Meet Local Farmer: Aberra Bulbulla

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Writing this post is a treat that I’ve been anticipating for some time now, because it meant that I was able to visit Aberra Bulbulla in his beautiful St. Croix orchard.

Aberra's Orchard

Aberra moved to St. Croix over 20 years ago, and worked as a research analyst at UVI as well as in the Cooperative Extension Service, specializing in irrigation.  He brought his love of tropical fruit trees with him to the island, and began planting his four-acre orchard 15 years ago – an orchard that is now full of mature trees loaded with delicious and beautiful fruits.

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And yes, Aberra’s smile grows larger as he walks amongst his trees, his passion and joy and enthusiasm rolling from him in waves that you can’t help but be caught up in, and feel a little happier for the moment being spent with him.

Aberra and his tree

Aberra is normally more quiet and reserved.   Such as he won’t tell you that he was Farmer of the Year four times at the Ag Fair, with the entire fair named after him in 2010.  He also won’t mention that he was Crop Farmer of the Year last year (2013) either.  But when you find those facts out, and ask him about them, he will smile broadly and say, “Yes, that was me” with no expectation of applause or fanfare.

Sugar Apple

Which means that Aberra is one of those wonderful farmers who – in my opinion – we don’t celebrate enough.  Because Aberra has not only created an orchard for his retirement, he has also planted into St. Croix’s future.  He has given us a blessing and heritage that few consider doing – and for me, the gratitude for this gift to our community runs deep.

Sapote Trees

Such as this tree – the “Mommy Apple.”  Many on St. Croix speak fondly of this fruit in their childhood, and most trees have all but disappeared.  But Aberra has one growing on his farm, and more on the way.

Mommy Apple

Or this unusual fruit – the chocolate fruit, one of many persimmons growing in the orchard, and my husband’s favorite.  Before Aberra, these fruits were tropical flavors that were not growing here, or were growing here very little.  But now they are here, and we are able to keep them growing for future generations.

Chocolate Fruit

Or the jackfruit tree!  I must admit to being seriously intimidated by this fruit, but it is quite popular in Asian dishes, and one of these days I’ll attempt my hand with one – each one being the size of a watermelon, or larger!

Jackfruit Tree

And of course, there’s an abundance of mangos, avocado, coconut, eggfruit, starfruit, guava, and many other local fruits, in several different varieties.

Orchard

And in addition to the fruit trees, Aberra is also growing decorative flowers, and has a greenhouse for starting plants that contains one of the island’s only miracle fruit trees.  The miracle fruit is called a “miracle” because of its ability to change a person’s sense of taste, leading to some entertaining experiences.  This is a really delicate fruit that lasts only about 12 hours, so having the opportunity to sample one is a rare treat indeed!

Miracle Fruit Tree

Aberra insisted on creating a giant bouquet for me of flowers and ornamental leaves, which I took home and enjoyed for many days.  I must admit to grinning from ear to ear as I walked behind him with this lavish gift.

Aberra's Bouquet

You can buy fruit from Aberra on Wednesdays and Saturdays at Southgate, from around 8:30 am to 1 pm.  The location can be found on my farm stand map.  Right now Aberra is bringing malay apples, coconuts, mangoes, eggfruit, and star apples for sale.  Avocados will be in another month or so, and there are more chocolate fruits and sapotes and sapodillas on the way, and guavas and surinam cherries and…well, the list goes on and on.  With over 300 fruit trees, there’s always something growing in abundance.

Mango

But there is one gift that Aberra exceeds in abundance even more than his fruit trees – and that asset that he holds is kindness.  Aberra is one of the rarest and kindest souls on the planet, and I find great joy and inspiration in being his friend.  I hope that by visiting his orchard with me, you do too.

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Meet “A Taste of St. Croix” Farmer: Grantley Samuel

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I’ve been looking forward to writing this post about my good friend and amazing farmer Grantley Samuel for a few days now.

Grantley is officially the first farmer I met on St. Croix when I moved here two years ago.  I was new, confused, and had NO idea where to shop for the local fresh produce I’d grown accustomed to buying in Austin, Texas.  Grantley was kind, welcoming, and offered me help and ideas – he even told me how to cook a breadfruit the first time!  And he has a warm heart and a constant smile on his face.

