Organic Farming Comes To Virgin Islands

In the middle of a rainforest in St. Croix, you can see just how far the organic farming movement has spread. Here, 1200 miles from U.S. mainland, is Ridge to Reef Farm. It's the first and only USDA-certified organic farm in the Virgin Islands. Ridge to Reef is also home to the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farms Institute (VISFI), a non-profit educational outreach center that seeks to enrich the island's relationship to its food. The two entities are so intertwined that it's difficult to pin down their exact relationship, but it's clear that this is the most progressive place in the Virgin Islands to connect to the food that the land produces.

Ridge to Reef is comprised of 100 acres of farmland, although only 20 are currently in cultivation. That's because the farm rotates its crops as a means to undo the centuries of abuse endured during the region's sugar plantation days. Despite the somewhat limited ground space, the farm employs a fairly ingenious method of cultivation: vertical agriculture. Instead of just planting crops in rows, Ridge to Reef lets the tremendous biodiversity of its land dictate growing patterns. That means that you've got pumpkins growing under passion fruit and papayas thriving in the shady spots of other trees. There's a huge volume of product that comes from using every dimension of the land, so for 20 acres, the farms nets a huge amount of food. Among the produce grown here are root vegetables, salad greens, herbs and a stunning variety of fruits. There are between 15 and 20 varieties of mango alone on the property — a fact that comes in handy because humans aren't the only living creatures on the farm.

In addition to fruits and vegetables, Ridge to Reef is also home to chickens, goats, sheep and cattle. The animals rotate around the mango orchards and feed on the fallen fruit as well as on cherries, bamboo and a spiky tropical fruit called soupsop. As a result, the animals' meat is said to be especially sweet. The livestock have a unique connection to the island, too. The sheep are indigenous to St. Croix and are known as hair sheep because instead of being covered in thick wool, they have a light coat of hair that's better suited for the island climate. The cattle, too, originated in St. Croix. The breed is called Senepol and is a cross between N'Dama cattle from Senegal and Red Poll cows. The result is an auburn-colored animal that can thrive in the heat of the tropics. Ridge to Reef has a wandering herd on their property, but Senepol cattle can now be found all over the world, thanks to Annaly Farms and the Lawaetz family.

The entire farm project is under the leadership of owner/director Nate Olive, a laid-back Georgia transplant who came to St. Croix to sail and wound up taking over the farm from some buddies when his boat sank. Eleven years later, Olive is the driving force behind the farm, and under his guidance, the entire organization is flourishing. "Our goal here is to not just grow the best quality food possible, but to regenerate the land and the earth," he says.

The VISFI is an extremely ambitious undertaking. The commitment to sustainability is unparalleled on the island and on most mainland farms, as well. In addition to their USDA organic certification, they're also Green Globe certified. That means that VISFI passed an evaluation based on a collection of 337 compliance indicators applied to 41 individual sustainability criteria. The whole facility is solar-powered. VISFI doesn't produce much trash. They even do their own on-site recycling program. That's a lot of hoops to jump through.

Visiting volunteers stay on site almost year-round, and their help is desperately needed. Between the Community Supported Agricultural programs, an online farmers' market for other local growers, slow food-inspired "Slow Down" Dinners and more, there's a whole lot of work to be done.

Above all, Ridge to Reef Farm and the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farms Institute aim to serve the community.It's not about making money. As Olive says, "We're doing it for the earth here. We're doing it for the waters and the fish." They're also doing it for the people. St. Croix doesn't have gold on the island, but with Ridge to Reef and the VISFI, they're much richer than they used to be.