Puerto Rico’s born-again farmers dig for victory in island’s debt combat

Agriculture on the Caribbean island is reviving as Puerto Ricans go back to the land to grow food for local consumption and help tackle a $73 bn indebtednes crisis

Nelson Rosada has been a cook for 28 years. He takes pride in having crafted many extraordinary dishes. But, he claims , none have been as special as the food he now serves daily at the Caribe Hilton Hotel, on the north-east coast of Puerto Rico.

The reason, he says, is that for the first time the ingredients he uses are fresh, grown-up and harvested locally instead of arriving many days old on a barge from Florida.

This might seem a small victory for one sous chef catering mostly to tourists, but it is indicative of a revival in agriculture in the US territory that offers, some believe, one potential solution to the $73 bn indebtednescrisis currently gripping the island.

We have a beautiful island and a perfect climate, we can render whatever we want, Rosado says of the boxes of lettuces, beans, peppers, herbs and other veggies delivered daily by a farmer-run cooperative based close to San Juan, the capital city.

Its taste, the smell, the freshness and the crunch, you cant even believe we can make this quality of food.

But to ensure our island growing again in this way is cool, its nice, we have something going here. It maintains dollars in Puerto Rico. Im very proud that were working and supporting Puerto Rico.

The headline figures of the century-long deterioration of Puerto Rican agriculture are depressing. In 1914, revenue from agriculture, food production and related activities accounted for 70% of the islands gross domestic product. According to the most recent statistics from the US Census of Agriculture, it now accounts for less than 1 %.

Furthermore, the loss to development of more than a million acres of prime farmland and the collapse of the sugar industry robbed Puerto Rico of vital income. Self-sufficiency declined to the point where the island importations up to 85% of the food it devours a critical situation, in the words of Dr Myrna Comas Pagn, secretary of the islands department of agriculture.

However, thanks to a growth in demand for locally grown-up make, financial incentives from the federal government and renewed focus on agriculture from local leaders, more households are returning to the land. According to the US Department of Agriculture( USDA ), more than 1,700 new farms have begun operations. Farmers, food distributors, politicians and analysts increasingly believe that Puerto Rico can grow its way out of trouble.

Were planting the seeds to bring foods for the future

Its about retrieving our lands and changing the culture of our people to make agriculture a way of life, Dr Comas Pagn told the Guardian , pointing to a recent reclamation of 30, 000 abandoned arable acres that lifted land available for growing to 637,000 acres, the first such increased number of decades.

Some of it will take time. For example, weve established 8,000[ new] acres for avocado and 8,000 acres for coffee that we cant assure for three years. But were planting the seeds to bring food for the future.

Were considering new farmers, new technology, new farms. Already our agricultural income has increased since 2011 by 24% to more than $900 m.

On a hillside near Caguas, about 20 miles south of San Juans old township, brothers Pedro and Jorge Casas work in two giant greenhouses, tending crops of organic mint, chives, rosemary and basil. The farm was remodelled last year, in part through a $280,000 loan from the Farm Service Agency of USDA.

The physical footprint of the Agroponicos Cosecha farm is small, because no land or soil is required to grow. Instead, the tightly packed plants roots receive nutrition from a constant flow of water filtered in three big tanks full of tilapia fish. Since 2011 the brothers, who had no previous experience of agriculture, have harvested and sold increasingly large yields.

The entrepreneurs have also set up an expanding distribution network, to serve themselves and dozens of other farmers around the island and to help drive the food revolution.

Everything is local, told Jorge Casas, 31. The phase of everything is to grow the agriculture on the island and thats the way were going to help the economy of the island.

The farmers usually dont like to go out and sell, so were generating this community of You grow, I sell. You grow what youre expert in, we grow what we are expert in, and lets join it all together and sell it.

Were working with more than 80 farms in food service, and hotels and eateries are the main goal. Almost everything we have is sold with these clients, were not even in the supermarkets.

The knock-on effect is more tasks, a welcome growth on an island where according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics the unemployment rate is a highest-in-the-nation 11.7%, more than twice the US average of 5 %.

With the farming boom arrived more farm labourers, drivers and retail employees, and urban make marketplaces are opening up across Puerto Rico. One such, O-Mrkt in the San Juan suburbs, opened in April with the Casas friends as partners.

We need to grow food, told Pedro Casas, who was formerly a web graphic designer. It doesnt matter how but we need to grow it. If we dont teach our kids these things you dont turn that trigger on. Education about agriculture was and still is very low on the island, we need to get into the schools.

Tara Rodrguez operates an organic cafe-restaurant and create market in old San Juan. Photo: Richard Luscombe for the Guardian

Tara Rodrguez Besosa is another young entrepreneur who has recently moved her organic cafe-restaurant and make marketplace, El Departamento de la Comida( the Ministry of Food ), out of a warehouse in old San Juan and to a larger site in Santa Teresita, a suburb in the east of the city. From small beginnings and a $10,000 loan from a friend, in 2010, she has built the business into a flourishing community hub, focused exclusively on locally grown create and sustained farming.

I got to know all these amazing farmers, and wondered how people get to know about them and have access to these products if youre not up at 8am on a Sunday for a farmers market, said Rodrguez, 31.

Were creating demand. We have this pond of buyers, a pool of farmers and were bringing them together. Food is my bet on how to change this island, if not the world. Food has the power to change everything from economy to education to health to surrounding, you name it. I feel were on the verge of something with this island.

Farmers have iPads, there are dronings to monitor crops

Many of Puerto Ricos new generation of innovators and thinkers are gathering in San Juan this weekend for Agrohack, a specialist conference that will bring together for the first time the islands food growers, dealers, chefs and consumers.

Much of the focus will be on green farming and new technology solutions that Carlos Cobin, the events founder, tells will transform the islands agricultural industry into an unrecognisable incarnation of its former self, with better energy and land efficiency and lower costs.

You think of agriculture in Puerto Rico and the first image that comes to intellect is an old jibarito in a straw hat strolling the field slowly with his two policemen, he told. But the landscape is different now. Farmers have iPads, there are drones to monitor harvests and spread seeds, theyre taking old warehouses and turning them into aquaponics and vertical farming.

With the internet and educated in agribusiness its not only about the farmer, its about people that export, its branding, marketing, gaining value from the product. Were bringing together people with notions, experience and invention, the hackers, discoverers, hustlers and business people who identify Puerto Ricos problems and find the solutions.

Despite the progress, and nearly $60 m from USDA to support agricultural programmes, the headwinds remain strong. The islands vulnerability was exposed last summer when drought led to widespread crop failing and situations of emergency declaration in ten counties.

Still, Dr Comas Pagn was upbeat.

With the technology we have we can aim to produce 40% of our local intake, she told. Were in a crisis so we need to be efficient and contribute to our economic and labour growth by creating agricultural chores. People want to work.

Im aroused because were looking at a revival of agriculture, young people considers that it is as a way of life.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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