Grantley in his corn field

Meet Grantley Samuel of G.L.G Plants & Produce – standing in his favorite place, his corn field.

Grantley is very proud of his corn, as he is his all his other plants.  My husband and I have discussed Grantley’s method of success, and it all comes down to the facts that he is professional, he is organized, and he is friendly.  And – most importantly – he sees farming as a career, and an important industry that holds a significant role in a successful community.  Grantley was Agriculture’s “Farmer of the Year” in 2012, and he frequently works with local schools and the University of the Virgin Islands for Agricultural outreach programs with children and adults.

Grantley's fields

Grantley’s fields are neat and organized.  He focuses on growing five primary crops – corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, and watermelon.  He uses a minimum of pesticides, and focuses 99% of the time when he does have to use pesticides, he uses organic pesticides.  He never sprays food crop items.  His philosophy is that if he is growing food that he wants to feed his family, then he should grow food that everyone else wants to feed their families as well.  And he is able to get tremendous yields simply by applying time-proven agricultural principles of crop rotation, adequate spacing, proper watering, and fertilization.

GLG Cucumber

Here’s a cucumber that’s close to ready to harvest.  And yes, you see a few weeds and spots – which illustrates what I mentioned above, that Grantley is able to produce some wonderful produce in his fields without excessive chemicals.  Local produce typically is not “perfect” produce – because it is grown for quality and taste instead of shelf life and appearance (traits of conventionally grown produce).  And I can personally testify that Grantley’s produce has a wonderful flavor!

A field ready for corn

This is a new 2.5 acre plot that Grantley is about to plant exclusively with corn.  In the future, G.L.G Plants & Produce will have roasted corn available at its roadside stand on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays every week.

Plants in pots

And, don’t forget the herb and vegetable plants that Grantley grows for sale!  Some of the best on St. Croix, in my opinion.

G.L.G. Stand

You can find G.L.G Plants & Produce on my map of Farmers Markets and Farm Stands.

Talking about the bees

Grantley is also beginning to raise his own bees, and soon will have chickens for eggs as well.  Here he is talking with me about the bees and future chickens to be housed in a coop made with the reclaimed shipping container directly above his hands in the photo – and you can see the banana plants he’s raising also.

And that takes me to my closing thoughts about Grantley.  When we were discussing his bees, he told me something really profound.  He said, “As I learn more about bees, those bees, I wish we all could get along like those bees.  When I open that hive box, I think about how every bee in that box has a job to do, and they all know that they are dependent upon each other, and each bee’s job is important.  No bee is more important than the others, from the bee in the bottom of that box to the bee at the top.  I wish we all knew that we are equally as important.”

Well said, my friend.  I’m proud to know you, and I am thrilled with the hard work you put in for agriculture on St. Croix.  Thank you for it.

Meet “A Taste of St. Croix” Farmer: Toni Downs

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As we head into St. Croix Food and Wine Experience week, I thought it would be an ideal time to feature a few local farmers that I know, and talk with them about their “Farm to Table” efforts.  I specifically wanted to find out what produce they’ve grown for the chefs to choose from for the dishes that they will be preparing for “A Taste of St. Croix” on Thursday night.  So I toured two farms today (the other I will feature on Wednesday), and tomorrow I will be attending the “Chef/Farmer’s Market Day” at the Agriculture and Food Fair Grounds (open to the public 8 AM to 4 PM), and I’ll have more photos and information to share about the process our farmers go through to provide food from seed to plate.

So today, I introduce to you:  Farmer and Beekeeper Toni Downs.

Toni at her gate

And yes, she does smile that big all the time!

Toni moved to St. Croix a few years ago from Kentucky, where she served as the Eastern Apicultural Society Director 2007 – 2011 .  Toni has a number of years in the beekeeping business, and has been invited to speak at several apiary industry events, most recently an event for 400 “backyard beekeepers” in Connecticut, where she discussed Caribbean bees and their specific characteristics.  Since Toni moved to St. Croix, in addition to her beekeeping business, she has been growing (pardon the pun) her farm business, as well as providing valuable information and services regarding beekeeping on the island.  She has a group of hives that she raises for both honey and beeswax, and she rotates hives on her farm property as well.

