The U.S. Virgin Islands hardly ever experience temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, which allows vegetation to flourish year-round. Even so, 90-95 percent of the food consumed on the islands is imported, and less than 1 percent of the territory’s gross domestic product comes from agriculture. That may soon change.
A three-year Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) project at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) – supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) – works with crop and small livestock farmers who have less than 10 years of experience. Program graduates report an 81 percent increase in productivity and an 80 percent increase in profitability.
The Islands are home to more than 106,000 U.S. citizens – and, as of March 2015, an unemployment rate of 11.8 percent – far higher than the U.S. average of 5.5 percent. Knowing the essential role that agriculture plays, Stafford Crossman established the BFRDP project at UVI to stimulate the agricultural industry, advance economic development, and increase food security.
Crossman’s project emphasizes hands-on farm workshops as well as agribusiness management and entrepreneurship training to an audience of predominantly limited resource and socially disadvantaged producers whose “inexperience, lack of access to finance, and reduced exposure to training and technical information, combined with their social and educational challenges, [made] them a group with special needs,” explained Crossman.
Faculty members and other subject matter specialists from mainland U.S. universities lent their expertise to the training program to ensure well-rounded training. The effort worked: a survey taken of the initial 102 participants indicated that 96 percent increased their knowledge and 92 percent improved their skills. In addition, 63 submitted business plans to the Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture – a requirement to obtain land leases. Perhaps most significant given the difficulty in obtaining land in the territory, 20 participants obtained land leases with a total of 68.5 acres.
BFRDP, funded in the 2008 Farm Bill and again in the 2014 Farm Bill, has awarded $90 million in grants in 48 states between 2009 and 2015 to support education, extension, outreach, and technical assistance initiatives to help new and beginning farmers and ranchers.
NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education, and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges. For more information, visit www.nifa.usda.gov.