraged partnership between government agencies and the people of the the territory.

“I want to see the USVI revived,” Nelson said. “We should not think of our food supplies as coming in by ships. We have the natural resources; we need to focus on agriculture.”

He reminded attendees that “every single acre on this island was once used for agriculture.”

Agencies represented included Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service, Rural Development, U.S. Forest Service, USDA Food Safety Inspection Service, and the American Red Cross, most with Virgin Islands or Puerto Rican representatives at the table.

Each discussed programs, some with monies still available.

“We need to spread the word. We still have $12 million in our account; we need to get those applications out there to the farmers,” said Edwin Almodovar, director of the area Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The Caribbean area needs proper fertilizer, pesticide, and fuel storage. Road erosion and stream bank erosion need addressing, he said.

Michelle Thurland-Martinez, county executive director of Farm Service, spoke about her agency’s livestock indemnity program, which had 50 applicants, its honeybee program for which 12 producers had applied, its tree service program, and its wildlife and hurricane indemnity program.

“We have farmer loans and now we also have micro-farm loans,” Thurland-Martinez said. “The problem is that some farmers don’t have written permission to use the land or a lease.”

She said that a seven-year loan requires a lease of at least seven years.

When Nelson asked for application requirements, Thurland-Martinez replied, “Permission and a plan.”

She said applicants must show records from the last three years and submit a plan for what he or she wants to do.

“The farmers would have to have control of the land for a loan,” she said.

Although most discussions centered around the needs of farmers, Kimme Bryce, area director of Rural Development, talked about her agency’s biggest program – housing for the low income population.

“We focus on improving the overall economic position and the quality of life here,” Bryce said, adding that Rural Development offers 40 to 50 different programs for small farmers and emerging businesses and can assist with business plans.

Magaly Figueroa, state and private forestry program manager with the U.S. Forest Service, discussed tree planting, education, urban forestry, and firefighter training programs. Her agency, which provided funding for the purchase of fire engines, is rebuilding two nurseries in the territory, one on St. Croix and one on St. Thomas.

“Education is very important to us,” she said.

Sara Symons, the consumer safety inspector for the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service, spoke about the two abattoirs in the territory: the one on St. Thomas has not recovered from the storms and the St. Croix abattoir, back in operation in December 2017, was shutdown due to WAPA’s recent unsafe water issues.

“WAPA has said the water is safe again,” said Nelson. “As soon as they give us clearance, we will fill the abattoir’s cistern with clean water.”

Last on the docket before farm organizations took the floor, American Red Cross Community Recovery Specialist Nancy Weber pointed out that the Red Cross works with farmers on small grants and wants to supply seedlings to farmers at no cost for the first year and at reduced costs after that.

Nate Olive of Ridge to Reef Farm suggested the inclusion of organic seeds in such programs so that farms like his could use them; Nelson agreed to meet with him about the mandates for organic farming.

As Carlos Rodriquez, USDA lead for hurricane recovery, said at the outset, the purpose here was for the farmers to inform the commissioner of their needs. And they did.

Concerns included animal feed and fence funding. Director of the V.I. Department of Agriculture’s Veterinary Services Bethany Bradford said that her group had submitted a detailed plan which been denied by the USDA.

“Fencing livestock keeps animals off the road and out of the crops,” she said. “We need animal feed and fencing in place.”

Others in attendance included sheep farmer Romeo Bergan, FEMA, STX Cares, UVI Cooperative Extension, VITEMA’s Witt O’Brien, the V.I. Department of Education, and representatives from the offices of Sen. Novelle Francis and Sen. Allison DeGazon.

Looking ahead, Robert Godfrey, director of the agricultural experiment station at UVI, said that the university is now developing an agriculture degree.

As roundtable discussions wound down, Nelson wound up.

“How do we get more farmers to participate in the educational programs?” he asked.

Some responsibilities belong to the farmer, he said.

“Invest in yourself,” he said. “We need better partnerships, and we need you to get on board with helping yourselves.”

Nelson, who will focus on food production and water distribution, reiterated that “we can accomplish a lot, but we need to work together … got to stir it up.”

He spoke about water shortage due to contamination and said he wants reparations from the refinery.

“We are limited in our development because of damage already done while putting oil in the supertankers,” he said. “We will recover what we can. I am on the people’s side; I am on the environment’s side,” Nelson said.