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Farmers Cooperative Intent on Restoring Agriculture to Its Glory Days

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Jan. 25, 2007 — Livestock farmers Dale and Yvette Browne continue to push forward with their dream of making agriculture the mainstay it was more than 40 years ago on St. Croix, which was once known as the "breadbasket of the territory."
On Thursday, surrounded by other executive board members of the V.I. Farmers Cooperative (VIFC), the couple welcomed residents and other farmers to an open house at the agency's Estate Richmond office.
The building is the former medical office of Delegate Donna Christensen, who donated the office space to the group.
In September 2006 Christensen announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development section awarded VIFC a grant of nearly $173,000 to develop a marketing and business plan in order to determine the economic feasibility for dairy farm activities and production of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Named 2006 Livestock Farmers of the Year during the Agricultural and Food Fair, the Brownes in 2005 were instrumental in launching the cooperative, which includes farmers from both St. Thomas and St. Croix. To date, there are 65 members, he said.
Active farmers wishing to become members of the group can join as a "full member" with voting rights, and nonfarmers can join as "associate members." There are minimal fees associated with memberships, according to Yvette Browne.
Those in attendance Thursday night were treated to a potluck dinner, made possible by group members. Dale Browne told the small crowd gathered at the agency's new office that he strongly believes that agriculture can work again on St. Croix.
"We want to reverse 40 years of agriculture being behind," he said. "We want to develop farming, not just as a hobby, but as a business."
The group has established a newsletter, "The Cooperative News," and recently launched its website: www.vifarmerscoop.org, where interested parties can find farming information.
Dale Browne also introduced Samuel Scott, whose Global Strategies Group, is conducting the feasibility study. Scott, who holds doctorate in economics, later introduced Mark Michael and Deidra Parish, both of Tuskegee Institute, who will be conducting engineering portions of the study.
Scott said that agriculture can rebound in the Virgin Islands. "It's not a question of can they do it, it's a question of how they do it," he said of the cooperative, adding that were it not for dreamers there would not be a Golden Gate Bridge in California and other undertakings that at first seemed implausible.
He urged residents and politicians alike to support the cooperative.
"This is perhaps the last time St. Croix has to integrate modern agriculture into the sector everybody loves and is pushing, which is tourism," he said, adding that more and more islands are finding a niche in eco- and agro-tourism.
There are various entrepreneurial projects that could be borne from a coalition of tourism and agriculture, Scott said.
"If you do 10 percent of what's in the plan, everybody associated with this project will be better off," he said.
The feasibility study is to be completed by Sept. 30, according to Dale Browne. In the meantime, the group will begin its training of farmers, as the grant mandates.
Beginning next month the cooperative will sponsor the first of three courses for farmers at the University of the Virgin Islands. The first six-week course, from Feb. 5 to March 24, will be crop production. The second course, also six weeks, will be on livestock production, but a specific date has not yet been set. A third course on farm management, will be taught over a 12-week period in two phases. The first phase will be about using computers in farming, while the second will teach farmers financial-management skills. The course is free to farmers in the cooperative; nonmembers will be required to pay a small fee.
Browne, who said his parents farmed for 30 years until their deaths, began farming in 1994 as a hobby and as a tradition to pass on to his three children.
Although the children soon tired of farming, the Brownes realized that they could make a business out of it.
More than a decade later they are crossbreeding local goats with South African breeds. This has developed a thick, meaty goat that reaches full size in half the time of local goats, while remaining adapted to local conditions and vegetation. The couple also sells the meat from the goats. It was during that time that the idea for the cooperative was born.
The Brownes believed that with the proper marketing, technical training and government assistance, the agricultural industry could take off and provide local foods that could make the Virgin Islands more self-sufficient as opposed to importing millions of dollars in food each year.
After local dairy farms closed up shop last year due to stricter food codes by the Food and Drug Administration, the Brownes pursued the reopening of the dairy farm.
Sen. Juan Figueroa Serville, who was on hand Thursday evening for the open house, pledged his support of the project. "Agriculture is the sleeping giant that will wake up the St. Croix economy and help it rebound," Serville said. He added that Ronald Schang, representing Gov. John deJongh Jr., also pledged the administration's support.
Schang, who said he also raised livestock, painted a scenario in which the territory could be held hostage, considering the Middle East crisis, with no ships bringing in imported goods.
"We really have to start thinking about agriculture here," so that we could self-sufficient," he said.
Dr. Ralph deChabert, a member of the cooperative, recalled getting up at 3 a.m. when he was a 14-year-old teenager to milk cows before heading to school.
He said that back then "there were more cattle on the island than people," and agriculture was all that people talked about. Today, however, he said there is little mention of it.
"I was very impressed with this group, and I felt that with them, agriculture will have a voice," he said.
DeChabert, who acknowledged that a constant water source has long been a problem for St. Croix farmers, suggested that the V.I. Waste Management Authority find a way to channel wastewater to be used for farming.
May Adams Cornwall, the authority's executive director and also a cooperative trustee, said that she is already looking into ways that wastewater can be use for farming.
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