Feeding the Virgins

The US Virgin Islands are vulnerable to food shortages, but two innovative agricultural projects are getting things growing.

Published July 17, 2017

In the US Virgin Islands (USVI), dense green vegetation and turquoise waters suggest a land of plenty, where the tropical sun allows crops to grow year round. But the verdant landscape belies a simple truth: food shortage is a constant threat.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, residents of the USVI import more than 97 percent of their food. The situation leaves the islands highly vulnerable to any shocks in global food systems. Changing commodity prices, influenced by global politics, affect production costs for farmers and food prices for consumers. And even simple logistical challenges, such as bad weather, can delay shipments, cutting off access to food or causing it to spoil in transit.

This problem is not limited to the USVI. Among the world’s 26 small island developing states that, like the USVI, receive significant revenue from tourism, an average of 50 to 90 percent of food is imported, and global shocks such as the 2008 financial crisis have had marked effects on food security.

In the USVI, entrepreneurs on neighboring islands—St. Croix and St. Thomas—are taking wholly different approaches to fighting food insecurity.

On St. Croix, Ridge to Reef farm takes a low-tech, traditional approach to agriculture. The farm’s owners, Shelli Olive, a fifth-generation USVI farmer, and her husband, Nate, operate the Virgin Islands’ only US Department of Agriculture (USDA)-certified organic farm. Founded in 2010, the farm’s commitment to the environment extends beyond the USDA’s requirements, also adhering to the Green Globe standards for sustainable ecotourism as the farm welcomes tourists. Driven by the desire to protect the island’s coastal ecosystem, they operate off-grid, take measures to prevent harmful agricultural runoff, and rotate mixed crops to protect soil quality.

The farm runs a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program that delivers food across the Virgin Islands. But Ridge to Reef’s largest client is a federally-funded school lunch program—the Farm to School initiative.

Nate Olive explains that the Virgin Islands is a small market, and the school program “means everything” to farmers like him. The program came along at an especially opportune time—in 2012 just as a local oil refinery closed and the subsequent job loss cut his CSA membership by half. He says the school lunch initiative provides a consistent market for local farmers.

Meanwhile, on neighboring St. Thomas, Ken Neilson hopes that modern engineering can solve the islands’ food problems. His company, Crate Crops VI, is a hydroponic farming start-up that grows fresh produce in a high-tech shipping container.

According to Neilson, who cofounded the company when he moved to St. Thomas in 2013, his 30-square-meter hydroponic system can grow as much produce as a conventional acre of land while using 90 percent less water.

The start-up had its first crop in July 2016, and within 100 days had already sold out its harvests to 10 different restaurants. Today, the farm offers 15 varieties of leafy greens, including Swiss chard, bok choy, several types of lettuce, and various herbs—some of which were planted at the specific request of the restaurants they serve.

Neilson is encouraged by the success of his project and excited by the challenges of disruptive innovation. “I’ve always been interested in what’s popping up and changing the status quo,” he says. And so far, he seems to be doing exactly that: his business has provided a new source of local, fresh vegetables for the restaurant and tourism industries on St. Thomas, and he is in talks to provide crate-to-table produce to several high-end resorts.

That neither Crate Crops VI nor Ridge to Reef sell their produce directly to consumers in the islands’ supermarkets speaks to one of the main challenges of farming on the USVI. “There’s not enough agricultural support infrastructure in place,” says Stuart Weiss, an agronomy professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. He notes that limiting factors for farmers include difficulties accessing capital, high costs of production, challenges with distribution, and the lack of value-added processing.

Ultimately, the barriers to island food security all come down to human decisions, according to Weiss. “There’s more than enough land to increase agricultural production,” he says. “If there were proper government incentives or programs in place, it would be a whole lot more appealing to start a business.”

But the territory’s government, burdened with a US $6.5-billion debt, is unlikely to be able to subsidize local production. In the meantime, small farmers like Neilson and the Olives will continue to grow their crops and contribute to the island’s local food systems, each in their own way.