Woman selling fruit in the US Virgin Islands

Rooted Revival: Navigating Agricultural Hurdles in the US Virgin Islands

By Gabriella Soto-Velez, NCAT Agriculture Specialist

Nestled in the clouds, I found myself on a plane capturing the ethereal beauty of a rainbow descending onto St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. The purpose of my journey was a roundtable event hosted by Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, a forum for local and national organizations to hear the concerns of farmers about the state of agriculture on the islands. Regrettably, only five farmers attended, as the rest were immersed in preparations for the 25th annual Bordeaux Vegan Rasta Agriculture Festival. Despite the small turnout, the echoed concerns resonated – challenges such as insufficient water access, absence of grant support, high costs of farm inputs, and the struggle for land tenure.

Bruddha

Bruddha with soursop juice. Photo: Gabriella Soto-Velez, NCAT

The following day, as I made my way down the winding mountain roads to the agriculture festival, I was greeted by the same farmers I had seen the day before at the roundtable event, many wishing that the other panelists, including myself, held some secret key to solving their problems. I meandered around the colorful stalls, listening to the youth band as they played their steel drums in a joyful rhythm. I followed my nose to one of the Ital stands where I happily ate my first lentil patty that day. After eating the crusty legume-stuffed fried pastry, I needed relief from the heat and the dry pastry crust, and that led me to Bruddah. He is a local farmer on St. Thomas who was selling a myriad of local produce like Kalaloo, cassava roots, pumpkin, a wide array of tropical fruits, and what I really came for, soursop juice with homemade coconut milk. I began asking him about the state of agriculture on the island, he replied exhaustedly, “it rough, man.” I began to dig a little deeper, telling him that I want to better understand the islands and local agriculture from a Rasta’s perspective. Rastafarianism is based on the principle of levity, which emphasizes natural living, a deep spiritual connection with nature, and Ital, an organic vegan diet promoting mental and physical wellness. Bruddah began lamenting to me that he can’t afford to work or fertilize his land, that the local government has made promises ensuring water access for irrigation, but he is always left waiting and wondering when the water might come. He doesn’t own his land, like many of the small farmers on the island, and because of this, receiving federal assistance is challenging at best.

The original inhabitants of the island are of Taino descent, and they had a strong background in sustainable indigenous agriculture. After the slave trade, the population of the island diversified, but the production of sugar cane and other commodity-based plantations eradicated the local indigenous agriculture. Today, more than 98% of the food is imported to the islands and more than 43% of the islanders are living below the federal poverty line. With the current financial incentives, it’s cheaper for the locals to buy the less nutritious imported foods than to purchase food grown on the island.

Luckily, there are a couple of organizations on the island that are trying to address the impacts of colonialism and get back to the roots of culturally appropriate agriculture, such as We Grow Food, Inc. and the Virgin Islands Good Food Alliance. These groups are working with small farmers to encourage a diversification of marketing strategies, help them secure funding, and work with other partner organizations to provide technical assistance and capacity building for a more sovereign and equitable food system. As we navigate the path ahead, the key to addressing food access issues lies not only in top-down initiatives but also in the unity of local farmers and partners, forging a grassroots movement that propels transformative change across the beautiful islands.

Pagel "Spell" Roacher

Pagel “Spell” Roacher. Photo: Gabriella Soto-Velez, NCAT

Returning to Florida marked the beginning of an exciting chapter, punctuated by a transformative phone call from “Spell,” a local sugar cane farmer and juice maker. Spell’s vision extended far beyond his fields; it encompassed a commitment to shaping the future of agriculture among the youth and embarking on the creation of a collaborative effort in the form of the Bordeaux Small Farmers Cooperative. This collaborative effort isn’t just about cultivating crops—it is about cultivating a sense of community, resilience, and sovereignty for the islands. Spell’s passion for enhancing the islands’ self-sufficiency ignited a shared enthusiasm within me.

Looking ahead to late February, anticipation fills the air as I prepare to return to the islands. The agenda extends beyond mere meetings; it involves collective strides toward a shared vision. Alongside small farmers, we are set to take tangible steps, weaving dreams of a paradise that goes beyond the scenic landscapes—a paradise built on sustainable practices, community spirit, and empowerment for the native islanders.

Related ATTRA Resources:

Topic Area: Local Foods

Other Resources:

We Grow Food, Inc.

Virgin Islands Good Food

This blog is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.