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Jeff and Arona Forbes: Keeping AGRICULTURE ALIVE in the VIRGIN ISLANDS


Jeff and Arona Forbes are what you can call ‘a match made in heaven’. Jeff grew up in a large family of 13. Arona came up in a family of 14.  Jeff’s family was into livestock and Arona’s family farmed.

“My father was what you would call a butcher I guess.  We had animals that he’d sell the meat from. In those days, they put the meat in cement bags. Back then, the cement bags had six layers. Now they only have two. We didn’t wrap the meat in paper as they do now. Those bags were strong,” Jeff told VIL&S. “I grew up in an area called Happy Hill. We were all one big happy family. When the cousins and everyone got together, it was a big event. My grandmother, Clementia Nibbs, would cook a big pot of pea soup. Everyone would eat. It was a big party for everyone.”

Arona recalled that her father was a farmer as well. She didn’t like farming because they had to wake up very early and “go behind the cows.” Arona also said the other kids in the area and at school would pick on them and call them names. “They would say, ‘Look at that farmer girl,’ and I didn’t like that. It was all I knew so later on, I saw the significance in it. I believe the passion was there before, but my pride held me back for many years. Later on, I found out it was very necessary. When my parents had no money, we always had food in the house. We never went to bed hungry.”

Much of the area where Jeff takes his animals and even the main roads were ‘track roads’ with fences on both sides back in the day. What wasn’t a ‘track road’, was a ghut for watering animals. Farmers would draw the water and carry it to their animals. There were so many animals in those days, they would nearly ‘dry’ the springs out during the dry season. What’s super cool is Jeff always knew where to get water and how to get water. “There is a water table under the ground which is a source of the wells,” he beamed. “You have to dig underground about 20 feet deep on the lower levels. Clarence Thomas dug a well on his property and he had to go down 90-100 feet. To me, that’s really deep for the distance because it’s not too far from the original well.”

In the old days, there was something called a ‘dip’ for animals. The Government would dig a cistern and fill it with treated water. When the cows would have ticks, the farmers would corral them into the opening which was too narrow for the cow to turn around in. Once it got in, it would have no choice but to go forward, get in the water, and swim across. Once out, the cow’s tick issue had been treated. “We don’t need that today. Today we have a spray can or bottle. You spray the animals and that’s it. Back then, we used the dips. There was one in every village,” Jeff reminisced.

Jeff shifts his animals every day. During our chat, Jeff took me to the area he had his donkey and cows for the day. At the sound of Jeff’s footstep, his donkey’s, Boy, puppy-like mannerism showed. His tail wagged and he immediately nudged Jeff. Excited to see him, he continued following him and nibbling at his hands. Boy truly loves Jeff and Jeff definitely loves Boy.

“You know what I like best about Boy? He’s frisky,” Jeff said. “He can’t wait to give me a ride and as soon as I hop on, he takes off. He’s about seven years old now, but he still behaves like a young foal. He loves giving people rides too. Do you want to ride?” Jeff asked me as I watched the two of them in awe after Jeff and Boy returned from their galloping.

“Ummm,” I staggered. I’ve ridden horses before but never a donkey. This was an opportunity to add a new ‘the first time I…’ item to my list. “Sure! I’ll hop on,” and that I did. Boy patiently stood while I figured out how to get on. Jeff blew raspberries to Boy to ensure he remained calm because apparently boy donkeys can behave a tad aggressive. Boy cautiously eyeballed me and let me hop on. Jeff taught me By’s language and off we went!  Let me be the first to say, it’s nothing like riding a horse…or maybe I don’t really know how to ride a horse?? I had to continue a delicate balancing act – not too much to the left and not too far to the right. I didn’t want to slide off on either side.

While I was on the back of Boy, Jeff guided us slowly up a path to show me the area where he housed his cows and the area he was re-clearing after the 2017 storms. “It takes longer to get from here to there,” he told me as he pointed in the distance, “if I drive. So I tend to ride Boy. He takes me in the mountain, I water my cows, and he brings me back.”

