SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico looks to rejuvenate its agriculture by growing more of its own food right on the island. The U.S. territory imports over 80 percent of its food. It is speculated that 90 percent of that could be produced locally.
The territory was once largely made up of small farmers who made their money off the land. But in the decades following World War II, farming practices slowed dramatically. The island built up factory systems and urban centers that radically changed the economy.
Puerto Rico began to import its food, and the majority of other products, from the mainland. In 1914, agriculture output made up 71 percent of Puerto Rico’s GDP. In 2014, it only made up one percent. Agriculture-based jobs declined from 263,577 in 1930 to just 19,000 in 2015.
In addition, children were discouraged from becoming farmers. A stigma around the profession developed and was linked to being a jibaro—a rural peasant. The term is similar to the use of the word ‘hick.’
Puerto Rico’s Agriculture Secretary, Myrna Comas Pagan, explains that the common idea was, “If you want to be a prosperous man, you will need to study medicine or engineering. Agriculture is for people that don’t have anything to do.”
However, that is all changing. Comas is engaged in the initiative to strengthen the island’s food security and sustainability. For each of the past two years, Puerto Rico’s government endowed about $13 million in subsidies to farmers.
This enabled them to buy equipment, hire and pay workers—essentially to maintain a farm. The subsidies have been successful in creating jobs and increasing the economy’s productivity.
There is a sizeable grassroots movement as well. Entrepreneurs, many of them young, start their own food and farming operations after experiencing no luck with Puerto Rico’s failing economy.
“El Departmento de la Comida”, the Department of Food, is a restaurant and market in San Juan owned and run by Tara Rodriquez Besosa. Here people can buy produce grown by small local farmers.
Besosa got her start by selling her mother’s organically grown vegetables at a local farmers market. Similar markets have been popping up all over the island.
“I’m seeing more and more young people interested in agriculture, and even more in organic agriculture,” says Ricky Cruz Ortiz, an organic farmer that sells his produce to some of San Juan’s finest restaurants. “I think that people are yearning for contact with the land.”
In schools, agriculture is becoming part of the curriculum. Dalma Cartagena teaches third through eighth graders how to grow their own healthy and sustainable food. The curriculum is a community-based method she developed herself and has spread beyond her district.
Puerto Rico has fertile soil and a year-round growing season. Secretary Comas reckons that if momentum prevails, Puerto Rico’s food production will double by 2025.
That would save the territory over $3.5 billion, according to Puerto Rico’s Planning Board. It would also produce about 85,000 jobs that, considering that 30 percent of youth are unemployed, are much needed.
Studies reveal that 70 cents of each dollar that is spent on local agriculture products stays within the local Puerto Rican economy. Local agriculture removes the extra cost of outside sellers, handlers and transportation.
Benefits go beyond the economic factors as well. Sustainable farming can offer up ways to fix widespread problems such as food scarcity, obesity and a lack of access to healthy food.
– Lillian Sickler
Sources: NPR, Latina USA, Caribbean Business
Photo: NPR, Puerto Rico Wants To Grow Your Next Cup Of Specialty Coffee