VI farming, past and future

During this Farmers’ Week, the Virgin Islands should reflect on the role farming

has played in the territory’s past and commit to making sensible decisions about the role it might play in the future.

Until the second half of the 20th Century, farming was a major staple of the VI economy. As such, it is an important part of these islands’ heritage.

However, the territory should resist the temptation to romanticise its agricultural past. With a scarcity of freshwater and flat land, the VI has never been ideal for farming. Thus, even when agriculture was king, most farmers were relatively poor and had to work other jobs on the side to make ends meet.

When tourism and financial services arrived during the last half-century, the territory’s standard of living improved dramatically.

In light of these changes, farming is highly unlikely ever to be the much-needed “third economic pillar” promised today by some politicians.

This is not to say that it should be disregarded. On the contrary, in a territory that imports most of its food, we suspect that businesses, residents and visitors alike would welcome more chances to purchase affordable local products. Besides, the historical value of preserving farming traditions is by no means negligible.

Today, then, the VI should investigate ways to refashion farming as a sustainable complement to the territory’s modern economy without expending an unreasonable amount of resources.

Technology can help. To its credit, government has trumpeted this idea in recent years. Unfortunately, the execution has been lacking.

The greenhouses on Tortola and Virgin Gorda, for example, may be a good idea — but their $5 million-plus price tag seems excessive, and they have been mismanaged from the start. Most VI farmers and other members of the public have been kept out of the loop on the project, and many are outraged as a result. To make matters worse, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour didn’t seek the required planning permission until substantial environmental damage had been done and a resident threatened to sue over the VG project.

Starting now, the ministry should do everything it can to salvage this situation: minimising further environmental degradation; completing the planning process as quickly as possible; being transparent; and involving farmers and the public.

Other modern ideas also could help bolster VI agriculture. Recent decades have seen substantial progress in organic farming methodology. To their credit, some VI farmers have already met with success in this area, selling pesticide-free products to high-end customers like restaurants and charter yacht guests.

Recent innovations in hydroponics, eco-tourism and other areas might prove useful here as well.

At the same time, the territory should not forget that many traditional farming techniques are every bit as sustainable as modern methods. Reviving such techniques — or, in some cases, continuing with business as usual — could be another avenue toward future success.

One thing is certain: In the coming years, progressive, well-planned measures will be increasingly important for ensuring that farming remains viable here. With this goal in mind, farmers, government and the public should recommit to working together for the common good. During the upcoming election campaigns, we hope to hear constructive dialogue about the future direction of agriculture in these islands.