ST THOMAS, USVI -- Commissioner Louis Petersen presented a budget on Monday for the US Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture that will allow the department to continue advancing programs that are developing the territory’s agriculture sector despite a difficult economic climate.
USVI Agriculture Commissioner Louis Petersen
In fiscal year 2013, the department fulfilled its mission to provide basic agricultural services and technical support for the territory’s farming community through numerous initiatives throughout the US Virgin Islands. Those accomplishments and successful efforts to advance the agricultural industry were made possible through the use of capital resources from the local government, federal grant funding, and collaborative efforts with other governmental agencies, non-profit entities, and farmers, Petersen told the 30th Legislature’s Finance Committee.
That strategy will continue into fiscal year 2014 with the recommended budget of $2,956,501, which represents a $2,495,878 appropriation from the General Fund complimented by $460,623 from Non-Appropriated Funds. Miscellaneous funding will provide $350,000 to support new and on-going initiatives in accordance with the Sustainable Agriculture Act.
“As in Fiscal Year 2013 the funding received from the General and Miscellaneous Funds of the Government of the Virgin Islands will be leveraged with federal resources, local grant funding, and partnership efforts on the local, regional, and national levels to advance the mission of the Department of Agriculture,” Petersen said.
During the current year, the department has faced the challenge of responding to demands for increased services such as land preparation, outreach, infrastructural development and repairs in the midst of declining resources, Petersen told legislators.
Since 2009 the Department of Agriculture’s personnel level decreased by 31 percent -- many of the staff who retired, resigned or were otherwise dismissed had technical training, expertise and years of experience in the field of agriculture. Current staff has assumed expanded responsibilities in responding to the increased demand for services, according to the commissioner.
Another major challenge has involved land and property management. Although his team is making progress in managing public farmland, more improvements are needed, Petersen said, going on to explain that during the current fiscal year more than 30 notices to vacate were issued to non-productive occupants of public farmland, and another eight leases were recommended to the Department of Property and Procurement for termination.
“Perhaps one of the most effective tools in land management employed by our team is the mandatory requirement for producers to submit business plans and participate in a pre-screening interview before acquiring public farmland. This process has yielded much success in identifying the candidates most prepared to succeed,” Petersen said.
Despite the challenges, the department’s staff, the territory’s farmers, and other partners persevered and realized considerable progress toward the implementation of the department’s strategic plan, based on four identified major needs of farmers and the industry in general: infrastructure improvement, youth development, outreach support, partnership development and expansion.
During 2014, VIDOA will continue to implement that strategic plan for agricultural development and advancement based on those four areas of need, according to Petersen.
More infrastructural advancements are planned for the Community Gardens on St Croix where, with the assistance of the Virgin Islands National Guard, necessary repairs will be completed to the reassembled water storage tank so as to support increased crop and livestock production.
Through a public-private sector collaboration, agriculture officials anticipate the establishment of a large grain storage facility on St Croix to facilitate the bulk purchase of feed to enhance poultry and livestock production.
“The goal of this project is to reduce the purchase cost of imported grain feed through bulk purchase, thereby reducing operational costs for farmers while stimulating increased production and profit,” Petersen said.
On St Thomas, Phase III of the Estate Bordeaux Farmers Market, through a partnership with the Energy Office, will outfit the market facility with a complete solar energy system.
And at the community garden plot on St John, Agriculture officials anticipate completing all the preparations necessary to prevent crop damage and loss before planting on the site.
Department of Agriculture staff also looks forward to their continued involvement in school based activities and the on-going monitoring and recruitment of participants in the VIDOA’s Young Farmers and Professionals Training Program. They are also determined to continue efforts to revive the local chapter of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) in partnership with the Department of Education and the local FFA Advisor, Petersen said.
In collaboration with the University of the Virgin Islands, outreach and training efforts through the New Farmer and Rancher Training Program will continue into the next fiscal year.
Petersen told the Legislature’s Finance Committee the department will continue to promote the Virgin Fresh ‘Grow Local Buy Local’ campaign “of which we are very proud,” including initiatives to heighten awareness, strengthen linkages between producers and consumers, encourage territorial pride, and increase income for farm families. In partnership with the Department of Health, the Agriculture Department will also continue to encourage involvement in the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program, according to the commissioner.
“Senators, my team and I will utilize our Fiscal Year 2014 Budget allotment in addition to our efforts to secure external funding from local and federal entities combined with public-private partnerships in pursuit of our mission to develop and promote a viable agricultural sector,” Petersen said in closing.