The Farming Life

The Farming Life

Story by Claudia Colli

Farmers, Farming and the VI's Agricultural Heritage


BVI fruits and vegetablesApricot-hued papayas, green mangos speckled with russet red, tawny pineapples, and spinach, a deep forest green. These are the colors of the BVI’s agricultural heritage, one still carried on by a small but dedicated group of Virgin Islands farmers.


“I love farming as a way of life; it makes you independent and the local economy strong,” says Benjamin Peters who has lived in the BVI for 44 years and made farming a lifelong career. “I learned quality farming in St. Vincent from my father, who was a great farmer,” he adds proudly. Benjamin grows tropical fruits, eggplant, squash, pumpkin, and other produce at a plot at Paraquita Bay near the Agricultural Station, and is among a number of local farmers committed to raising and selling fresh organic produce.


Along with other farmers here in the VI, Peters is maintaining a centuries old way of life. These islands were originally settled by native tribes from the South American Orinoco Basin, who travelled up the Caribbean by canoe settling here around 600 AD. Initially hunter-gatherers, who fished and collected seafood from the shore, they later planted root crops like cassava and sweet potato – staple crops native to the Americas.


By the time the English arrived in the middle of the 17th century, the Amerindians were gone, but in their wake, the islands’ steep hills and fertile valleys proved ideal for plantation agriculture. These new settlers planted cotton and sugarcane, both important commodities for the export market; livestock and garden plots provided the food they needed for themselves and the African slaves that worked the plantations.


All that changed in 1834 with Emancipation. Within a few decades the planters had left the islands, and the plantations that they left behind were subdivided and sold at nominal cost to the newly freed slaves. Farming here was never lucrative, but people got by, growing root crops along with an abundance of tropical fruit including mangos, soursop, mammy apples, breadfruit, bananas and plantain. Some produce was taken by island sloop to markets in neighboring St. Thomas. But it was also sold in Road Town’s Market Square, which prior to the reclamation of Road Harbour in the late 1960s, was located on the waterfront near the site of the present day Sir Olva Georges Plaza. Situated adjacent to the ferry dock, the area bustled with activity. Fishermen sold their fresh catch straight from boats tied to the dock, and vendors sold their produce from baskets and cartons resting on the ground nearby.


Rufus Dawson, an 81-year-old farmer, grew up in Georges Hollow in the fertile farming land above Road Town. When he was a schoolboy, going to market was the highlight of his week. “We raised cows,” he explains, “and I would walk to town on Saturdays to sell milk.” He also sold fresh produce at the market including mangos, bananas and soursop. In return, he says, “I would buy a treat like a tart, a pudding or a patty. Sometimes I would exchange some of the goods for fish. This is the way we bought and sold goods, there was no other way to sell things except at the market.”


Photo courtesy of Penny HaycraftPenny Haycraft, who moved to Tortola from England with her husband Peter in 1960, has preserved much of mid-20th century life through her invaluable photographic collection. The images, some her own, some taken by other BVI residents, have preserved a visual record of the Road Town market, along with many other aspects of BVI life in the 1950s and ‘60s.


“Back in the day, the market was where everyone went to get fresh food,” recalls Penny who went there to buy fresh produce, as well as meat from Mr. Martin, the butcher. At a time when there were few paved roads and even fewer vehicles, most people walked to market, while others came by donkey. “Market was a big occasion, and along with church, it was the main social event of the week. I was privileged to see it before it all disappeared,” she says.


In 1968 approximately 60 acres of Road Harbour was reclaimed creating the area now known as Wickhams Cay. At the same time, a new road was built along the Road Town shoreline, also on reclaimed land. No longer on the waterfront, the market by the jetty soon ceased operation.


Eventually, a covered open-air market was erected near the roundabout and a new market tradition was launched. “It was packed, packed, packed on Saturday mornings, and it was always best to get there early,” says Benjamin Peters, who sold his goods there, until in need of an upgrade, it too closed. Earlier this year, through a Department of Trade initiative, the market was repaired, repainted and reopened with the Department of Agriculture in charge of managing the space.


From the market to local agricultural and food fairs, to grocery stores and even online – VI farmers now market their goods to consumers in a variety of ways. Farmer’s Week held each February showcases agricultural products from throughout the islands with awards given to both produce and livestock.


On an island with capricious rainfall, voracious insects and rock strewn soil, farming is hard work. But ask a farmer like Vinni Wilkins, who has farmed in the BVI for 12 years why she does it, and she will tell you it’s not about the work, but rather the satisfaction of providing islanders with good and wholesome food. “Eating fresh produce grown on the island is healthy,” she says. “Rather than putting it on an airplane or a boat, ours is fresh from the ground to the table.”


Others echo the same sentiment. Perhaps the Virgin Islands most well known farmer is Movine Fahie, an award winning farmer with a six-acre farm at Paraquita Bay on Tortola’s East End. She promotes local farming wherever she can, including at the BVI’s August Festival parade where she can often be seen bedecked in traditional dress and a headdress of fruit and vegetables. Her Road Town stand is a cornucopia of her homegrown cucumbers, bananas, eggplant, squash and okra, among other produce. Selestina Parker another familiar face around the Road Town market scene sells produce that she has purchased from local farmers and from her garden at East End. “I have always grown produce and I have always sold it,” she says with pride.


Aragorn Dick-Read, an artist known for his large filigreed fireballs and copper sculptures of suns, whales and sunflowers, is also an avid farmer who has a fertile plot of land on a terraced hillside on Tortola’s north shore. An advocate for local farming, Dick-Read’s Good Moon Farm specializes in wholly organic produce which can be purchased at his shop and art studio at Trellis Bay on Beef Island, and online at his website goodmoonfarm.com.


“It’s a good feeling to be a farmer on Tortola,” says Leslie “Mr. Volcano” Greene, a Montserrat native who has farmed in the BVI for 18 years. It’s a sentiment echoed by the Virgin Islands’ many farmers who are promoting locally grown farm to table food.