It seems impossible, but it has already been nearly three months since I arrived in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. The spring equinox came and went without much notice here in the tropics. The plants keep blooming the way they have been for months now.
Our sun hemp sheet mulch experiment with pumpkin and okra (link to previous post) is coming along well. The pumpkin is mature and the canopy is closed in most places. It’s amazing to see how far they can run, some of them seem to go ten, maybe even twelve feet or more. We did have some problems with whiteflies and aphids in one field, but after using some neem and SaferSoap pesticides, the pumpkin seems to be on the way back. It’s interesting to speculate about what may be causing some of the differences we see between the two fields where this trial is running. The field that had the pest invasion is a little higher off the ground, so it’s drier and more exposed to the wind that can blow pretty fast on St. Croix (the westerlies – the winds that blow east to west in the tropics – sometimes never seem to stop). This seems to be related to generally tougher, harder soil, with smaller and weaker plants overall. It could be that the exposure of being on a small rise made the plants more susceptible to pests, or it could be because they were simply weaker due to the harsher conditions and were more susceptible for that reason. We can only speculate though, because this wasn’t part of the experimental design. The flip side of this, though, is that the weeds seem to be set back just as much as the pumpkin in that field.
A lot of the day-to-day fieldwork in this experiment involves hand-weeding the fields and collecting weed samples. We’re trying to simulate “low-external input” conditions in order to produce research that will be directly beneficial to smallholder tropical farmers who don’t usually have access to a lot of inputs. Our experiment has three treatments: tilled plots where the soil is bare, mulched plots where the rolled and crimped sunn hemp cover crop is acting as a mulch, and the sunn hemp mulched plots with an additional hay mulch. The purpose of the experiment is determine and quantify the effect these different treatments have on weed development without the use of an herbicide input. As one might expect, the hay-plus-sunn hemp plots seem to have almost no weed emergence. When I’m out in the field hand-weeding, I must say I far prefer those plots! I hardly have to do anything with them. Of course, on the flip side, the tilled plots are usually covered in weeds, particularly because it has been raining. But on the other hand the tilled plots make it easier to use a hoe to hand weed, whereas the crop residue in the mulched plots can make that more challenging.
I hope I will be here for some of our harvest, but I’m afraid I may miss it. Some of the pumpkins in the field are already quite large (the okra are further behind). However, I have had the chance to taste some pumpkin from a local farm. A few weeks ago, I spent the weekend at Ridge to Reef Farm, located in the western hilly rainforest of the island. The farm’s business model is partly eco-tourism, as well as a sustainable agriculture CSA. Participants in the “Bush Skills” workshop learned to forage for food and make useful items like containers and fiber from items found in the bush surrounding the farm. They tied that into the agricultural operations of the farm on the last day, where all participants helped to prepare foods that we had gathered that weekend, as well as produced on the farm, into a large meal everyone shared. The result was delicious! St. Croix and other small Caribbean Islands have a huge economic dependence on tourism, and it’s not hard to see why they are so popular to visit. Agro-tourism operations like Ridge to Reef may point to one way to develop agriculture in a context like this.
A few weeks before that, I had a different kind of chance to see the intersection of agriculture and the community here at the St. Croix Food and Agriculture Fair. Several thousand people came out over the weekend to try food or buy gifts from local vendors and learn about what’s going on in the broad world of agriculture in the Virgin Islands. UVI had a tent, and I was there to talk to people about our research in agronomy for most of the weekend.
More than anything, I was blown away by how many people seemed interested. People say that, because St. Croix is such a small island, when an event like this gets put on, people come out in droves for the diversion. But this didn’t seem to be the whole story; people were genuinely interested in agriculture. The theme this year was “Agriculture: Our Heritage and Hope for the Future.” I think that may sum it up best. St. Croix, like all Caribbean islands, has a history of agriculture, though some of it is a sad history. All over the island you can see ruins of Danish plantations and sugar mills where agricultural products were stored and processed after they were harvested by slaves or tenant farmers. That’s the heritage, but I think it’s a common sentiment here that the hope for the future is much brighter. You can see the beginnings of it at places like Ridge to Reef Farm, or at the farms we work with for our experiments, or at the new community garden in Frederiksted on the west side of the island. There’s reason to be optimistic.