Senators grill DOA over state of agriculture and debate bills on agriculture and tourism
The Committee on Economic Development, Regulations, and Agriculture chaired by Sen. Allison L. DeGazon, met to move bills focused on agriculture and also receive a status update on the state of agriculture in the Virgin Islands.
The committee began on Tuesday by voting on Bill No. 33-0229—sponsored by Sen. Dwayne DeGraff—which is an act amending title 3, chapter 17, section 291 of the Virgin Islands Code by replacing supervision and control of existing water catchment areas under the Department of Agriculture to be used for agricultural purposes; and amending Title 30, chapter 3, subchapter II, section 66 of the Virgin Islands Code, by relieving the Commissioner of Health from the responsibility for protection of water catchment areas and placing the responsibility upon the Commissioner of Agriculture.
According to DeGraff” “There are great water facilities holding stagnant water and garnering mosquitos that can be repurposed for agriculture. The bill is simple, to turn over the water catchments to the Department of Agriculture.”
However, Department of Agriculture Commissioner Positive Nelson noted that because of the necessary requirements to maintain water catchments it is best to give oversight to the V.I. Water and Power Authority and the V.I. Fire Department.
The Department of Health was also against the bill and insisted that the Department of Health maintained authority.
The Bill was ultimately held in committee.
The committee also received operational updates from the Department of Agriculture, to include staffing, funding, the abattoir and more.
Though the 33rd legislature commended the department for their work with the 2020 Agriculture Fair, they expected more when it came to its operational status.
Questions from senators revealed that it was clear DOA fell short on filling vacancies, purchasing equipment, preparing land for farmers, offering more training and other key operational needs.
“When we get a presentation like this it is disheartening,” she said. “I must say you have given a lot of information, but it’s piecemealed.”
Other senators to include Senate President Novelle Francis and Senators Marvin Blyden and Athneil Thomas shared DeGazon’s sentiments.
“I am somewhat discouraged by the information trail that’s before us today,” Francis said.
During Nelson’s testimony, he shared that as of February 14th, Abattoirs are on a 120-day voluntary suspension after the Abattoirs received seventeen Non-Regulatory Citations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and DOA is currently addressing challenges. The citations, according to Nelson, date back to 2019, but he hopes to have the abattoirs reopened as soon as possible after making necessary repairs.
“We’re hopeful that in short order we can have these two abattoirs ready and we can ask them to go ahead and reinstate our status,” Nelson said. The 17 citations he said, also were not the same as the other 43 issues that needed to be addressed based on an outreach inspection by USDA officials from Puerto Rico.
Meanwhile DOA also had over a dozen vacancies that needed to be filled.
The update, DeGazon said, was “dismal,” however she believes that the grilling the Department received from the senators would serve as encouragement.
“They (DOA) can only go up from here. We’re available for support, and much can be done through working sessions and interagency meetings to move Nelson’s and the Department of Agriculture’s agenda forward,” DeGazon said.
Lastly, the committee voted favorably for a bill that would create a symposium dedicated to expanding the reach and tourism product of agriculture in the Virgin Islands.
Bill No. 33-0249, sponsored by Sen. Javan James and DeGazon, is An Act amending Title 7, Chapter I, Subchapter II, section 9 of the Virgin Islands Code by adding a new subsection (i) mandating the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Tourism to host an Agricultural symposium known as the V.I Agricultural Caribbean Symposium, alternately and annually on the islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John.
The Department of Tourism was in support of the bill, noting that “The inaugural symposia could play a huge role in cementing the role of agritourism and to educate all sectors about the value-added components each subsector brings. Showcasing and exploiting the indispensable linkages between agriculture and tourism and creating a new and sustainable path for agriculture in the Territory, are equally important.”
Commissioner Nelson, was also in favor of the bill, however proposed that a funding source be identified and also that the event be remained as a “conference” instead of a “symposium.”
DeGazon said when Sen. James approached her with the idea for the bill, she was elated to join him as a primary sponsor.
“We are now going to take agriculture to another level which is to host a conference where people from all over the world can learn about agriculture in the Territory. The goal is to turn this into an agri-business conference and showcase local cuisine and produce,” DeGazon said. “Agritourism adds another exciting and innovative layer to tourism and agriculture.”
The bill was forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.