In Puerto Rico, Farmers Still Grapple With The Effects Of Hurricane Maria
This segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. A version of this story, by Bobby Bascomb, originally appeared on PRI’s Living on Earth.
Even before Hurricane Maria roared across the island, Puerto Rico imported roughly 85 percent of its food. After the storm, that number shot up to about 95 percent imported food—if you could get it. Road closures and shuttered grocery stores left many Puerto Ricans with no choice but to skip meals and live on canned and shelf-stable food for weeks and months.
Nine months after the storm, one of the only places to find locally grown food on the island was at farmers’ markets like the one in Rincón, on Puerto Rico’s west coast.
Sonia Carlo, whose farm is slowly recovering from the storm, now brings pineapple, papaya, mushrooms, and kale to the market. Sonia says things are just starting to turn around for her family and the farm. They are finally harvesting again and her farm-to-table restaurant, Sana, opened a few weeks ago.
But Hurricane Maria devastated their lives and destroyed their home. Carlo had to send her three children to Florida to live with family while she and her husband lived in their car and rebuilt the battered farm.
“All of our production—years of tropical trees, like mango trees and passionfruit trees—died [or] were blown away,” Carlo says. “We had trees that were a hundred years old that totally perished. Since the hurricane was a cyclone, it brought some salt water and some sand with it. It looks like someone threw herbicide on everything in its path.”
Across the island, tall fruit trees were the most heavily damaged food crop. Underground root vegetables did okay. Ground plants like pineapples were among the first to recover and fast-growing vegetables like salad greens were also easy to restart. Visitors came to Puerto Rico after the hurricane with suitcases full of seeds to donate to farmers.
Carlo says they actually could have started growing again relatively quickly, but since they had no electricity and no gas, they couldn’t operate the water pump to irrigate the farm. “It was just trying to scrape up anything,” Carlo says. “Waiting ten hours for gas, just to grow food. It was very uncertain.”
In Las Marías, an agricultural area known for growing oranges, farmers Domingo Antonio Romano and his wife Nilsa Romano went through a similar trauma. After the hurricane, Las Marías was cut off from the rest of the island for two months and relied on supplies airlifted in by helicopter.
Before the hurricane, Antonio and his wife mostly grew coffee, mango, and orange trees on their small farm—the very crops most impacted by the storm. They used to have 20 orange trees; now they have one.
“Ninety percent of our farm was destroyed, but it was really like 100 percent because with the hurricane no one could come here to harvest,” Antonio says.
Antonio and his neighbors waited months before the roads were cleared and electricity restored. He says during that time, he and his neighbors came to rely on each other for help.
“Before Maria, there was forest everywhere. After Maria, the trees came down and we could see our neighbors and we got to know each other,” he says. “After the hurricane, there was a lot of empathy between the people, and everybody helped each other. And the bees! We had to feed them. After the hurricane, there were no flowers, so we put out sugar water for them.”
Antonio says it would have been impossible for him to rebuild alone. But he’s not alone. Five volunteers from a grassroots, nonprofit group called El Departamento de la Comida (the Food Department) are here to camp out on the farm for a week to clear land, plant crops, fix fences and repair the roof, among other tasks.
The Food Department organizes groups of volunteers called brigades and dispatches them all over the island. As many as 20 people at a time descend on a farm for a week, bringing with them seeds, tools, building supplies and the collective strength to revive all aspects of a working farm.
Edan Freytes, the leader of the brigade on Antonio’s farm, says they do this work because farmers are critical to Puerto Rico’s advancement. “Agriculture is the backbone of the country,” he says. “And it’s the most damaged sector. I think it’s the sector we need most to help, because it got the worst loss.”
Nilsa Romano says she’s happy to have the volunteers here. The work they do in a week would have taken her and her husband months. But beyond the physical help, she is grateful for the emotional support and the encouragement the volunteers bring.
“It’s very emotional for me because I was very depressed. It was a very traumatic experience,” Nilsa Romano says. “For months, we were without water, electricity, and a roof and we were alone. With this group here, I’m just so grateful.”
The Food Department has set a goal to send brigades like this to 200 farms across Puerto Rico, large and small, organic and commercial. They want to support domestic agriculture in any form.
Carlo, from the Rincón farmer’s market, says she had similar support, not from an organized group but from friends, neighbors, and strangers who volunteered their time to help her rebuild.
