Back to the Islands: the British Virgin Islands

It was the British Virgin Islands (BVI) this time, another trade mission with the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) to promote U.S. livestock genetics abroad. I also met with fishermen, who were in the early stages of organizing fisheries cooperatives; I wear many hats as an extension agent.

The BVI is a collection of thirty-six islands, about 960 miles east of Puerto Rico, adjacent to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Sixteen islands are inhabited. Others are privately owned by resorts or wealthy foreigners. Many are very small. I had the opportunity to visit four islands, either by ferry or speedboat. Travel time depended upon the tide and roughness of the water.
 

Tortola is the largest island (21.5 square miles) and the center of business and government. Its capital is Road Town. The international airport is located on Beef Island (there is no "lamb" island) which connects to Tortola via a land bridge. A new airport is under construction. The current airport is very small and has a short runway that brings you right to the water's edge.


Virgin Gorda is a popular tourist destination, world famous for its "Baths," where huge boulders provide a myriad of rock pools, secret beaches and hidden trails. Peter Island is a privately-owned resort and yacht club, a bit too pricy for my state salary. We had dinner there twice (donated by the five star resort); I missed the second occasion because I was meeting with fishermen. I also accompanied a group of children to Peter island to learn first hand about fishing – net style.


Though self-governing, the BVI is a British territory. Its people, primarily of Black African descent, are British citizens. They drive on the left side of the road, but drive mainly American vehicles (steering wheels also on the left side), mostly SUV's to navigate the treacherous mountain roads. The Queen's English is spoken with a dialect that is oftentimes difficult for an American to understand. The official currency is the U.S. dollar. Most products are imported from the States. The American influence carries over to many aspects of BVI life; sports for example, where baseball and basketball are preferred over cricket and football (soccer).


The population of the entire BVI is only about 20,000. Unemployment is generally not a problem, as skilled labor must be imported from other countries. There is a community college on the islands, but no university or professional school. It goes without saying that the BVI is a popular tourist destination, especially for sailing and yachting – there is always a breeze – so the population at any given time could be more than double. Nonetheless, the population of the islands is still less than the student body at the University of Maryland College Park.


The prime tourist season is from October to March, though I found the BVI to be quite pleasant in the so-called off-season – July. Though hot, there was always a gentle sea breeze.

Sheep, goats, cattle, pigs and chickens can all be found on the BVI. Free range chickens are ubiquitous. Every morning I awoke to the sound of a rooster crowing. The chickens are small, similar in size to Bantams. Donkeys are a fairly common site, horses less so, though there is a race track on Tortola; my colleagues with MDA were quick to promote Maryland race horses.


Like the U.K. the BVI is free from rabies. Dogs and cats must be quarantined in the U.K. for six months before they can touch BVI soil. BVI claims to be free from scrapie and blue tongue, but the U.S. will prohibit the importation of livestock from the Caribbean until APHIS investigates a country and determines there not to be a risk.


The dominant sheep breed is the Virgin Island White. In the States, we call them St. Croix, after the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands, but you dare not make that slip of the tongue in the BVI. They are a "national treasure" much like the Blackbelly is to Barbados. In fact, I had a hard time convincing BV Islanders that the Virgin Island White was not a perfect sheep, that no breed of sheep is perfect; I have the same problem with many Suffolk breeders.


Here, they are considered a rare breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC). The Virgin Island White/St. Croix is an all white, hair sheep. I believe they can be other colors, but white is preferred. They appear slightly smaller-framed and less racy than the Barbados Blackbelly and tend to have a nicer disposition.


Various studies in the States have shown the breed to have a propensity for parasite resistance. They were one of the breeds used to make the Katahdin, an improved hair sheep increasing in popularity in the U.S. In the flocks, you could also see slight hints of the Barbados Blackbelly, West African and Wiltshire Horn, other hair breeds common to the West Indies. Oftentimes, the whole flock is run together and ram lambs not castrated, so inbreeding is rampant.


Cattle are Senepol, a attractive red breed, native to West Africa. They are bred exclusively for beef. In fact, I don't recall seeing any dairy animals. The Department of Agriculture sponsored a "loose cattle" program, whereby government officials rounded up all the loose cows on Virgin Gorda. Farmers were paid about 60 cents a pound on the hoof – not too bad. Jokingly, it was said that some farmers were releasing cows and telling livestock officers which cows to round up. The loose cows have been moved to the government's farm where who knows what fate awaits them.

 

The goats are mostly Nubian or Criollo, a small-frame native goat. Boer goats have been introduced, but are not yet widespread. The Ministry's farm had a few nice Boer billies for crossbreeding. Goats are raised for meat. The local islanders prefer goat meat to sheep meat. The consumption of mutton is common. Imported mutton can be purchased in grocery stores ($1.65/lb.) and is on the menu of many restaurants. In fact, all the sheep and goat meat that is served in restaurants or sold in supermarkets is imported, undoubtably from our friends in New Zealand. As in other Caribbean Islands, imported meat is generally preferred to local meats and this is reflected in price.
 

