March 20, 2002 – Farmers, V.I. Agriculture Department officials and lawmakers found a meeting ground at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Tuesday on a bill to place a cap of $7.50 per acre per year on the leasing of V.I. land for agricultural use.
The current lease rate is $30 per acre on St. Croix and $50 per acre on St. Thomas.
Some farmers argued for the reduction while others said they could make do with the current rate or something in between. Agriculture Commissioner Henry Schuster said cutting the rate by three-quarters and more would severely reduce his department's revenues and this would greatly impact on services.
After hearing the testimony, the committee amended the bill to substitute a graduated rate scale of not more than $20 per acre for plots of one to five acres, and of not more than $15 per acre for six or more acres. If approved, the legislation would become effective June 1.
Six farmers testified that due to drought conditions, theft of livestock, dietary changes resulting in a decline in meat consumption and competing large grocery outlets, it is difficult for those who lease more than 10 acres to pay the present annual rate of $30 per acre.
One cattle farmer said he had no problem paying the previous rate of $15 per acre but said he needed help to locate markets for his product. Fernando Bermudez, who has grazed cattle in Mon Bijou pastures for more than 40 years, said he sometimes goes six months without selling any beef.
Bermudez, 79, said he has been a farmer by choice all his life, following in the footsteps of his parents, who came to the Virgin Islands from Vieques. He said he feels insulted when grocers bid below the local market value for his livestock. For him it shows a lack of appreciation for the time and resources put into the product that he offers.
"The big supermarket wants to offer $250," he said. "One was fresh [demeaning] and offered me $90." He said grocers can by cheap meat imports from Mexico, where "$250 will bring them a lot."
Samuel Moore showed the senators an 18-inch long papaya as an example of the produce he cultivates to make up for a lack of revenue from livestock production. "We need to have a market so that we know that a certain amount of products will be sold," he said. He, too, said he could manage at the former lease rate of $15 per acre.
To ensure a healthy product, "I still spray my animals every two weeks," he said. And he said he buys grain weekly and does not rely solely on pasture grass for the livestock's dietary needs.
On St. Croix, the Agriculture Department leases nearly 1,800 acres of land to 119 farmers who raise livestock and/or food crops on the 125 plots that are leased out of the 141 available. One plot is for the Anti-Litter and Beautification Commission's greenhouse program; another is reserved for a planned agricultural village. Thirty-nine percent of the farmers have 20-year leases; the others have temporary land-use permits, which are given to persons with less than 5 acres.
On St. Thomas, the department leases about 135 acres to 58 farmers who use 14 plots for livestock and 45 plots for crop production.
Agriculture Commissioner Henry Schuster said reducing lease fees from $30 to $7.50 per acre would have a severe impact on his agency's revenues, and thus on its services. When all available land is leased now, he said, "the St. Croix district can potentially receive $53,392.53 in rental charges. Should the proposed rate reduction take place, the rental income will be reduced to $13,498.13."
Land-rental revenues go into the Agriculture Revolving Fund, which is used to provide support services for farmers through the purchase of equipment such as tractors and parts for them and farm supplies such as fertilizer, along with fruit trees, seeds and maintenance for heavy equipment.
"I do not see the fee reduction as the best means of achieving this outcome," Schuster said. "Large farmers do not rely heavily on the V.I. Department of Agriculture. The bill would not benefit the small farmers." He said the bill would restrict his ability to expand the department's services.
James Hamilton, an Estate Bethlehem farmer, submitted a letter in support of the present $30 lease rate. "The sale of one cattle or four to six pigs is usually enough to pay for my land," he wrote.
A recent study conducted by a University of West Virginia researcher and personnel from the University of the Virgin Islands Agricultural Experiment Station found that the annual yield per acre can be $2,000 for sheep, $1,500 for goats and $1,100 for cattle.
Assistant Attorney General Joseph Ponteen, representing Property and Procurement Commissioner Marc Biggs, said the rates currently charged per acre are "fair and reasonable. Given the other subsidized services offered by the Department of Agriculture, it is clear that $30 and $50 per acre, over the period of a year, is affordable."
Views opposing the bill did not sit well with the Finance Committee chair, Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, who accused the Agriculture Department of falling short on the marketing of local produce. "Are we marketing their produce?" she asked Schuster, citing a legislative mandate that the department to provide technical and marketing services. "If there is no market for their produce, how are we helping them?"
Schuster said the department received $250,000 from the Legislature to begin a marketing program. He said the UVI Cooperative Extension Service has agreed to assist farmers with seed selection, land preparation, crop variety planning and other technical services. His department's only technical staff are a horticulturist and a veterinarian, he said.
Referring to the farmers, Hansen told Schuster, "If you create the market, the government can realize a return through taxes and revenues derived from their increased production and profits."
Schuster said the compromise would mean a loss of about $18,000, but the Finance Committee agreed to factor that into the department's budget for the next fiscal year.
Moore said the compromise "is satisfactory for me. The savings will be a great help. It's a good thing."
Nelson and Linda Morales, who raise cattle on more than 75 leased acres, applauded Schuster for his support but said they are considering reducing the size of their grazing land. "We have a large number of acres, and a couple thousand dollars a year could make a big difference per year,"she said.
All committee members present — Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., Donald "Ducks" Cole, Carlton Dowe, Hansen and Norma Pickard-Samuel — agreed to the amendment and approved the bill. Two other members, Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Norman Jn Baptiste, were excused.
Publisher's note : Like the St. Croix Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.