RAFI Expands Service to U.S. Caribbean Territories

Filling a Need in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico

 RAFI-USA Staff Carolina Alzate-Gouzy, Jaimie McGirt, and Executive Director Edna Rodriguez visit Puerto Rico in support of conservation technical assistance work in the U.S. territories

In recognition of the inadequate and inequitable distribution of resources within U.S. territories’ agricultural systems, in 2021, RAFI-USA began cultivating relationships with several non-profits who are driving grassroots agriculture advocacy work in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) and Puerto Rico (PR). When RAFI-USA entered into a cooperative agreement with USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), partnerships were formalized with the Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition in St. Croix USVI and Alliance for Agriculture in PR. This agreement enables us to work with these groups to strengthen technical assistance programs in support of producers with place-based or culturally appropriate farm conservation strategies and to help farmers apply to USDA NRCS programs for on-farm conservation efforts. Additionally, the visits were designed to inform farmers about RAFI-USA’s Farmers of Color Network, through which several grants were awarded last year to farmers in the territories. This winter, Edna Rodriguez, RAFI-USA Executive Director, and several staff members visited with the USVI and PR partners to get an on-the-ground look at issues faced by farmers there. In this blog, we’ll share some stories about the purpose, learnings, and outcomes of these visits. 

U.S. Virgin Islands — St. Croix

In December, RAFI-USA team members traveled to St. Croix for a deeper dive into the partnership with Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition (GFC). The agrarian and farm production context on an island that is approximately 84 square miles is vastly different than in mainland Southeast U.S., where RAFI-USA is also working under the same NRCS Cooperative agreement. Visiting St. Croix provided us with a context that has already proved beneficial, not only for RAFI-USA’S Resources for Resilient Farms project (see our website) but for federal policy advocacy and infrastructure re-granting alike.

On St. Croix, the trip began with a historical driving tour led by GFC staff which helped us gain a better understanding of the social, environmental, and economic factors affecting the island’s food system and efforts for food sovereignty. The Indigenous and colonized histories of the island, current U.S. governing structures and underrepresentation as a territory, trends in agriculture land ownership, effects of hurricanes and climate disasters, dynamics of tourism and oil refinery industries, and supply chain challenges all feed into the equation that demonstrates the critical need for resources to support farm resiliency.

In 45 minutes, we drove from the Western beaches and dense, tropical rainforest to the furthest east side of St. Croix: Point Udall, which is, in fact, the easternmost point of the entire U.S.

In such a short span, it was evident which farms faced arid conditions, seasonal fires, shortening water tables and well-water salinization — and which farms faced flooding, soil erosion, severe pest pressure, and transportation access challenges. And regardless of topography, all farmers shared some struggles in common: lack of access to land ownership, supply chain gaps, and the effort it takes to innovate within a food system in which 98% of food is imported. 

Despite these intensifying challenges, GFC and farmers in St. Croix are actively asserting themselves as land stewards and market innovators. For example, when the beach restaurant “Sandcatles” experiences a shortage of imported salad greens, GFC draws a direct line to a local Crucian (native of St. Croix) lettuce farmer. Where wells can no longer be drilled or soil erosion is rampant, farmers are slowing and redistributing water on their landscape by capturing rooftop rainwater in self designed-systems, irrigating efficiently, mulching, terracing, and building hugelkultur beds (mounded garden beds made from rotten logs and plant debris, topped with compost, soil, and mulch). The significance of on-farm conservation in the USVI is this: farmers are stewarding not only the land they own or manage, but also the resources “downstream” of them, which is exactly what GFC, RAFI-USA, and NRCS want to further support by reducing financial barriers that stand in their way.

While the NRCS EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) program can provide cost-share support for farmers who plan to remediate resource concerns on agricultural land, the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) rewards producers who are already proactively conserving resources with a small annual payment. While RAFI-USA’s Resources for Resilient Farms project aims to engage farmers in NRCS EQIP, we also want to increase awareness and participation in CSP, so that more farmers of color receive credit for their conservation efforts long at work and so that they benefit from CSP’s financial reward. 

Jaimie McGirt, manager of RAFI-USA’s NRCS technical assistance, says there are documented cases of NRCS discouraging farmers from participating in CSP. “In mainland U.S. states, I have visited farmers of color who are proactively conserving resources on their crop or pasture land but were discouraged by their local NRCS to enroll in CSP without first getting experience with an NRCS contract through EQIP. The Resources for Resilient Farms project with GFC in St. Croix aims to support farmers as they seek assistance for farm conservation, and informs them on how they might qualify for CSP and EQIP. Visiting a few farms with active conservation efforts and needs was a priority for RAFI-USA’s trip, and having the opportunity to meet NRCS Caribbean Area staff on one of those farms — and witness their team’s approach to CSP — was very encouraging.

Mr. Burton, a teacher and professional engineer, farms perennial fruits and annual vegetables in the east-central region and prioritizes soil and water conservation. Upon seeing his efforts to terrace beds, mulch his crops under cardboard, and utilize rainfall in a self-built rooftop rainwater catchment structure built to NRCS specifications, NRCS Caribbean Area Director Luis Cruz-Arroyo and USVI District Conservationist Rudy O’Reilly said Mr. Burton would be a great candidate for CSP. The proof was in the pudding: when he pulled back the cardboard and dug his spade into the terraced turmeric bed, the soil was rich looking: moist, dark, and with a good, loose structure. O’Reilly noted that cardboard is a common mulch material in USVI because it’s easily available, free, and does a decent job. Jaimie asked Mr. Burton if the wind was any issue with his mulching system and he said, “once it’s wet and molds to the ground, it’s not a problem.” NRCS proposing the incentive program to the farmer rather than steering them away from it was perhaps the most inspiring part of the trip. 