Boy seems to be very popular with the ladies too. Jeff shared a story about a bridal shower party who were accustomed to riding horses. Everyone got a slow ride on Boy, but the grandmother was keen on RIDING him. “She said the only beautiful donkey she had seen on Tortola was this one and she had to know who it belonged to. She tracked me down. I took them down to Peg Leg and they rode. What got me was the grandmother got on and she took him galloping. I wouldn’t tell anyone to gallop immediately. I always tell people to take your time and when you get accustomed, you can start to go faster.”

Jeff has a sleuth of knowledge about old-time farming and livestock and new methods for today’s time. He understands why goats are the way they are versus sheep and their unique behaviours. I guess you can call him a modern-day shepherd. He was kind enough to take me out so where he kept his sheep and goats. As soon as we walked towards the clearing, the animals were there bleating and beckoning him.  “By nature, donkeys are calm. But the nature of the beast can be unpredictable at times. In St. Croix and other places, donkeys are used to guard sheep and goat against dogs and other animals.  My sheep and goat are fenced in. When I kept them in an open field, dogs kept killing them so I had to move them.”

Before the storms, Jeff worked nearly 24 hours a day. He started at 1:00 AM and would end the next morning at about the same time. Now, he and Arona’s day starts roughly around 5:00 AM and ends when the day’s work is done. They don’t work together every day but do most days. Arona shared, “We sometimes get on each other’s nerves. We start our day with prayer in the morning. I believe that helps, but sometimes I am strongwilled and want something one way, and he wants it another. We battle about differences. Most of the time, even though I don’t always say it, he is right.”

Arona’s farm was in Josiah’s Bay. Currently, it’s in Sea Cow’s Bay where Jeff’s family’s buildings are.  “It was completely destroyed by the hurricanes. There was nothing left. I plan on doing the big area again but on my own land. My family and I are working on that and then I will know where it will be and how big. I have about 300 plants and seven different types of lettuces. I have different colors to make your salad pop. Lettuce is a quick crop. In about 30-40 days, you have it. You cut the leaves and it will grow back. You continue this process until it starts seeding. Once it starts seeding, it’s done because it will become bitter. I put it in my compost when it’s start seeding.”

The coolest thing in Arona’s garden are the papaya trees. There are three trees that had papaya in abundance. Each tree had different shaped papaya with different lengths. “Papaya trees bear for three years here. After that, you will see a significant decline in the yield. These trees came from one papaya. This is what happens when you have papaya coming from seed versus those selected for a hybrid. GMO products have genes removed that would be in the natural product. For instance, there may be a region where they want a specific hybrid of papaya, but they may have different diseases in that region that will affect the plants. They don’t want the plants ruined by the diseases so they may add a gene that will make it tolerant. When the GMO cross-breed with the natural products, it will take over and kill out the natural selection. If we aren’t careful, the natural selection, which is what God created, will be completely gone.”

This year has seen a significant increase in home-gardening. “You have to make sure the seeds/seedlings you are planting are not GMO. Make sure that when you plant them, you follow the requirements necessary that will be on the packaging so that you can get a good harvest. Some plant packages will call for fertilizer. If you want to keep it natural, you can get manure from cattle, horses, sheep, or goat, mix it with your soil, sow the seedlings, and then transplant them to the ground when the plants are bigger. You don’t want to start your seedlings from the ground because there are a lot of organisms in the ground that will eat or destroy seedlings. For instance, you may be waiting the 14 days for your sprouts and nothing will come up because the ants have already eaten the seed. You also want to plant a few seeds at a time so you don’t have too many items to harvest at one time. The idea is to plant in cycles so you always have a supply of food after harvesting.” 

