Farming in Caribbean Paradise

Okra, papaya, peppers, basil.

While St. Thomas boasts a twice-weekly farmers market, and St. Croix has a university that comes with an agricultural extension office, St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is sadly lacking in local farming activities. On the Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture’s website, under the heading “Fresh Produce Markets” for each of the three islands, St. John is there at the bottom, under the long lists of the other two islands, with only the hopeful words, “updates coming soon…” How is it possible that an island once completely overtaken by farms, has so little to offer in the way of local produce? To be fair, the farms were almost entirely growing sugarcane, run by foreign plantation owners and worked by slaves, but…they were still farming.

During my visit to this wonderful tropical paradise, I made my way to the only place on St. John where food is grown organically and sold locally: Coral Bay Garden Center and Farm. The “and Farm” part alludes to the somewhat after-thought nature of the farm. And although Josephine and Hugo Roller, the rugged owners of the garden center and farm, love farming and growing food, that part of their operation isn’t what pays the bills. It is indeed the garden center part, and their landscaping business, that subsidize the remainder of their business. For Josephine and Hugo, this is a family business. Hugo bought the land in the early 80’s with plans to work the land. He then went to Malaysia to learn organic farming techniques, and it was there that he met Josephine. They married and returned to St. John to start their dream.

Rows of arugula and tatsoi

To get to Coral Bay Garden Center and Farm, you take Route 10 across the island from Cruz Bay, and then take a right once you reach the bottom of the hill in Coral Bay where the bus stop is and a whole slew of signs (head towards Ms. Lucy’s and Salt Pond Bay). Go past the now-defunct Domino gas station and take a right where you see people hanging out on benches under a tree on the corner. Go past Love City, and it’s just up the road on the left. No ocean views, mostly protected from the trade winds – not a place for a vacation home, but perfect for a farm. Well, mostly perfect. The clay soil leaves much to be desired. The five acres they farm require constant attention, mulching, pest management, harvesting. They grow a variety of tropical fruits, such as star fruit, papaya, and mango. They also grow a wide variety of salad greens, such as tatsoi, arugula, beet greens, mustard greens, and several more. Among the neatly tended and thickly mulched rows, I also saw various kinds of peppers (sweet and hot), basil, tomatoes, cilantro, okra, peas, green beans, lemon grass, yucca, cucumbers, and dill. The Rollers sells primarily to local restaurants – those that are willing to pay top dollar for the only local organic produce to be found on St. John.

In talking with Josephine, who was in the midst of potting cuttings of Crown of Thorns (Euphorbia splendens), she was a bit melancholic about the state of farming affairs on the island. She and Hugo are older, “retired” she claimed, although they work seven days a week. She grows food because she loves to, but she feels that it’s a labor of love, more like a community service than actual employment. Land is expensive, labor is expensive, inputs are expensive ~ all factors working against small farmers, Josephine said. She was fairly certain that when she and Hugo finally do retire, that will be the end of local produce on St. John. But, seeing as her 80-something-year-old uncle is still out in the fields stringing up the green beans, it may be a good while yet before St. John loses its last true farmers. And in the mean time, perhaps someone will come along ready to pick up that community service job.

Star fruit, Averrhoa carambola.
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3 Comments Add yours

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