bronze lamb and banner sculpture
SAN JUAN’S PATRON SAINT: This bronze lamb and banner sculpture in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, honors St. John the Baptist, the city’s patron saint.

Forgotten farmers in Puerto Rico need help

As of late December, more than half of the island still had no electricity, and neither did 60% of its farms.

One hundred days after Hurricane Maria decimated the island of Puerto Rico, close to 60% of the island’s farms still had no electricity, Hector Cordero-Toledo told me during a phone conversation in late December.

Cordero-Toledo, a dairy farmer with a 200-cow herd and president of the Puerto Rico Farm Bureau, shared that he was one of the lucky ones, with his farm’s electricity coming back online 20 days prior to our talk. Imagine his daily routine for more than two months — cleaning milking equipment and the bulk tank, and milking cows — using a generator. And on top of this, helping his cattle deal with the environmental stress caused by Mother Nature. His herd’s milk production has been impacted — and no doubt breeding cycles and future herd replacements, too.

There are 7,000 farms in Puerto Rico, which, prior to the hurricanes, produced 15% of the island’s food. Now, its farms are producing 5% to 7%.

“Dairying is our biggest challenge right now,” he said, referring to the island’s 265 dairy farms. “Consumers are not buying [fresh] milk because they do not have energy in their homes. Our production dropped to 200,000 quarts of milk per day, when it is usually one-half million quarts.”

One of Puerto Rico’s top crops, coffee, also is suffering.

“We lost 80% of our coffee crop,” Cordero-Toledo said. Imports of seed are crucial right now as it takes a decade to establish coffee production acreage. Banana and plantain acreage was impacted, too, yet those farmers have enough seed to re-establish crops.

Hard-hit
Puerto Rico was dealt this climatic one-two punch in September: first by Hurricane Irma, which hit Sept. 6, and then by Hurricane Maria two weeks later. USA Today reported that flooding occurred on 51,000 acres. All the plantations and irrigation systems were destroyed, while swollen rivers carried away cattle and other livestock. The island’s $1 billion ag industry was essentially shut down.

Since then, federal aid has been slowly coming in. The island’s Department of Agriculture hopes to secure grants and loans to bury animals, and rebuild facilities and roads. During his last trip to Washington, D.C., Cordero-Toledo said he asked USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue for $7 million in grants to buy imported coffee seed from Mexico, Colombia and other Latin American countries. As of late December, he was still waiting for a reply.

How we can help
Why do I share this with you now? Two reasons: One, there are U.S. citizens, who more than three months after a major natural disaster, still desperately need the basics for their family farm businesses, such as electricity, seed and livestock.

Second, an organization has recently stepped up to help secure donations for island farmers. Thanks to the Texas Farm Bureau, the Puerto Rico Agricultural Relief Fund has been established in collaboration with the Puerto Rico Farm Bureau. The American Farm Bureau asked the state organization if it would be willing to lead a relief effort for Puerto Rico, given its experience in with dealing the aftermath last summer of the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey, known as the costliest tropical cyclone on record. Through its Agriculture Research and Education Foundation, the Texas Farm Bureau has an online system and mail-in protocol in place to take donations.

There is a third reason why I feel compelled to share this effort with you. While I have yet to see and experience Puerto Rico’s agriculture, I did have the opportunity to visit the island’s capital, San Juan, while on my first cruise last February. Of the ports we visited, San Juan was my favorite, as its residents shared their history and hospitality. I made a promise to myself to return and explore more of the island someday.

If you are like me, when tragedy hits where you have made a past connection, you feel it more. You can visualize the place, the people. And you wonder how you can help when you are so far away.

I sincerely ask that you consider making a contribution to the Puerto Rico Ag Relief Fund. We’ve been told that 100% of the donations will go directly to farmers and ranchers, who have been asked to apply by March 1 for financial assistance.

To make an online donation, visit fb.org/news/puerto-rico-farm-bureau-agricultural-relief-fund. Or contact Janice Neckar at Texas Farm Bureau at 254-751-2494 or [email protected] for more information.

Checks also are welcome. Write them to the Texas Farm Bureau Agriculture Research and Education Foundation and mail them to: Texas Farm Bureau Agriculture Research and Education Foundation, Puerto Rico Agricultural Relief Fund, P.O. Box 2689, Waco, TX 76702-2689, Attn: Cyndi Gerik.

Cordero-Toledo said Puerto Rican farmers appreciate all the prayers and demonstrations of support from everyone. He spoke optimistically of the island’s farmers getting back to producing 15% of their food in two to three years, and eventually boosting that to 30% to 35%.

He added: “We hope for a better future.”

Spoken like a true farmer.

 

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