Puerto Rico, in spite of being blessed with a long growing season and significant arable land, imports 85% of the food needed to feed its residents and employs only about 2% of its workers in agriculture. Much of the land that could be farmed is not in production. Experts estimate that less than 5% of produce sold on the Island is grown locally.
This could change.
When Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898, the federal government and mainland corporations invested in coffee, sugar, and tobacco. Sugar dominated in the 20th century, but the sugar industry collapsed as U.S. policies pushed manufacturing over agriculture.
While some leaders have taken the position that Puerto Rico cannot compete internationally in agriculture, and therefore should not invest further in farming, there are factors that make agriculture a good choice for Puerto Rico.
For one thing, importing so much of its food makes Puerto Rico particularly vulnerable to food shortages in case of natural disasters. For another, the lack of fresh local foods increases health risks on the Island.
Obstacles to agriculture in Puerto Rico
One obstacle to profitable agriculture in Puerto Rico, as on the mainland, is the difficulty of finding workers. The majority of workers in agriculture in Puerto Rico are over age 55. Younger workers are more likely to choose entrepreneurship than to work on family farms.
Salinity in coastal land limits the amount of arable land in Puerto Rico. Soil management and a focus on salt-tolerant crops can help reduce the impact of this issue. Hydroponic crops are also a potential solution; experts at the University of Puerto Rico are advocating for an expansion.
Most farms in Puerto Rico are small family farms. This is seen as another obstacle to success with agriculture. Because it does not have large factory farms which are the norm in the States, Puerto Rico may not be able to compete internationally.
However, small family farms are ideal for specialty crops like organic vegetables, and Puerto Rico offers perfect growing conditions for coffee and other highly profitable specialty crops. Small farms can grow to meet the needs of the local market, including restaurants.
Innovation provides hope for the future of agriculture in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico’s entrepreneurial culture can be seen as an obstacle to profitable agriculture in Puerto Rico, but it can also be an advantage.
One example is the work of Cindy Cruz, inventor of software called Abacrop. This program tracks crops in small farms, allowing efficient documentation for government regulation and increased profitability.
“The attacks of hurricanes, Irma and Maria, and now the pandemic, have shown us that in order to survive these emergencies before, agricultural companies need to run their operations more efficiently and know how to act right away,” says Cross. “With Abacrop, we advance the documentation, (which used to be done manually previously), and now we can learn what is happening on the farm remotely and in real time and make fast and profitable decisions that promote better use of available resources,”
The software is housed in the cloud, not on individual computers at each farm, so it can be accessed with smartphones or tablets. It is a finalist in the PenFed Foundation Ignition Challenge.
Another example is the work of ConPRmetidos, a nonprofit organization established in 2012. Among their projects is a program to support the rebuilding of the coffee industry, which was decimated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, and expansion of the plantain crop.
Puerto Rico is one of the few places under the U.S. flag where cattle can be grass-fed all year, and the Island’s bees can produce organic honey — an impossibility in the States, where bees can always travel far enough to reach flowers grown with pesticides. The Island has the opportunity to focus on more profitable crops and on the local market, and new ventures are beginning to emerge.
Food insecurity has been at 40% in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. The rise of local agriculture could make a difference.