In “How Puerto Rico Lost Its Home-Grown Food, but Might Find It Again,” NPR’s Dan Charles explores the island’s new wave of interest in farming and finding local sources of food:
Most of the news from Puerto Rico lately has been terrible. The island’s government just declared that it cannot repay its bondholders and will carry out drastic cuts in education and social services. On Wednesday, thousands of students at the University of Puerto Rico voted to continue a protest strike.
Food, though, is delivering a modest ray of hope. That hope will be on display most prominently this weekend, at a conference called Agrohack, which celebrates the island’s growing band of young food entrepreneurs, from chefs to coffee farmers. Last year, Agrohack drew 650 people. This year, organizers expect 1,500.
Across Puerto Rico, in fact, there’s a new wave of interest in food and farming. People are thronging to new farmers markets. Chefs are making a point of finding local sources of food.
According to Ricardo Fernandez, who is CEO of Puerto Rico Farm Credit, the largest agricultural lender on the island, it’s a dramatic break from Puerto Rico’s past. “Historically, agriculture has had a stigma in Puerto Rico,” he says. “It was for low-end workers, people who didn’t get an education. We’re making it more modern, more hip.”
It’s astonishing, in fact, just how far farming in Puerto Rico has fallen over the past half-century. According to USDA statistics, total sales from Puerto Rico’s farms have declined by two-thirds, in constant dollars, since 1964. Prime agricultural land, much of it previously used to grow sugar cane, sits idle. Despite its tropical climate, which allows farmers to grow food year-round, Puerto Rico imports 80 percent of its food.
During a recent trip to Puerto Rico, I heard many different reasons for Puerto Rico’s dependence on imported food. Javier Rivera Aquino, a former secretary of agriculture for Puerto Rico, traced it back to the island’s long history as a Spanish colony, when native farming traditions gave way to large plantations of sugar and coffee that were shipped back to Europe. Food, meanwhile, was imported. “They were taught to produce what they don’t consume, and they were taught not to produce what they consume,” he says. “That’s the kind of dependence that was created under that colonial system.”
In 1964, sugar accounted for almost half of all agricultural sales on the island, and sugar manufacturing accounted for 23 percent of all wages that Puerto Ricans earned. Then, within just a few years, the industry collapsed. According to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Puerto Rico’s sugar cane industry was crippled by government policies that prevented sugar producers from getting bigger and more efficient. It couldn’t compete with sugar producers in places like Louisiana. [. . .]
“We didn’t protect ourselves,” Fernandez says. “You can see it in sector after sector.” Also, Puerto Rican consumers didn’t place any extra value on home-grown food. But Fernandez also points to something else, the lack of “an entrepreneurial mindset among farmers.” Or, as Rivera Aquino puts it, “we have been taught to work for somebody else. We have not been trained to deal with risk and become entrepreneurs.”
Both of them say that the situation is now changing rapidly. Many consumers now are willing to pay extra for food grown on the island. University students are flocking to classes on agriculture. And Fernandez says the economic crisis is forcing people to try new things.
“There’s a resurgence now, because we have to re-invent ourselves,” he says. [. . .]
[Photo above: A Puerto Rican sugar refinery in 1973.]