Puerto Rico Farmers Association requests unused USDA funds for dairies
SAN JUAN – The president of the Puerto Rico Farmers Association, Héctor Iván Cordero, and the president of the group’s milk sector division, Juan Carlos Rivera, on Wednesday asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to reassign $4.8 million that were not used from a $12 million allocation for livestock feed to help the sector after Hurricane María.
Under the Dairy Assistance Program, designed exclusively by the USDA to provide aid to the island, dairy operators could apply to receive vouchers from a $12 million allocation to purchase an estimated one-month supply of feed.
The amount of the voucher was calculated based on 100 percent of estimated feed costs per cow for 30 days. There are an estimated 94,000 dairy cows in 253 licensed dairy farms on the island.
“We asked the federal Secretary of Agriculture to allow us to use the remaining $4.8 million from the federal Dairy Assistance Program for Puerto Rico (DAP-PR) initiative for lost revenue, which provided $2.30 for every 100 pounds of raw milk produced but lost due to the hurricane,” Rivera and Cordero said in the letter.
The request formalizes an effort recently initiated by Cordero in Washington, D.C., on behalf of ranchers.
“We met with Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau in Washington, D.C., and asked him to reassign these funds to help farmers minimize their large losses. Our request was well-received and we are confident it will be approved,” Cordero said.
The lack of electricity has significantly affected farmers. Sixty percent of the dairy farms are operating with diesel-powered generators, which has tripled their energy costs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said that the restoration on power to the entire island could take until between March and May.
“Despite having recovered milk production by 95 percent compared with the same level of the year prior, market sales are barely 75 percent of what they were, with fresh milk the most affected, with a paltry 55 percent of sales due to lack of electricity in homes, businesses and schools. Fresh milk is a perishable food that needs refrigeration,” Rivera explained.
The most affected fresh milk sales are to public school cafeterias, which obtained a dispensation from the federal government not to serve fresh milk as part of the school lunch requirement.
“The consumption of fresh milk in the form of fresh and chocolate milk has suffered a considerable decline, which has affected the farmers. This, along with high production costs, has been terrible for the farmers. This is unsustainable for a product whose production and sale price is regulated,” the agronomist said.
On the island, there are 115 dairy farms operating with power from the utility and 153 operating with generators. The Arecibo region, followed by the Caguas region, have the largest number of dairy farms operating without grid-sourced electricity.
“I take this opportunity to call on the authorities to accelerate the restoration of electricity to our dairy farms to avoid the collapse of an industry that produces one of the essential foods of the agricultural basket and that is the only agricultural product that meets the entire demand of local consumers,” he said.
When Pence visited the island in October, milk farmers warned that they risked losing more than 10,000 head of livestock, which would have been disastrous for the island’s dairy industry, which supplies the current demand for fresh milk.
Milk production is the principal farming industry in Puerto Rico and is the main source of income in local agriculture.