Goodbye concrete jungle. Hello sun, sand and soil.
Back in January, I fled the Big Apple in favor of the Ridge to Reef Farmer Residency at the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute in St. Croix. My fingertips itched to similarly abandon the keyboard in favor of warm soil and I knew it was time to enrich my knowledge of organic agriculture by actually farming. (Escaping one of New York’s worst winters ever turned out to be an added perk.) Personally, I have long felt connected to St. Croix -- nearly forty years ago, my mother spent a stint working there as an elementary school teacher. I know she looks fondly upon these years, and when I was finally off to see St. Croix for myself, I had no doubt a similar experience was in store. Soon I would be creating lifelong friendships from sunup to sunset, and enjoying the simple pleasures of life on the farm.
Looking back, it is difficult to encapsulate the entire experience, so instead, enjoy a snapshot of a day in my life on the farm. But first, a little background.
Ninety-nine percent of the food in St. Croix is imported. The shelves of the island’s four grocery stores are lined with packaged food and a meager selection of fresh produce. On the farm, we supplemented what we grew with expensive but necessary staples. That said, the island is actually a beautiful example of people coming together to take back their land for food security. Access to fresh local food on the island is crucial for health and food security as the island is incredibly vulnerable to hurricanes. One remarkable organization leading this movement is the Virgin Island Farmers Co-op, a farmers' cooperative working together to grow food to be sold at a weekly market. They have done extensive research to plan and budget to sell to the grocery stores on the island and select restaurants. St. Croix’s largest farmers' market is on Saturday in the center of the island, with local produce, fresh-caught fish and value-added products. (One of my favorite purchases was homemade coconut oil.) The Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute is 225 acres of agroforestry with ten percent annual production. The property is lined with fruit trees, two garden beds and two smaller herb gardens.
Caribbean Farming: A Typical Day at Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute
After a long day farming, that evening we drive down to catch the sunset over the piercing blue Caribbean water. The farm is on a ridge three miles above the ocean, and the rainforest road is steep. The first sight of blue melts my heart. In this moment, I realize that every input on the farm affects the waters down below.
My eyes slip open as the dawn breaks. A warm breeze blows across my face and the salt air tickles my nose. It’s still fairly dark and I stumble to find my headlamp and get dressed and make my way down the dirt path from my cabana to the community center. It’s early in my stay and I'm still in New York City mode, so I must remind myself to stop and take in the morning. New York City propels me forward constantly, but it’s also in my nature to behave this way. I pause, reminding myself to slow down, and spot five egrets on the pond peering out quietly from the eerie morning mist. At the community center, where we gather for meals, it’s my job this morning to make breakfast for my fellow farmers. On the harvest table lie two ripe papayas, and on our line of hanging bananas are many ready to be picked. Banana papaya muffins and (farm fresh) eggs it is.
After a hardy farmers' breakfast we gather as a group to decide what needs to be taken care of in the field, in addition to the usual daily tasks. For one, the baby chicks need new hay, food and water in their brooder. The sheep and goats need to be let out to rotationally graze the property, adding nutrients back to the soil and trimming the high guinea grass as part of the design of this permaculture farm. The sheep especially are easily startled, which can make this a frustrating task, and those who start their day shepherding know this act forces patience.
A few of us survey the greenhouse and the transplant tables to see which plants need to be placed in the bed. Others survey the field to see what needs to be watered, and any indication of bug infestation. Weed and pest control is a huge part of the morning. We notice the mustard greens have some aphids on them which means we need to spray with Mycotrol, a fungus (on the USDA approved list for certified organic farms) used to control the aphids that have appeared today. Routinely many of the greens got attacked by aphids and under organic methods, this fungus is quite effective in controlling the damage inflicted. Others get to hand weeding and using the hula hoe, a tool used to weed in between plants when there is still space, in the early stages of growth.
The garden is in its infancy at this point, and as a group, we are sowing the seeds of vegetables and herbs that will feed us in the coming weeks. From squash, to beets, to radishes, to mustard greens and kale – we witness life growing before our eyes everyday. Over the weeks, we quickly learned the key to organic farming is all about working with nature, not against it.
A few others harvest greens for the market in town that afternoon. We look down the list of online orders and grab baskets and scissors to cut arugula and various other greens. After the greens are cut, we wash, spin, weigh, bag and label. The gardens are drip irrigated but the herbs in the keyhole bed need to be hand watered. Additionally, we are transplanting cabbage, tatsoi, basil, sunflowers and zinnias today, which require a swale dug around the transplants to fill their young roots with plenty of water to counter the hot Caribbean sun. The tatsoi and cabbage are planted in a “three-two” pattern along the beds. Three plants in a line, and then two above, and so forth, all spaced nine inches apart to maximize space in the bed. New transplants are seeded and recorded, so we can track when they need to be placed in the field. Good record keeping in farming is essential.
Before long its lunchtime – the heat of the day and our growling stomachs drive us indoors for nourishment. For lunch we nosh on pigeon pea burgers, homemade moringa rolls and freshly picked arugula with basil papaya dressing. A work-filled morning followed by a great meal sends me straight to my hammock for a siesta.
The afternoon is spent collecting bamboo to construct trellises for five rows of tomatoes as the vines will soon be growing tall. By the time I leave to return to New York, the tomatoes will be full-sized but green.
After a long day of farming, that evening we drive down to catch the sunset over the piercing blue Caribbean water. The farm is on a ridge three miles above the ocean, and the rainforest road is steep. The first sight of blue melts my heart. In this moment, I realize that every input on the farm affect the waters down below. Protecting the ocean starts within this watershed and the hours we spent today farming organically become all the more apparent and crucial.
Although I was sad to leave this beautiful island after only two months, my desire to be an active participant in creating a more sustainable food system has only increased. My hands itch to return to the dirt. I have connected with the urban farming community in New York City, and helped out with a new farm project in Battery Park. I've been witness to the innovation of maximizing confined urban space to grow food and find it quite inspiring. After temporarily seeking greener pastures, I'm back and growing food in my beloved city. I know that my days of farming are just beginning, and there is still so much more to learn. I'm proud to count myself among the greenhorns, the new generation of young farmers working hard to break the chains of the industrial food system. I'll make it back to St. Croix someday, but for now there’s food to be grown in New York - and I'm more than happy to sow these seeds.