It is the general consensus that the U.S. imports lamb to the BVI, though I suspect the lamb originates in New Zealand, is given a USDA stamp, and assumed to be American lamb. (I was happy to learn that USDA plans to stop grading imported meat.) The imported sheep meat product I saw in the meat cases wasn't a very attractive product, so I hope it wasn't American lamb.


The terrain of the BVI is almost entirely mountainous or hilly, perfect goat country; it was fun to watch the goats negotiate the steep slopes. I was told that Anegada, an island which I did not visit, contains the only flat land. But realistically speaking, there is little or no land to cultivate. No grain, hay,

silage or other feedstuffs can be grown; practically all animal feeds must be imported.

 

Even tropical fruits and vegetables are sparse compared to other island countries I have visited. Absent are the road side stands offering coconut water and other fresh produce to the tourists. Even pasture land is at a premium. If you have a few acres, you're considered prime for the livestock business.

The BVI is very dry; cactus grows everywhere. The ecosystem supports birds, abundant sea life and reptiles (lots of iguanas), but little if any mammalian life. The moisture situation is even worse this year due to drought. Pastures are short, brown and overgrazed. Goats do better than sheep and cows during drought, since they consume a wider variety of plant life and have a higher browse line.


Most of the livestock are supplemented with grain, hay or liquid molasses. Nutrition is the limiting factor in livestock production. In fact, there seems little point in exporting superior genetics unless nutrition can be improved. I would love to coordinate some livestock sales with importation of livestock feed (hay, grain and by-products produced by Maryland farmers).


Supplemental feeds are very expensive due to exorbitant transportation costs from the States or other islands. Shelled corn costs about 15 to 20 cents a pound compared to less than 5 cents a pound here. Hay sells for about 10 cents a pound. High feed costs are offset somewhat by higher prices for livestock. Lambs sell for about $1.50 per pound. Slaughter weights are about 70 to 80 pounds.


Where livestock production is concerned, the BVI is practically devoid of infrastructure. Until recently there was no abattoir (leave it to the Brits, actually the French, to have a classy word for slaughterhouse) for livestock slaughter. There is no cold storage for meat, poultry or fish. The recently built government abattoir currently does not meet international standards for livestock slaughter and processing.


Another abattoir is in the works and hopes are that it will be designed to meet such standards. If the BVI could supply meat to its own tourist industry and put a competitive product in its grocery stores, it could be a real boon to the sheep and goat industry. Currently, sheep and goats are slaughtered on-farm and the meat is consumed by the local population.


There are no organized markets for livestock. If a producer wants (or needs) to get rid of livestock, he must have a buyer for the live animal or consumer for the meat. If livestock populations must be reduced due to drought or other reasons, there is no outlet. We were told that boar hogs are euthanized and buried, due to the lack of marketing options.


Producers must rely on the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labor/Department of Agriculture for animal health products and other supplies. If a producer wants to rotate wormers, he may not be able to due to government availability. There are only a limited number of feedstuffs available: whole corn, crushed corn, and liquid molasses. I'm not sure how readily available hay is.


Extension assistance is provided through the Department of Agriculture or CARDI (Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute). CARDI representatives seem to be very knowledgeable. One had organized a goat marketing scheme, whereby goats were slaughtered, their carcasses wrapped in plastic and put on a boat and taken to Tortolla, the most populous island, to sell.


Credit is only available to landowners and other asset-rich individuals. This presents a huge problem to fisherman, who are forced to go to the U.S. or Europe to get mortgages for their fishing boats or farmers who wish to make large capital investments in facilities or equipment. Like fishermen, farmers are frustrated. They expect the government to provide assistance: irrigation for their pastures, abattoirs for processing their livestock, cold storage to hold their meat and policies which are pro-agriculture.


Livestock farmers also depend upon the government for breeding stock acquisition and development of new and superior genetics. Due to limited land space and the high cost of feeds, it has also been suggested that a lamb feed lot be built on the government's farm. The government is currently constructing new hog facilities and has several new chicken houses. The sheep and goats on the government farm are generally well-fed and of good quality, but facilities are not adequate for further development of the industry.


The feed lot concept seems to have been successful in Barbados and is probably worth duplicating in the BVI. In addition to providing an market outlet for lambs and kids, a feed lot could enhance genetic improvement by measuring rate of gain of animals on feed and provide a steady supply of animals for the abattoir and potential markets.


Like producers here, British Virgin Islanders love their livestock. Few producers make their living farming or raising livestock, but they are committed to staying in the business. I'm told that at one time, the BVI was self-sufficient in agriculture. Farmers think with a little assistance from the government they could be again or at least be better off than they are now.
 

This article was written in 2000 by Susan Schoenian.

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