Toni's tilled fields

The red box just left of center in this photo is one of her hives.  We didn’t approach it much closer today as it was windy and the bees were a little cranky from the weather, so I was happy to let them stay in their home for the day.  These fields have just recently been tilled and are going to be planted with Sunn Hemp (a cover crop), in an experiment in concert with the University of the Virgin Islands to find out if the bees harvest pollen from the sunn hemp plants, which would be valuable as a honey source in addition to a cover crop.

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Toni has food crops growing as well, here we see okra just getting started, as well as rows of corn – yes, that’s right, sweet corn on St. Croix!  Several farmers are now growing this crop with success, and you’ll be seeing it more often at farm stands around the island.

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Mmmmmm….corn…..

Green Beans

And for the chefs at A Taste of St. Croix?  Here are green beans…

Basil

Basil…

Mustard Greens

And mustard greens!  You can also see a bit of curly leaf red lettuce in this photo.

Queen Caribee

And of course, Toni will be selling her line of “Queen CariBEE” honey and products, made from honey from her own beehives, as well as local produce ingredients.  Right now many of her products (like this tomato/papaya chutney) also contain tomatoes from Ridge to Reef Farm…oh yeah, YUMMM!!!

Toni has a long-term goal of opening a community kitchen on St. Croix – a community kitchen that will rent space for production of food items in an inspected and insured environment.  She’s also working to expand her production of crops, and creating a dialogue with local restaurants about how food crops can best be supplied for restaurant dishes.  And of course, she’s always interested in preparing and selling more of her delicious products directly to the public!

But the best thing about Toni?  It’s her heart, and her passion for what she does.  Toni is kind and friendly and she cares about what she sells, and the people who buy from her.

Toni will be at the Chef/Farmer’s Market Day tomorrow with these produce items, and possibly a few more goodies I didn’t see today.  And after tomorrow, you can find her on Wednesdays and Saturdays at Southgate (marked on my map of Farmers Markets and Farm Stands).  Please stop by, say hello, and see Toni’s sunny smile for yourself.  You’ll be glad you did!

Ridge to Reef Farm: An Organic Oasis

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Here on St. Croix, we’re blessed to have Ridge to Reef Farm, a local, sustainable organic farm located in the West end rainforest. A few weeks ago, I visited for a Sunset Farm tour, as well as stayed to dine in one of their remarkable “Slow Down” dinners. Welcome to Ridge to Reef Farm

Ridge to Reef is more than just a farm.  It’s a movement, in its own way.  It represents the growing body of people who seek to not only eat in a “Farm to Table” manner that is healthier and closer to nature, but who also seek to leave the world a better place than how they found it.

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Nate Olive is the Director at the farm, and wears a lot of hats, from Event Coordinator to Marketing to simply being host and tour guide.  Here he is getting ready to blow the conch shell to round-up the group for our evening’s tour.

Seed starts under shade

Walking around the farm gives an inside look into the entire food production process.  From the seeds started in trays under shadecloth…

Rows of organic produce

To the rows of produce in various states of production…

Nate Olive discussing moringa

To the extent of just how much acreage they currently have under sustainable growth.  In this photo Nate discusses the moringa trees that are growing behind him in a terraced arrangement with tomato plants and banana trees, which provides shade and moisture for the tomatoes while preserving soil from erosion.  And this year, Ridge to Reef has produced some beautiful tomatoes!

Slow Down Dinner

But the biggest treat of the evening is returning to the Main House and sitting down for the Slow Down Dinner cooked by the evening’s guest chef.  These dinners are usually 5 – 6 course affairs, with each course featuring a different seasonal produce item, as well as meats raised on the farm.  Slow Down dinners typically happen every 4 – 6 weeks, and the next one is actually tomorrow night, April 15!  You can always find information about these special events on the Ridge to Reef Farm Facebook page.

And there’s much more going available to those who are interested in experiencing the oasis in the rainforest that is Ridge to Reef Farm.  If you’d like more information about Farm Tours, the Market, or Accommodations, check out the Ridge to Reef Farm Website.  And then visit.  Sit.  Talk.  Laugh.  And eat.  And become part of a movement that is celebrating the history and vibrancy of agriculture on St. Croix.  Thanks Nate, and everyone at Ridge to Reef, for all you do!