After María new opportunities for agriculture in Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN — The secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture (DA), Carlos Flores Otero, stated Wednesday that the island’s farmers are not helpless and that his agency is already performing recovery efforts for this important industrial sector, strongly impacted by Hurricane María.
Flores Otero added that this catastrophe could represent an area of opportunity to revive the agricultural industries on a local level.
“I believe that this is our opportunity to create a farming industry like the one we had years ago. And not just in agriculture, but in all economic sectors .We have an opportunity to take this as a lesson, and now, in Puerto Rico’s recovery, have better planning,” the Agriculture Secretary said.
“We must think of a better Puerto Rico. In agriculture we already have many ideas on how to improve things so when these situations come up we can handle them more efficiently, considering Puerto Rico is in the path of all those hurricanes. In this way, business interruption on the island will be minimal. In the DA we are going to do that and not just help farmers have better structure, better technology, have their [power] plant and survive whatever happens around them,” he explained to Caribbean Business from the government’s emergency command center at the Convention Center in San Juan.
Flores Otero acknowledged, however, that there will probably be a decline in the availability of local products, specially around Christmas, due to significant losses reported in farms that grow plantains and other produce. Moreover, he said it is still too early to provide a concrete figure on local produce losses.
The DA official expressed that this could be a golden opportunity to change statistics regarding local food consumption, which places imported products at 85 percent versus only 15 percent local production.
“It has always been demonstrated that 85 percent of our food comes from outside the island and that 15 percent is produced locally. That 15 percent took a hit, has decreased, we still haven’t determined by how much. Once we begin to recover, then we can start eliminating imports and adding local products, which is what really creates jobs, generates added value and that economic chain,” he said.
Flores Otero explained that losses related to the island’s agricultural infrastructure also had to be accounted for. The secretary explained that, for example, in the area of poultry production, out of over 260 farms roughly 80 were disabled.
Therefore, he emphasized, it is necessary that the construction of these types of structures be analyzed and reconsidered to ensure that in future they can withstand the impact of even a category 5 hurricane.
“There are structures that did resist. We have to study that engineering, those structures. Some had lower beams, the height of the roof was more compact and did not allow the wind to raise (the structure). The structures that fell were the largest, those with two floors, made of wood with some other type of material, so we have to look at that and build to minimize the impact of a storm like this,” he declared.
Moreover, Flores Otero ensured that the agricultural industry is still in a state of emergency after María, although he said this sector is already seeing improvements.
“The emergency stage is still active because many of our producers are having trouble burying animals; for example, there is a specific area in Aibonito, to which we already sent reinforcements, where some small producers were having trouble burying animals. This should not have happened because we had met before [Hurricane] Irma, and we had explained the security protocol, we gave them an advanced copy of the order by the Environmental Quality Board (EQB), which in an expedited way allowed them to make holes and pits to bury the animals as long as they were 150 feet away from a body of water,” the DA secretary said, explaining that relief efforts for these farmers were delayed due to the need to reallocate resources to address other situations.
“What happened was that when the hurricane passed, most of the heavy machinery available was used to clean roads and access routes, since there were lives that could’ve been lost. But this left farmers in a secondary plane and some of them didn’t have the machinery to bury (the animals),” he explained.
Flores Otero indicated that the dairy industry is also in trouble, since most of these farmers have had their production limited since it is fully automated and requires electricity.
He added that the DA is continuously carrying out assistance missions with a diesel supply truck, visiting the smallest producers located mostly in the northern cattle towns such as Hatillo and Arecibo, among others.
Another aid mechanism available to farmers, according to the Secretary, is the DA emergency program which can finance 75 percent of machinery used by producers to carry out debris removal, clean up work and soil preparation.
“What farmers do is they hire a machinist and when the latter gives them the receipt, the DA then assumes the expense. As we continue helping farmers, they are encouraged to plant quickly, so we are already focusing on those efforts,” he assured.