A year after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s farmers claw back

It’s been a year since hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, leaving the U.S. territory devastated and its farms in ruins. Luis Pinto, a plantain farmer, remembers the night the storm hit.

“It was like a horror film,” Pinto says through a translator. “You felt like the hurricane was crying.”

Since then, farmers have struggled to come back, and some have succeeded, even after hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses.

Pinto has a vegetable stand and farm about an hour from the capital of San Juan in Yabucoa, on the southeast part of the island. He had 28,000 plantain trees, which produce the common food staple, but lost all of his crop when Hurricane Maria struck. “When I saw the destruction, I just cried,” he said.

He lost nearly $300,000 in buildings, equipment and trees, but now has a new field planted. Funds came from the Farm Service Agency (FSA) , which covered 65 percent of the value of his crops. He also took out a loan and used his own savings. He says the federal disaster relief arrived relatively quickly but it took nine months to receive insurance payments from the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture.

Farmers have had to cobble together support from a mix of state and federal programs. About a month after the hurricane struck, for example, the FSA implemented a Dairy Assistance Program for the estimated 225 dairy farms on the island. All of that money, meant to provide feed to all livestock animals, was dispersed within 30 days. But that wasn’t enough for many — an estimated 150 dairy farms are in bankruptcy.

Rafael Lopez, a dairy farmer in the northwest of Puerto Rico, lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of property when hurricane Maria struck but he has managed to rebuild his herd.

Then in July of this year the federal government allocated $2.3 billion in aid for nine states and Puerto Rico that suffered disasters in 2017, under the Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Fund known as WHIP. So far, $52 million has been obligated to Puerto Rico’s farmers, who have until November 21 to apply for funds.

The state threw in another $51 million in insurance payments, which had to be patched together from a variety of programs, because of the financial pressures facing the local government. Secretary of Agriculture Carlos Flores says 95 percent of all claims have been paid, but acknowledged it took time. “There’s no way we could have paid (the farmers) immediately like they wanted,” he said, due to a lack of phone service, electricity, mail and transportation.

Rafael Lopez, a dairy farmer in Camuy, on the northwest of the island, lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of property as well as livestock. “We didn’t have enough food to feed the cows,” he says. “We had to buy chicken, hog and horse feed.” Although he lost cows as a result, he’s now come back and has a herd of 225 dairy cows. But he’s among the lucky ones. Many others couldn’t make it.

Daniella Besosa runs a farm in the central mountainous region of the island, selling produce to restaurants and through a community supported agriculture program.

One of the bright spots in the island economy, for a nation that imports 90 percent of its food, are small, local farms who sell directly to supermarkets. They didn’t get any help from the federal government, but with the support of non-profit organizations and also local venders they made it through. “Small sustainable farms, in terms of the food crisis, have the recipe to remain resilient,” says Daniella Besosa, whose farm is in Aibonito, in the mountainous central region of the island.

Lead image: Luis Pinto, a plantain farmer, lost 28,000 trees at his farm about  an hour from the capital of San Juan, Puerto Rico. He has been slowly replanting trees in the year since Hurricane Maria struck.

Eliván Martinez Mercado, a senior reporter at Centro de Periodismo Investigativo in Puerto Rico, provided research and translation. Freelance reporter Michelle Kantrow-Vázquez also provided translation.

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