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In Puerto Rico, a new agriculture industry is born in the wake of Hurricane María

By Manuel Crespo Feliciano, Accuweather en Español staff writer
April 18, 2019, 11:23:14 AM EDT

SANTA ISABEL, PUERTO RICO -- Eighteen months after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, and for the first time in its modern history, innovative measures are being taken to solve the problem of food security with the construction of an agricultural structure resistant to natural phenomena.

In an interview with AccuWeather, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture of Puerto Rico Carlos Flores Ortega said that after the hurricane hit there were many lessons that have helped officials in Puerto Rico understand the fragile points of the island's agricultural system.

"We have never done enough. In Puerto Rico, 85% of the food we consume is imported. Governor Rossello's agricultural plan is an eight-year plan that seeks to double the amount of food produced on the island," the secretary said.

For Flores Ortega, dealing with emergency situations due to natural disasters is not a new issue. In 1998 he served as undersecretary of Agriculture, and he recalls that one of the great mistakes made at that time was to rebuild the system to the same as it had been in the past.

Carlos Flores agriculture

Puerto Rico's Secretary of Agriculture, Carlos Flores Ortega, explains the current situation of his agency in a cabbage farm in Santa Isabel. (Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

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"The goal is not to restore what we had before. The goal is to provide support to farmers to have the necessary resources to withstand the impact of a hurricane," added Flores Ortega, while explaining that the agency has already identified several key points to achieve the level of resilient agriculture needed by the island.

Among the points to work on is to have additional sources of renewable energy to minimize dependence on the central energy system, as well as to re-plan agricultural areas to have efficient access to the farms, develop stronger structures to store products and encourage farmers to purchase insurance against losses due to natural disasters.

The government's statistics suggest that less than a third of the island's farmers had crop insurance, a reality that prevented the agriculture industry from standing up more quickly in the aftermath of María.

María changed the profile of the Puerto Rican farmer

One of the great lessons of Hurricane María was that it helped the population realize the need to increase the production of local products to guarantee food security in the face of a natural disaster, the secretary commented.

"On an island like Puerto Rico, you can grow everything throughout the year. You have to have balanced crops that include starch products (potatoes, rice, root vegetables), vegetables, livestock, milk... you have to have a reliable source of crops that are the products that Puerto Ricans consume," Flores Ortega said.

Carlos Giusti/AP

A rice farm worker manages the irrigation system at Fraternity Farm in Lajas Valley in Guanica, Puerto Rico.

Gerald Herbert/AP

Dead poultry are seen in a farm, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Aibonito, Puerto Rico. A government official said that the farm lost more than one million chickens.

Héctor Alejandro Santiago/AP

A farm in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, destroyed by September 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

Danica Coto/AP

Recently, in addition to the many small, independent farms, the island has been seeing investment in large-scale agriculture.

Carlos Giusti/AP

Yoniel Santana works at his grandmother's produce stand at La Placita de Santurce farmers' market which sells mostly locally grown produce in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Moreover, according to his observations, after the hurricane, the profile of the Puerto Rican farmer has changed, as well as the agricultural practices that are developed.

In 2012, when the last agricultural census was carried out, the average age of the farmers was 65 years. Now, the participation rate of young people and women has increased, which proposes a transcendental and innovative change in local agriculture.

"They want to do things with more science and technology, they want to market their products, produce products that are more eco-friendly and convenient for the consumer," said Flores Ortega, adding that he is hopeful that these factors will bring about positive changes for the local agriculture industry.

Listen to AccuWeather reporter Jonathan Petramala and AccuWeather and AccuWeather en Español's journalist Manuel Crespo Feliciano, discuss their experience covering the special series "Puerto Rico: The Art of Recovery":

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