Arona has a method for getting people enthused about gardening. “I would recommend you start with lettuce and okra. They take about six weeks to grow. Once a person sees these produce quickly, this will help to build up their momentum and motivation to do more. If you have aphids, a natural way to kill the pest is to make an Epsom Salt mix and spray the plants. The salt will dry up the liquid in the bugs’ bodies.”

Arona shared that, “If you have clay-like dirt in your yard, you can get some sand and mix the two. The sand will allow the water to not settle but leave enough for the plant to get what it needs. The pores on the clay are too small and the pores in the sand are too big. If you mix the two, you get silt.” This was news to me because the dirt in my yard is clay as the water just sits after each rainfall.

Daily Arona goes out to check each seedling and plant. She harvests what needs to be harvested. She weeds and cleans the areas. She ensures they are protected from wildlife by keeping a screen over them. Arona also has two workers who help her. One waters the plants daily and the other helps with the weeding and cleaning of the area. The banks were created by Jeff and Arona planted everything herself until recently. Jeff planted her latest plants due to back issues Arona was having. These two really are a perfect match!

Jeff and Arona’s love story sounds Iike it’s straight out of a book or movie. Jeff eluded that Arona played hard to get! “I was doing my thing here. I met this guy who used to go up to Agricultural [Department]. I went with him one day and I saw her. I asked her out and she said, ‘No’.  I don’t like them that easy anyway. I met her again the year I was Farmer of the Year. Both of us ended up in St. Croix and we went on a date.”

Arona’s version has more details. “I used to work at Agriculture and my sister worked there with me. She knew a gentleman that Jeff would come to the department with.  Jeff was a trucker so he’d bring animals for other farmers. One day, he came and out of the blue he asked, ‘Can we have lunch,’ and I said, ‘No, we cannot have lunch. I do not know you.’ He said, ‘I know your sister,’ and I replied, ‘But I do not know you so we cannot have lunch.’ It went like for a while because he continued coming with the gentleman. He was persistent. We eventually would start talking at the department. After a while, I felt comfortable with him. He asked me on a date and I finally said yes. He took me to Admiralty. On the way home, his truck had an issue so he had to stop by his home to get a part for it. I stayed in the truck and when he finished, he took me home. This was 1991. In February of 1992, we went to Farmer’s Week in St. Croix with a group of farmers. He was Farmer of the Year and we spoke more on that trip. He was the only other young person. Everyone else was old. We started talking more and more. He would call my hotel and we would chat. We would talk for hours! We went on another date when we came back to Tortola. The rest is history! I prayed a long time ago for a husband who liked agriculture as I do.”

Arona said she is concerned about the generations coming up now because many children do not know where their food comes from. “They feel they can just take it from the supermarket because it is readily available. It is the responsibility of the older generations to pass the knowledge to the generations coming because they need to know backyard gardening so they can get fresh food. If the food coming from away doesn’t come, then what do we have to lean on? We also need to sustain our culture. Farming is where we come from. All of these hills in the area were filled with ground provisions and fruit. You can still see it throughout, even though the hurricanes have destroyed a lot of it. Some of it has grown back. We need children to know how the culture was in the past. Some of the schools like the BVI SDA school has a program. Some of the primary schools have small gardens as well. We need to see agriculture as part of the core curriculum in the Virgin Islands.”

I spent over five hours with this couple just observing, listening, and learning. They are TRUE gems in the agriculture industry. The knowledge they house would be best preserved and nurtured in the Territory. Arona’s Summer Program for children and adults is the perfect learning environment for those who want to learn more about the fundamentals of agriculture. There is also a boot camp option where children and adults can learn about more advanced topics in agriculture.

Arona closed by saying that since the hurricanes, things have been very difficult for farmers. “I am just encouraging the community to remain persistent to obtain the desires of their heart. We will get back to where were and even better once we persist.”  

To purchase from Arona or Jeff, please 284-440-1509 or find them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @aronasmarketplace. Farmer’s Market is held every Saturday from 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. primarily at the Sea Cows Bay Well.