Puerto Rico farmers reorganize distribution channels to survive in Covid-19 times
Rely on digital clearinghouses to better market products, resort to direct sales to consumers
SAN JUAN – Despite the initial blow to Puerto Rico farmers dealt by the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, the local agricultural sector has managed to quickly reorganize its distribution channels to adjust to the reality of an island under a curfew/lockdown order.
While sales of island-produced agricultural products to school cafeterias and restaurants were interrupted after Gov. Wanda Vázquez implemented the curfew/lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus nearly a month ago, local farmers have mitigated these loses by reshuffling their supply chains and resorting to direct sales to consumers, largely with the help of internet technology.
Puerto Rico Farm Bureau (PRFB) President Héctor Cordero Toledo said his organization – which groups the island’s farmers – has developed an online platform (https://prfb.org/programa-de-mercadeo-agricola/) to shore up sales of local produce to wholesalers, retailers and individuals, and “ensure no product is lost.” The platform serves as a clearinghouse for information on current and projected crop harvests, facilitating transactions between farmers and potential buyers of the produce, he said.
“The application facilitates the shipment of produce through the different channels of food distribution, including supermarkets and restaurant chains. The model is still in the experimental stage. In the next few weeks we are going to improve the application so that the transactions between farmers and wholesalers are completely digitalized so that the association does not have to be the intermediary,” he told Caribbean Business. “Those interested in buying get in contact with us, and according to their location, we put them in contact with their nearest farmers.”
As of Monday, 232 farmers from 60 municipalities were registered on the platform, which showed that 215 farmers in 59 municipalities were “in production” of 41 distinct agricultural products, including 5.3 million plantains and bananas as well as 884,419 pounds of other products.
Apart from plantains and bananas, the largest produce quantities registered on the site include papaya, pork, yautía lila, ñame, pineapple, oranges, sweet potato, lettuce, coriander and sweet pepper, among others. Most of the listed products come from municipalities such as Adjuntas, San Sebastián, Lares, Moca, Utuado, Añasco, Barranquitas, Isabela, Coamo, Santa Isabel and Camuy.
Moreover, a growing number of farmers have set up businesses offering home-delivery of produce boxes with an assortment of fruits and vegetables. Services such as Cajita Vallejo, Al Sol de Hoy, EAT (Empresas Agrícolas Israelís) and Agrobox deliver produce boxes that go for anywhere between $20 and $35. Some charge a transportation fee to deliver the boxes while others include it in the price, Cordero said.
“The social media pages of our organization have served as a bulletin board where farmers advertise these services. We share these messages with the community, considering that more than 15,000 people visit our web page on a daily basis,” he said. “The person calls the listed telephone number and does the transaction directly with the farmer. We have served as a communication platform for these contacts.”
Close to 40 farmers are selling their produce directly to consumers during the last few weeks, up from just a handful as recently as February, Cordero said. Most of these farmers are located in the island’s western central region, he said, adding that there are also farmers doing this type of direct selling from eastern municipalities such as Yabucoa, Maunabo and San Lorenzo.
“One of these farmers received a call from a lady from Ponce and he told he had not delivered there, but would do so even if it cost him,” he said. “He asked her to promote his service among family members and neighbors. He said that within an hour he received 15 calls for deliveries.”
Cordero said that many farmers are also setting up roadside markets to sell their goods, after the government relaxed a lockdown-order related ban, requiring that these markets set up drive-thru systems. Farmers post their telephone numbers at the markets so that clients may preorder the products and then just pick up the package at the market from their automobile, he said.
“This has helped to keep agricultural products moving, because school cafeterias and restaurants that have closed or reduced their operations. The Agriculture Department tried to channel these products to the supermarkets, but it became impossible for them to absorb such a large quantity of products,” the PRFB head said. “These supermarkets already have contracts farmers providing fresh products, and since it was more than they usually received, they started losing on them because many products remained past the expiration date and spoiled on the shelves. The logistics were getting out of their hands.”
Puerto Rico Agriculture Secretary Carlos Flores said the island’s farmers have demonstrated “enormous resiliency” in the face of crisis, noting that this was also the case with Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the January earthquakes. This ability of the agricultural sector to adjust its distribution lines has not only successfully mitigated the losses due to the lockdown, but also increased local farm sales by between 20 percent and 25 percent in the last few weeks, he said.
“Agriculture is one of the few active sectors of the economy right now,” he told Caribbean Business, noting that his agency is providing a thousand boxes to help out farmers with their home-delivery services.
In fact, Flores said that given the increasing availability of local agricultural products in a market with fewer outlets, imports of food products have either remained flat or have dropped off slightly. More than 80 percent of the island’s food products is imported.
“This has demonstrated the capacity for growth in our agriculture. There is a tendency of consumers to choose local products. You see a consumer who is more aware of the choices,” he said, noting that his agency has established a long-term goal of doubling island agricultural production in the next eight years.
However, Cordero said that the Covid-19 pandemic is still damaging the local agricultural sector despite farmers’ initiatives to weather the crisis.
“The milk industry had to dispose of 1.2 million quarts of milk because the local market is completely saturated,” he said. “Producers here were selling milk to the Dominican Republic, but the milk company there notified that it would no longer import milk because their market was also saturated during this Holy Week.”
Plantain farmers have also been hit hard because most of their sales went to restaurants, which have either closed or reduced their operations, Cordero said.
“You have a back log of these products,” he said. “You cannot say farmers are selling more with the crisis because the alternative points of sale are not mobilizing 100 percent of the production. They continue to have losses because the market is not active.”
Flores said he plans to hold a conference call with federal officials on Monday to discuss the availability of aid to farmers in Puerto Rico contained in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). He said such help would cover losses and avoid the firing of workers.
“We are waiting for the federal guides to use this aid,” he said.
He said the commonwealth Agriculture Department is offering a three-month moratorium on farmer loan payments, with “extensions if necessary.” The sector could also benefit from planned increased federal funding for Nutritional Assistance Program and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) on the island, he said.
Meanwhile, Cordero said that he does not believe that the novel coronavirus epidemic will disrupt farming on the island. Many biotechnological farming companies in the southern part of the island have put off their spring sowing of genetically modified seeds for such crops as corn and soy beans that are usually shipped to farmers overseas, according to news reports, which state that this is due to concerns that agricultural workers could get infected.
“The greatest number of people who have gotten Covid-19 is in urban areas,” the PRFB head said. “In rural areas this is minimal. Agriculture is done in open spaces; usually the contact between persons is minimal in farms. Thank god, we have not heard any instance of contagion involving farm workers.”
Agricultural workers have been instructed in how to address the emergency by using face masks and gloves, and avoid social contact. If workers or related family members are sick, they are told to stay home, he said.
“It is not like what happened after the earthquakes in the area of Guánica and Sabana Grande, where a lot of vegetables are grown and where workers did not go because their houses had been affected,” he said. “We have not received any reports from farmers that field hands are not going to work.”