Visiting ARTfarm in the arid south-east of the island, we could see another example of farm resiliency: ARTfarm is downright resourceful when it comes to conserving natural resources, infusing NGO and federal resources on farmland, and diversifying production. This small family farm is brimming with diversity above and below ground, maintains a thriving on-farm retail customer base, and has become an experimental ground for site-specific problem solving: rotational grazing fencing systems, native tree and shrub establishment, mulching, micro-mister irrigation systems, and a black soldier fly incubator. In a closed-loop farm input strategy, black soldier fly larvae use food waste to produce nutrient-dense feed inputs for poultry and reduce farm costs. Food waste is dropped into a barrel daily, and as black soldier flies are attracted to the waste and breed, the larvae try to escape through a hole in the barrel but fall into a can, being trapped and becoming feed. 

Beyond farm visits, GFC and RAFI-USA team members planned and hosted a Resources for Resilient Farms outreach event to publicly launch GFC’s technical assistance program, continued to extend the Farmers of Color Network to USVI farmers, and engage farmers with NRCS of the Caribbean Area. NRCS Caribbean Area Director Luis Cruz-Arroyo and USVI District Conservationist Rudy O’Reilly joined the event to present the voluntary program opportunities and the practices commonly implemented and cost-shared in the U.S. Virgin Islands. After a dramatic decrease in EQIP and CSP contracts in USVI in 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, contracts and awarded funds are increasing and NRCS wants to reach even more historically underserved farmers and ranchers for stronger conservation outcomes on a vulnerable island. Over 50 farmers attended the event, growing engagement with Good Food Coalition, RAFI-USA’s Farmers of Color Network, and NRCS. 

Puerto Rico

NRCS presentation and activity with PR farmers in the Organic Farmer´s Market in Placita Roosevelt, San Juan, Puerto Rico

RAFI-USA staff also had a fruitful trip meeting with farmers and partners in Puerto Rico. There were three main objectives for visiting: to strengthen our relationship with our NRCS project partners, Alliance for Agriculture (AFA), to align strategies for more farmers to have access to NRCS programs, and to create connections between PR farmers and the Farmers of Color Network. Mission accomplished! By meeting in person with farmers, NRCS staff, and AFA staff, we formed relationships that will facilitate our working together to build more bridges between the mainland U.S. and PR.

We visited several farms to understand their challenges as well as the admirable agroecological collectives they are a part of that employ a systemic approach to improving the local food system from diverse perspectives.

Orocovis, Puerto Rico farmer, Esli shows RAFI-USA staff his tomato varieties, grown for niche markets like hotels and restaurants.

Agroecology, as a set of practices and social movement, is alive and well on the island. We learned about different agroecological techniques and diverse horticultural and fruit production activities that small farmers develop locally, but also learned about the island’s major challenge: to gain the sovereignty to produce and consume their own food. Other major challenges include hurricanes and climate change. We could testify how Fiona left damage that farmers are still struggling to overcome. During our visit to the Organic Farmers Market in San Juan, we participated in an activity that allowed us to identify, together with farmers, some crucial conservation practices that fit well with agroecology and that can be supported by NRCS: tree/shrub pruning and establishment, upland wildlife habitat management, restoration and management of rare habitats, waterholes, irrigation system installation, living barriers against the wind, mulching or ground cover, residue management and tillage, direct tillage, crop rotation, herding, planting trees in critical areas, and use of vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides, a perennial grass) for erosion control.

In education, we learned about the no-cost agroecological courses offered by farmers to farmers, in which each farmer has a specific number of students and they together learn about agroecological practices on the farmer’s farm. We also visited the rural education project Campo Sofia in Utuado, an economically accessible educational option for farmers’ children. The initiative seeks to stimulate repopulation and opportunities in rural areas of the country. Their approach is inspired by Waldorf education and biodynamic agriculture.

We saw examples of cooperative work at Cooperativa Orgánica Madre Tierra, a farmer coop that provides educational and marketing training for agroecological farmers who sell their products in the Organic Market of Placita Roosevelt (also organized by the cooperative), the first organic farmers market in San Juan. We also met members of the Cooperativa de Porcicultores de Puerto Rico, a pork coop that integrates more than 70 small pork producers as they work to maintain sovereignty through local pork production with a high-quality product. 

Open classroom in Campo Sofia, a rural education project in Utuado, PR. An economically accessible educational option for farmers’ children.

As for market innovations, we were impressed by Puerto Rico Produce, a group of entrepreneurs who share a great passion for food and are reconnecting communities with local producers. They are giving easy and direct access to local products through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), an online market, and a restaurant Cocina Abierta, where local farmers’ ingredients are transformed into high-end gastronomic cuisine. There is also a promising project, Fideicomiso de Tierras Comunitarias para la Agricultura Sostenible (The Community Land Trust for Sustainable Agriculture), that aims to secure the perpetual use of arable land as communal assets for the rural residents of Puerto Rico and promote food sovereignty by promoting sustainable, ecological agriculture practices.

Between these trips and the technical assistance extended to farmers since the start of the project by Good Food Coalition and Alliance for Agriculture, the RAFI-USA and NRCS cooperative agreement partnership shows promise of more farmers accessing financial support for farm viability and natural resource conservation. Whether it’s publicly funded cost-share assistance or private philanthropic infrastructure funds (or a combination of the two as a bridge), the role of trusted local partners is crucial in order to connect with and support the farming community.

We at RAFI-USA appreciated the hospitality and thoughtful sharing of both the unique issues faced by our U.S. Caribbean territory partners and the incredible assets in these island communities. 

ANNOUNCEMENT: 2024 Beginning Farmer Stipends are Here! APPLY NOW!