“What really got us through everything was the community,” she says. “We had a commitment to our community, especially in Rincón. People just said, ‘What do you need? I’ll help you. You need hands?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, we need people.’ And that gave us strength to keep growing and producing.”
“I’m working seven days a week, but I’m doing it with a smile on my face because I know it’s for the good of everything,” she says. “I know this is my journey in life and this is what we’re going to be doing. No matter how many hurricanes come, we’ll still bounce back. Nothing is going to keep me out. Not even a category five hurricane.”
Bobby Bascomb is a reporter for Living on Earth based in Exeter, New Hampshire.
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One year after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is struggling to rebuild itself in nearly every way, including its small farming sector. Reporter Bobby Bascomb traveled to Puerto Rico nine months after the hurricane struck to see how farmers were recovering, after the storm made working the land all but impossible. And she joins us with that story now.
Bobby Bascomb is a managing producer and reporter with Living on Earth. Welcome to Science Friday.
DOMINGO ROMANO: Hi. Thank you.
SPEAKER 1: You’re welcome. So what is the local farming community like in Puerto Rico? How did Hurricane Maria affect it?
BOBBY BASCOMB: Well, before the hurricane, roughly 85% of the food in Puerto Rico had to be imported. And that, of course, made it really expensive, about 20% more expensive than here in the US. And after the storm, that number shot up to about 95% imported food.
And the crops that they do grow, the things that were most heavily damaged were things that made a good target for wind– so trees, things like coffee, mango, oranges, that sort of thing. Crops that could hide underground– so potatoes and carrots, they did fairly well. But then you had the collapse of the infrastructure there. So there were months and months without running water or electricity.
I went up to a farm in the mountains where the roads were literally impassable for two months. So people had to have supplies airlifted in by helicopter. One of the people that I met there was a small-scale farmer named Domingo Romano.
DOMINGO ROMANO: [SPEAKING SPANISH]
INTERPRETER: 90% of our farm was destroyed, but it was really like 100% because with the hurricane, no one could come here to harvest.
SPEAKER 1: Wow. So where do we stand now after that?
BOBBY BASCOMB: Well, now they’re trying to recover. But infamously, FEMA and the government were slow to respond. So really, volunteers sort of stepped in to fill in the gap. When I was there, there was a group of volunteers from an organization called El Departmento de la Comida. That’s the food department, and they organize volunteers.
They send a group of volunteers. Anywhere from half a dozen to 20 people will just descend on a farm for a week, and they’ll tent out. They’ll camp out in tents, and they’ll do anything the farmers need done. They’ll fix fences, plant crops, weed, fix the roof, and it’s that sort of physical support that helps get a farm back up and running. But the emotional support I think, too, is really crucial to people.
I did a five-part series on recovery on the island after the hurricane, and I saw this over and over again. The government didn’t respond, so people, just neighbors and volunteers, turn to each other for help. And I think you’re going to see more of that in the future.
SPEAKER 1: Mm-hm. Why aren’t there more local farmers in Puerto Rico? That might help have a large local food source if this type of disaster were to happen again.
BOBBY BASCOMB: Yeah, good question. It’s a tropical island, plenty of sunshine and rain. It didn’t make any sense to me to begin with, either. But you could really trace it back to US policies.
Specifically, Operation Bootstrap was initiated in the 1940s, and it was a series of tax incentives and access to US markets and things like that that discouraged domestic agriculture in favor of tourism and industrial agriculture– so growing things like coffee and sugar cane that can be exported for profit. And that’s fine and dandy, but people can’t eat sugar cane and coffee for dinner.
You do see some small farmers’ markets and things like that, so they do exist. But it’s really a niche market right now.
SPEAKER 1: I guess a little bit of a law change could change all that.
BOBBY BASCOMB: It could–
SPEAKER 1: If we had a mind to–
BOBBY BASCOMB: If they had a mind, too. Exactly. But I think that people do understand that they need more of that. For months after the storm, people were skipping meals and eating out of a tin can just to get by. So they’re certainly acutely aware of how vulnerable the food system is there and I think eager to do something.
SPEAKER 1: Bobby, thank you for taking time to be with us today– Bobby Bascomb, managing producer and reporter with Living on Earth.