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Puerto Rico's Farmers Face A Long Road To Recovery Post-Hurricane Maria

The island lost 80 percent of its crop value to the storm -- and it could take anywhere from 10 months to a year to get production levels back again.

11/26/2017 09:55 EST | Updated 12/04/2017 12:30 EST

HATILLO, Puerto Rico ― Clusters of bruised plantains and bags of oranges hung from René “Papo” Cruz’s fruit and vegetable stand on the side of the road. The 60-year-old farmer sat in a worn chair, waiting patiently for customers to buy what he could salvage in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

“There are 68 acres [on my farm] and every single one of them is sown ― well, they were. Now there is nothing,” Cruz told HuffPost, adding that his family depends on what he produces and sells to survive.

In October, when HuffPost visited Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Cruz said he was confident he would receive help from the government, financial assistance to buy seeds and clean up debris. If nothing else, he said, he had at least insured his farm. “But [the company is] not going to pay for everything,” he said. “The loss was too great.”

Carolina Moreno/HuffPost
René “Papo” Cruz looks out from his fruit and vegetable stand in Hatillo, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 16.

But when HuffPost reached out to Cruz’s estate last week to follow up on what type of aid he and his family had received, his wife, Limary Perez-Sanchez, 42, said they have not gotten any help from any entity.

Carlos Alberto Flores Ortega, the secretary of the department of agriculture in Puerto Rico, blames limited communication across the island; about a quarter of the island still has no access to telecommunications services. Communicating to farmers on how to get aid has been slow going.

“There’s going to be plenty of people that don’t have all that information because we don’t have telephones and we don’t have internet,” he said, adding that farmers need to visit a government office to make sure they are aware of all the programs and benefits available to them.

Carolina Moreno/HuffPost
A plantain farm in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, at sundown in October.

But more than two months after Hurricane Maria, Flores Ortega says he believes the agricultural sector has “just passed the emergency phase.”

Most of Puerto Rico’s farmers lost much of their livelihood to hurricanes Irma and Maria. Flores Ortega says 80 percent of the crop value on the island was wiped out by the storms. He notes it could take anywhere from 10 months to a year to get back to regular production levels.

For now, some farmers are buying imported goods to stock their businesses.

“I’m going to buy from [abroad] because there is nothing left here,” Cruz told HuffPost, saying he estimates it’ll take almost a year for his plantains, coffee, oranges and more to be ready to harvest. “We have to sell that because there’s nothing else. What am I going to support my family with?”  

Assessing The Damage

Financial loss in the agricultural sector is a blow to the already fragile and debt-ridden Puerto Rican economy. Flores Ortega estimates the industry is down $245 million in agricultural products and $1.8 billion in damages to infrastructure ― storage facilities, irrigation systems, fences ― as a result of storm damage.

More specifically, he says, the hurricane destroyed 70 percent of the poultry sector’s facilities, killing about 2.2 million chickens, and the dairy sector had about 4,200 cows either severely affected or killed.

Flores Ortega says all the losses in the agricultural sector mean a delay in his objective to reduce the amount of food that’s being imported to the island from 85 percent to 70 percent. In fact, that number is set to increase as imported goods are the only way farmers like Cruz can keep their fruit and vegetable businesses running while they wait for the next harvest.

While Cruz has not received aid from the government yet, Flores Ortega says farmers are eligible to receive financial assistance from both his department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Carolina Moreno/HuffPost
A plantain farm, with trees that are mostly knocked down, in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico.

In October, the USDA also approved $12 million to provide dairy farmers with money to feed their animals for one month. Farmers must apply to federal programs directly through the USDA, though Flores Ortega says his department is currently helping farmers with the process.

“We have been presenting to the local farmers, in different regional meetings, what those programs are, what those programs require, and what all the documentation is and how to apply for those programs,” he said.

Herds Of Cows Wiped Out By The Storm

While Flores Ortega says the dairy sector is one of the least-affected in the aftermath of the storms, those farmers still felt their losses deeply.

Rubén González Echevarría, 34, is co-owner of a dairy farm in Arecibo, about 43 miles west of San Juan. His brothers Jonathan, 36, and Yamil, 38, also own the farm, which they’ve managed for the past 15 years.

“I prepared the best I could, but the magnitude of the hurricane winds was so strong that they broke everything,” González Echevarría said in mid-October, as he showed HuffPost the sheets of metal roofing that had been destroyed on his farm.

During Hurricane Maria, González Echevarría says 20 of his cows died when zinc roofing fell on them. Five calves died during the storm as well, leaving him with 125 cows for milk production.

While coping with those losses and other effects of the aftermath of Maria, González Echevarría and his brothers still had to milk the cows and dispose of their milk. Blocked roads prevented the company they sell their milk to from picking it up for distribution, but milking had to continue.

“[The cows] are accustomed to being milked twice a day,” he said, explaining how they could develop mastitis or other conditions that could disable future milk production.

Carolina Moreno/HuffPost
A cow at Rubén González Echevarría's dairy farm in Arecibo.
Carolina Moreno/HuffPost
From left, Yamil, Rubén and Jonathan González Echevarría stand in their dairy farm.

Before the storm, González Echevarría says the farm produced 1,400 liters daily. By mid-October that number stood at 800 liters and is currently at 1,100 liters. The farmer says it’ll take “months” to get back to normal production.

“I know it’s a long process; it’s not instant,” he told HuffPost in a phone call last week. “I have to feel good because what else am I gonna do?”

In the meantime, González Echevarría has been able to take advantage of the USDA’s financial assistance for buying feed for his cows, but he says his month of aid will end on Dec. 7. He also says he received some money that covers 40 to 50 percent of the cost to fix the infrastructure damages to his farm.

“It’s not enough but at least it’s help,” he said. “I need more but until now it’s worked out. Everything is flowing little by little.”

Carolina Moreno/HuffPost
The González Echevarría brothers' dairy farm was battered by Hurricane Maria.

González Echevarría, like many other Puerto Ricans across the island, relies on a generator to operate his farm. Flores Ortega says the long-term dependency on generators to run refrigeration tanks for milk and more is a big issue.

“That equipment is not designed for 24/7 hours of operation,” he said. “They are going to be presenting problems if they are not given the correct maintenance. If that happens then they are going to have serious problems.”

Flores Ortega says he plans to ask nonprofits for help with obtaining generators since the USDA does not provide assistance for generators, “because the expectation is that we are not going to have electricity for several months” he added.

Looking To The Future

At 60, Cruz says he’s prepared to deal with the hurricane’s aftermath. He also expects that it won’t be the last time his farm will endure this type of destruction.

“We have to accept all of this because remember what they say, about the [global] warming,” he said. “This won’t be the [last] time that we are going to deal with this. This will keep going. This doesn’t end.”

But Cruz says he wants to keep going because farming is “in you, in your heart, in your faith.”

“We lost the farm but there are others who lost their lives, who lost their houses but we didn’t lose our land,” he said. “We have to get it up and running. We have to keep going. We aren’t going to give up, especially not Puerto Ricans. We are warriors.”

Carolina Moreno/HuffPost
Cruz stands inside his fruits and vegetables in Hatillo. He says Puerto Ricans have to keep going, despite the hurricane damage they are dealing with.