Puerto Rico’s farm­ers face stag­ger­ing loss

Storm ‘wiped out’ crops, but res­i­dents are ready to work

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - Oren Dorell @oren­dorell Con­tribut­ing: Car­rie Cochran

GUAYANILLA, PUERTO RICO José Roig, 56, tried to stay positive as he sur­veyed his 150-acre cof­fee plan­ta­tion cling­ing to the steep, storm-scoured hill­sides near Puerto Rico’s south­ern coast.

Hur­ri­cane Maria’s winds of more than 150 mph ripped away nearly all the leaves on the once-lush trop­i­cal land­scape, twisted tree trunks and ex­posed shade­lov­ing cof­fee plants to the sun.

“What took 35 years to build was lost in 10 hours,” Roig said, looking at a val­ley of de­struc­tion that spread be­yond the moun­tain peaks in the dis­tance and across the en­tire is­land.

Roig, who is proudly self-re­liant, said his har­vest was in­sured, and he vowed to re­cover.

But Puerto Rico’s agri­cul­tural sec­tor was dec­i­mated by the storm, and he and govern­ment of­fi­cials agreed that a full re­cov­ery from Maria’s blow will re­quire fed­eral as­sis­tance.

Carlos Flores Ortega, Puerto Rico’s sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture, said the area around Roig’s farm, near the south­ern port city of Ponce, is known for plan­tains, ba­nanas, pa­payas, cof­fee and cit­rus crops.

“All of that has been wiped out,” Flores Ortega said. “Farm­ers are used to loss, rain, heavy rains and flood­ing. But in this oc­ca­sion, we had the worst nat­u­ral dis­as­ter in 100 years on the is­land.”

Flores Ortega es­ti­mated the is­land lost 80% of its crops. The poul­try sec­tor lost 90% of its pro­duc­tion and more than 2 mil­lion of its 2.6 mil­lion birds, along with nu­mer­ous chicken coops and pro­cess­ing equip­ment.

All the plan­ta­tions have been de­stroyed. Flood­ing cov­ered 51,000 acres of coastal area. Cows and other live­stock floated away in the swollen rivers. Ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems were lost, and or­na­men­tal and hy­dro­ponic fa­cil­i­ties were dam­aged.

“There’s no plant that can sur­vive 150 mph winds,” Flores Ortega said.

Fed­eral agen­cies and the is­land’s Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture are looking for ways to re­store Puerto Rico’s $1 bil­lion agri­cul­tural sec­tor, with grants and loans to help bury an­i­mals and to re­build fa­cil­i­ties and roads so farm­ers can go back to plant­ing and pro­duc­tion.

Jobs and in­come pro­duced by food pro­ces­sors add $3.5 bil­lion more to the is­land’s econ­omy, Flores Ortega said.

Luz Quiñones, 39, who owns La Cosecha Mia (My Har­vest) pro­duce mar­ket in Old San Juan, said Puerto Rico’s farm in­dus­try was un­der­go­ing a re­nais­sance be­fore the hur­ri­cane, with young peo­ple get­ting into the game to feed a de­mand for or­ganic and lo­cal pro­duce.

That sec­tor has grown to the point that it started to ex­port pro­duce, Quiñones said.

“If the govern­ment doesn’t help re­build, I don’t know if we’re go­ing to sur­vive,” she said.

In Yabu­coa, a re­gion on the south­east­ern cor­ner of the is­land that pro­duces plan­tains, farmer Aure­lio Bel­tran drove through acres of downed plan­tain trees.

An­gel Mo­rales, pres­i­dent of the Yabu­coa farm­ing co­op­er­a­tive, said most of the val­ley’s 3,000 to 4,000 acres of plan­tains were de­stroyed. Al­though farm­ers carry in­sur­ance, they’ll still lose money be­cause trees cost $6 to $7 to plant, and in­sur­ance only pays $3.25 a tree, Mo­rales said.

Roig, whose fore­fa­thers es­tab­lished his farm in 1876 as Span­ish im­mi­grants from Cat­alo­nia, rode across his land in a rusty Jeep Rene­gade with his son, Jesús, 31, at the wheel.

He handed farm­hand Ilaín Ar­mánd sev­eral meal pack­ages from the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency that had been dis­trib­uted by the Puerto Rico Na­tional Guard to the mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Guayanilla, which brought them to Roig. Ar­mánd, 35, moved his wife and three small chil­dren to a friend’s house af­ter his home was wrecked in the storm.

Roig es­ti­mated 3,500 pounds of cof­fee beans were lost when Maria raked his plants, as well as 100,000 young plants in his now devastated nurs­ery. Five of his eight houses for farm­work­ers were de­stroyed.

A mu­nic­i­pal road crew passed by af­ter clear­ing the road to the last iso­lated farm and a fam­ily of five who rode out the storm near the moun­tain­top.

What’s Roig go­ing to do now? “We’re go­ing to work,” he said.

Far­ther up the moun­tain, he stooped to in­spect a cof­fee plant. When he rubbed the yel­low spots on the leaves, they turned to a red­dish pow­der. The fun­gus, called roya, “was here be­fore, but the storm weak­ened the plants. The dis­ease is now spread­ing faster,” he said.

“What took 35 years to build was lost in 10 hours.”

José Roig, a farmer from Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, whose crops in the field and in a nurs­ery were devastated, along with most of his houses for farm­work­ers


Aure­lio Vel­tran walks through his de­stroyed plan­tain fields Mon­day af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria struck Puerto Rico.


Farmer José Roig in­spects cof­fee plants cov­ered in yel­low­ish spots, a fun­gus that spread af­ter the storm.

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