On the morning of 21 September 2017, Carlos Lago and Justina Díaz Bisbal emerged from their household into a post-apocalyptic world. Their once-lush five-acre fruit farm in southern Puerto Rico was entirely stripped of its foliage. Tree limbs were broken or twisted; pieces of metal from nearby homes, trash, and even a mattress were strewn across their property. The damage wrought by Hurricane Maria was unlike anything the older couple had ever witnessed.
“Upon seeing all of the destruction, we looked at each other,” Díaz Bisbal told us in Spanish. “I asked, ‘What do we do now?’ He [Lago] answered, ‘We start over.’”
Maria wiped out 80 per cent of Puerto Rico’s crops and exposed the island’s lack of locally-produced food. Before the storm, Puerto Rico was importing more than 85 per cent of its food. In its immediate aftermath, that number jumped to 95 per cent. Plantains, a staple of Puerto Rican cuisine, had to be brought in from surrounding islands; coffee crops were decimated.
A lack of electricity to power irrigation systems and farming machinery exacerbated how long most farms were out of action, while the Jones Act — an obscure relic from 1920 — initially stalled deliveries of much-needed relief supplies such as animal feed by requiring them to be transported via US vessels. (The Act was waived for Puerto Rico about a week after the storm struck.)
Nearly a year later, things have finally started to return to normal for many farmers thanks to US government assistance and grassroots aid efforts. But there’s still a long road ahead.
“After 10 months, we’re not back 100 per cent, but I would say we’re around 65 per cent,” Edwin Almadóvar, director of USDA Natural Resource Conservation Center Caribbean sector, told us.
Some farmers, such as Díaz Bisbal and Lago, now 78 and 73, did indeed have to start over from scratch. Prior to Maria’s siege on the island, their farm in the pueblo of Guayama had around 700 fruit trees — mostly native species or ones that had been available since their childhood, such as prickly guanabanas, yellow or orange pajuils, green-and-pink guavas, and small round quenepas. The storm did away with at least 75 per cent of the couple’s crops.
As an older gentleman, Lago initially struggled to get the farm back into shape on his own. The couple’s fortunes changed dramatically in February, however, when they were paid a visit by La Guagua Solidaria, a volunteer effort from the not-for-profit Puerto Rico Resilience Fund.
Designed to promote agricultural resiliency in the aftermath of Maria, La Guagua Solidaria deploys brigades to farms to provide seeds, clean up debris, help rebuild roofs and homes, and help transition farms to renewable energy.
“It takes a village after a hurricane like that to really help out a farm project,” Tara Rodríguez Besosa, organiser of La Guagua Solidaria, told us.
A solidarity brigade spent three days camping on Díaz Bisbal and Lago’s land, helping the couple clear out debris and begin planting new crops — this time focusing on faster-growing vegetable crops such as eggplant and lettuce. With the solidarity brigade’s help, Lago hopes he’s able to start marketing his product before Christmas. But he expects his farm’s output to be nowhere near what it was before the storm.
Since last November, La Guagua Solidaria has visited a different food project — be it a farm or a community garden — every week, with the aim of helping 200 within two years.
And the brigades aren’t just helping farmers get the next harvest going. They’re also helping tackle a largely-overlooked mental health crisis. Brigades organise with local doctors, yoga instructors and masseuses to deal in an effort to guide folks through a variety of wellness practices.
“A lot of farmers are going through their own traumas after the hurricane,” Rodríguez Besosa said.
Indeed, when I spoke to Díaz Bisbal, she had just gone to her first therapist visit the day before. She attributed it to the hurricane. As her therapist told her, “all of Puerto Rico needs therapy right now.”
The US federal government saw a lot of criticism for not delivering aid to Puerto Rico faster. That impacted agriculture as well as everything else. Still, some government efforts to improve the island’s agricultural sector are also underway.
Take financial assistance programs such as the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), which is furnishing farmers in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands with $US10 million ($14 million) worth of financial and technical aid to help them recover.
But while EWP has provided — and continues providing — some farmers with funding to install solar panels, awareness of the program remains low, according to Almodóvar.
For Lago and Díaz Bisbal, who were without electricity for six months, it was once again volunteers from the solidarity brigade who introduced them to solar panels and help shoulder the cost. They are now part of a growing trend of Puerto Ricans — not just farmers — who’ve decided solar microgrids are worth the investment as the island’s power grid continues to struggle and the climate becomes less predictable.
“Farmers are investing in solar panels and battery backups and efficient generators because it’s going to happen again,” Almadóvar told us. “They’re becoming more resilient and more sustainable.”
While Lagos and Díaz Bisbal’s farm represents something of a success story, there’s still a long road ahead for Puerto Rican agriculture. It’ll be a while before markets are selling local produce such as coffee and plantains at the same rate as before the storm, according to Almadóvar. Today, when local produce is available, it’s generally expensive.
Just looking at another farm in their very neighbourhood, that of Paquita García and Herminio Alfonso, it’s a different story. Like Lagos and Díaz Bisbal, García and Alfonso are an older couple with a five-acre farm specialising in fruit trees. In their case, Hurricane Maria left indelible marks.
“We’ve lost 100 per cent of our crops,” García told us in Spanish. “María took everything.”
Only in mid-July was the couple able to rebuild their farm’s fence, thanks to the solidarity brigade. The replanting process hasn’t even begun. García couldn’t say when the farm will finally bear fruit again, but she expects the recovery process to be a long and arduous one. Still, she does expect their farm to bounce back eventually.
Díaz Bisbal and Lago are also hopeful about the future. “The hurricane has made us much stronger,” Díaz Bisbal said. “It’s made us more capable, more willing, and more committed.”