PHOTO: Ridge to Reef
Farmers: Nate Olive and Shelli Brin-Olive
Location: Frederiksted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Specialty: Certified Organic farming and agritourism
Growing up on the outskirts of Atlanta, Nate Olive never imagined living in the U.S. Virgin Islands, let alone farming there. But when he became shipwrecked on the island of St. Croix while sailing with a friend’s family, he noticed how difficult it was to find fresh produce and humanely farmed meat to resupply with, due in part to the sprawling developments encroaching on the natural environment of the island.
When his friends Ben Jones and Sarah Danforth started an organic farm on St. Croix, Olive began work there, implementing an educational program called Ridge to Reef, which promoted using small-scale agriculture to conserve nature on a landscape level, from the mountain ridge the farm sits on to the coral reef off the island’s coast. When Jones and Danforth decided to leave St. Croix, Olive and his wife, Shelli Brin-Olive, a multi-generation native of the island of St. Thomas, started their own farm on the site.
After having witnessed the loss of one farm after another in Georgia and on St. Thomas due to development, Olive and Brin-Olive dedicated their farm to the Ridge to Reef philosophy of promoting sustainable and organic farming practices that have a positive impact on the island’s community and the land itself.
Selling crops through Farm to School contracts has kept our farming passions fueled. Two years ago, we became the first farm in over 50 years in the USVI to deliver crops for the federal school lunch program. Now, we serve as a food hub along with 12 other participating farms. Together, we are still only providing a small portion for the over 18,000 lunches served daily, but it has gained traction and we will continue to expand into this new market.
Also, given our location in the Caribbean, there is an incredible amount of interest of experiencing a tropical organic farm. So, agritourism has become a natural fit. We offer tours and on-farm dinners out of our food truck, and group farm retreats. The groups stay in wooden stilt cabanas and eat meals at our community center building. Local chef Mike Matthews teaches teams of visitors how to work with local foods in the community kitchen. Most groups volunteer on the farm in the mornings or do their own program (like college study abroad or yoga), and take to the beaches for the afternoons.
Although it’s really an out-of-the-box experience for most, we regularly hear from our visitors afterwards in how it made a difference in their lives. It is very gratifying to see people come face-to-face with their food and make that essential connection. Considering the number of people who have gone on to start their own sustainable food enterprises, it reminds us of how important our hard work really is.
The location of Ridge to Reef is our greatest friend and foe. Not only are we on a small, relatively remote island, we are in an area of the island that is tucked away in the mountains and far away from the ports and supportive services. This makes the efficiency of our operation viable only if we continue to maintain and utilize the forests around us to provide the needed biological material to maintain our soil organic matter content. It pushes us to adapt and perfect our growing regime to suit our environment. Based on our values that is a good thing, but it can get tough when problems arise or equipment breaks as quick fixes are hard to come by.
Also, while we enjoy a virtually endless growing season, there is no freeze to stunt pests, diseases or weeds. It leaves us working the farm year-round. So we are gradually shifting to a diversity of perennial crops and expanding our flock of silvopastured sheep as our mainstay to eventually bring a dramatic reduction to the workload.
Farm your own farm. Find your unique passion and go with it. The profession is full of challenges and your love for what you do will carry you through the hard times, as long as your passion is coupled with sound business planning.
Always remember that what you do is interconnected with your community and environment. If you work together with other farmers in your home watershed to improve your downstream environment, you can make a substantial positive impact for future generations while living the farm life you dreamed. It will take thousands of thoughtful farmers to make the waters clean again and our soils healthy. Be one of them.