What impact have you had on your clients and the tourism sector?
Clients in the programs include local school groups of all ages (in the previously entered Natural Mentors program), visiting students, interns, and group retreats. Yet the impacts expand from the experiences to the products of the programs, that include the only local certified organic produce supply in the Virgin Islands. In other words the entire visitation program keeps the organic farm alive to then feed the island and to continue conserving its tour sites for ecological and cultural heritage purposes. This, in turn, produces more wild game and seafood.
Individually, clients can easily digest a sometimes huge and complicated ecological picture of how human actions on land influence our water supply, and then ultimately our food supply on both land and in water. Many clients are inspired to export these concepts to their home areas and have written us about their progress. Some have gone on to become industry leaders (one at Sustainable Travel International), similar project visionaries, and have changed degree paths. In particular, one client told us after her agroforestry course with us she changed her major from Agricultural GMO engineering to Organic farming. Another young farmer from a Mississippi cotton legacy is transforming his family farm into an organic farm education center. A local island resident/client now studies slow food at a major culinary arts school. Local chefs are excited about our unique agricultural production and are featuring more items in their menus. Since we have a 100% solar carbon-negative home facility, many clients say they reevaluated their use of power and water after staying with us. If guests choose to do so, they can use our composting toilets- sure to always blow some minds.
We are major catalyst of a local island food movement, and success in the tourism market has inspired others here to grow sustainable. We now have 12 other growers in our on-line network market, at www.vi.locallygrown.net, for our clients.
We have discovered that in order to reach the minds and hearts of others about it is most effective to talk to their stomachs. The greatest actions we have taken are all efforts to connect people to their food supply, and the heritage of natural ecology and food production that has sustained us thus far.
We host community appreciation, guest chef, bush chef, and "slow down" dinners. These dinners are opportunities to gather community members and visitors to share and discuss local foods are how important they are for island prosperity, land & marine conservation, and community development. They range from free pot-lucks to 6-course, white plate dinner feasts. All dinners feature at least 90% local ingredients and local cuisine choices that tell the local story.
We run an on-line community supported marketplace (www.vi.localygrown.net) that features organic and naturally grown produce, food, and crafts. In the past year, over 12 growers have joined and we plan on spreading this market to all three major US Virgin Islands. Clients take educational and volunteer excursions to these farms, diversifying the marketplace and adding to production.
We teach permaculture farming.
We will turn the tide of local sustainable food security for the USVI and other islands who see this as a model to use. Already, the British Virgin Islands and Nevis both have watershed projects wanting to replicate our community development and food production tourism programs.
We will bring together island populations who have been traditionally polarized by land and marine conservation battles. Fishermen, in particular, are important players in sustainable food production but have been largely alienated by preservation initiatives to keep them out of their native waters and the fishing way of life (heritage). By supporting their sustainable actions and educating about the ecology of our food supply, fisherman can lower their guard and find greater profits by selling sustainably harvested fish to the growing niche market. This is the same for many farmers, who have to ask their aging grandparents how to grow without synthetic chemicals. We offer scholarships and reduced rates, in addition to membership in our web-market to farmers and local chefs. those who have been trained also are building our pool of potential employees. More than anywhere, small islands need cooperation.
What will it take for your project to be successful over the next three years? Please address each year separately, if possible.
1) We need more local trained employees this year to learn here and then take the work to other like projects in the USVI and Caribbean region.
2) We need more wide-spread marketing to niche sectors around the world. As a farm tourism destination, marketing and farming are two activities that directly oppose each other in that they are endless time vacuums. As this project grows, I would like to establish a geographic support network that markets for Ridge to Reef farms in the region and world-wide so that tourists can identify the next place they can go to learn and be on the forefront of action-based food production projects.
3) Our Heritage tourism survey must be completed in 2 years. Started by the University of Georgia, the USVI Department of Tourism, Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism, and other USVI partners to further the understanding of tourists who are motivated to seek natural and cultural heritage experiences. This scientific community participatory planning study led to the creation of Natural Mentors and now Ridge to Reef Farm Excursions. Further progress will have broad impacts and be compared to the national Geotourism Survey. We need ~$74K to finish the survey.
4) Scholarships are needed for USVI, Puerto Rico, BVI, and other neighboring islands to take part in the excursions and courses offered within. Many locals live in depressed economies and find it difficult to take part in these programs, which are just as much for them as for the educational and volunteer tourists from abroad. The Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute already provides some funding for scholarships: two per excursion, but we have a great demand for much more. Over 40% of the USVI lives in poverty. Puerto Rico has one of the highest unemployment rates in the USA. These problems are widespread across the Caribbean.
5) The US Virgin Islands must no longer be marginalized by international funding agencies who neglect to support the territory because it is a territory of the US. The people of the USVI were sold along with the land to the US in 1917 against their will by the then ruling Danish. Not until 1970 were the people allowed to elect their governor, and they cannot vote in national elections. Agencies should recognize the uniqueness of the USVI and St. Croix in particular as a small island developing state and open up funding resources accordingly.
What would prevent your project from being a success?
Ways we could be challenged are:
1) Loss of our watershed farmland due to owner's pressure to develop according to status quo. However, we could set up in other sites wanting to do this same type of work.
2) Product is not articulated clearly or widely enough to the niche markets it serves.
3) Liability risk associated with farming and visitor programs, and rising costs of insurance ($15,000 per year).
4) New development damages our watershed area so that our affects are no longer significant.
5) Global warming and related coral bleaching finishes off the reefs before we can make significant gains on a local level to increase their resilience.
6) Competition from Cuba opening to the US for tourism could drain our niche market in these next critical years. That is why the Heritage Tourism Survey is critical to base our tourism on aspects that cannot be substituted elsewhere. The small scale of our island and watershed tourism is one advantage that we must race to identify ourselves with before the millions are deflected to massive Cuba.
7) We lose local participation in our programs. This is highly unlikely, but the importance of meaningful and fair community integration with our program is critical. We have to remember to share our resources fairly and stay true to the mission of increasing local food security.