While Ridge to Reef Farm's diversity maintains, specialty crops come behind the rains (or How a grass-roots inter-island community organic food system saved the day)
(FREDERIKSTED) THE NOVEMBER & DECEMBER RAINS made annual crop planting tricky this year for all the farmers on St. Croix, particularly on the rainy western end. While the tropical seasonings, greens, and fruits have faired quite well, the more tender types have proven less vigorous in the harsher than normal conditions. Yet despite the challenges, Ridge to Reef Farm in the "rainforest" of Frederiksted, who is the USVI's USDA certified organic farm, was buoyed by a strategy of production diversity and is now seeing an explosion of new "favorite" crops entering the market successively, starting this week.
Many of our fellow farmers on St. Croix have reported some heartbreaking stories of complete losses on early planted tomatoes, cucumbers, and other crops that are typically suited for temperate environments and were beaten down early. Sweet potatoes and other leafy crops also have taken a hit, first from the constantly saturating record-setting rain, and then the subsequent population booms of aphids and caterpillars which laid many salad and greens fields to waste -despite the best in organic defense methods. While these products are slower to come this year, R2R and other farms have been dutifully planting successive sets of crops that are now coming strong to fruition as the more standard winter season weather has set in over our farmlands. Fortunately, R2R waited for proper soil moisture to prepare fields after the rains, which resulted in few direct losses from rain but added a 2-3 week delay to some of the more favored crop plantings.
The first few weeks of the 2014 Winter Virgin Island CSA season featured hearty annuals such as large bok choy, eggplants, kale, radishes, peppers, various herbs, sorrel (roselle), basils, and more. These first shares were bolstered by the reliable regional tropical plants, such as the ever-popular moringa leaves and flowers, chaya, culantro, lemongrass, sour oranges, bananas, dwarf coconuts, and nopales.
Thanks to our diverse planting strategy, there still was an abundance of choice high-quality certified organic food to provide the membership, despite the mainstay annual crop delays. It pointed to the successful support net of interplanting using a wide range of crops verses mono cropping, which can be more profitable but with less overall stability in times of flood, drought, or infestation.
CSA programs are often successful because long seasons allow farmers to share with their members according to the fluctuation of crops as they ebb and flow throughout the season. The shared-risk agreement taken on by farm share members gives a farmer a supportive chance when disaster strikes, which does not have to be a hurricane to result in total losses -it could be a tiny bug the size of a period. This helps the consumer maintain a supply of organic produce, since CSA's commonly use multi-cropping strategies that have a lower profit margin but higher stability in constant food provision for a local community.
Fortunately, for both farmers and CSA members, the length of the season (ours are 14 weeks for 3 seasons) gives the farmer a chance to "pay it back" over an average of weeks throughout the season if boxes are slimmer or more tropical during certain annual crop gaps, which are bound to occur for a farm delivering a high-quality CSA for many weeks of the year.
To that end, Ridge to Reef Farm has one of the longest CSA programs on the planet, including 42 weeks of delivery for 2014 to over 100 members. The CSA has grown 300% in the past 3 years. This is all driving towards the R2R goal to feed 1% of the USVI population with USDA certified and inspected local, organic food, which is not available at any other farm or outlet in the entire United States Virgin Islands.
Now available on all three islands, the continued growth of R2R is mostly due to the heart and dedication of the CSA members and the Ridge to Reef Farm Crew, who are making tremendous moves despite a set of challenges that in part explains the dearth of local organic food in the USVI.
First picks of these specialty organic seed crops go to the VI-CSA, which serves weekly vegetable and fruit boxes on St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas. After the boxes are full, additional top grade produce overflows into our www.vi.locallygrown.net market and some will be featured at this week's Virgin Island Agricluture and Food Fair (Feb 15-17).
Now, Ridge to Reef is pleased to soon be providing many of the most loved temperate annual crops, such as the famous heirloom open-pollinated tomatoes, who are showing off their amazing colors and vine ripening like a slow motion firework display. I took a deer's eye walk on Friday and shot a few photos for you to feast on.... while the full-on ripening starts!
THANK YOU ALL for supporting Ridge to Reef Farm and local certified organic produce in the USVI! And thank you to our staff past and current who makes it all work. Please, enjoy the photos and of course your food here that is being grown for YOU. Better yet, give us a visit in person and volunteer! It's not enough to KNOW... you got to GROW!!
In love, peace, & shared abundance,
Ridge to Reef Farm
Legacy of a Sunflower
THE FARM FEELS GOOD. We were delivered a nice rainy week and now back to drier winds. The fall season is slipping into the december transition time before winter season. It is so fitting, to be this week.
At the start of this week, I drove down in my truck to where everyone was carrying out transplants when they showed me the rainbow on the northwest sky. It was as if the rain was on its edge, the leaving time.
It also felt like a time of return. It felt like a visit from an old friend, a young spirit. Those of us who knew what it meant glanced at each other with knowing smiles before looking back to the sky.
Here we were, a year from when this garden was planted with sunflowers, days before we would lose the young woman who lived in the bamboo grove behind what we now call, "Ellen's Garden."
This week the emotions are in every move I make. I still shudder and realize my denial against the pain of loss and the real fact that she is gone, from a bright light, exactly like the sunflowers she planted, to ... some state i still don't understand.
Last year at the same time we were doing the same thing we are doing right now. We were planting for our first season of the CSA. In all that hope that comes with planting food, all that beauty of the green extensions and the varied petals with their colors, we experienced that loss that I will never forget.
Last year we dedicated our 2012 CSA season, the first full-year CSA ever offered in the USVI, to the life and spirit Ellen Nettles. She was a young intern who was wildly passionate about local organic food. When I say she was a bright light I am not doing her justice. She was radiant in everything she did, and made local organic food her goal in life to live and learn. And to share. And share she did. Much of the food this year came from her plantings. In fact, her basil plants are still growing!
At times, the CSA has not been all zinnias. There have been struggles, like the daily ones with the pests and diseases in the gardens, and others like interpersonal conflicts that come from living, working, and doing everything together like we do here at the farm with most of our staff. We have had floods, and then droughts. We've had sheep eat our greens, and dogs eat our sheep. We have been scraping by, yet surviving, financially, for the long fall months without our supplemental tourism income and most difficult growing season.
But through it all, in times like this, I get to see through a prism sometimes that reminds me of our friend, our sister, our inspiration -Ellen. It is that sign that we saw beaming out of the tide pools the day after. It was the one that arched over the Gaia garden last year while we hugged Ellen's father and sister in the rain. It seems it has been there every time I hear her name. It always brings us back together. Usually not a moment too late. When we see the rainbows we here reconnect on that basic human level for tolerance, mutual support, and love. It is the spirit of unity. It is the very essence of why we grow food for a living. Even further, it is why there is living. At least for me, that is the case.
You are beautiful, my friend. You are still here with us, our sister. The seeds that you have sewn reached over 76 CSA unique subscribers and more than 100 shares over 3 seasons in one year! We had that goal as our team here, and we succeeded. One year ago, we only had seeds and a lot of hope, fueled with a level of passion that you were known for.
Today, we have seedlings in the ground and hope arching over us. With this coming year we will again grow to new levels, while we and the plants reach up to the sky.
Yes, the farm really does feel good right now. It's getting windy again. The air is sweet with something I remember. But I can't put my finger on it.
To our island community taking part in our dream to supply local organic food to 1% of the USVI: Thank you for being our success. I know Ellen is very proud of our achievement.
Nate Olive is the Director of Ridge to Reef Farm at VISFI