“You could hear chainsaws everywhere,” says Owen Ingley, director of Plenitud Teaching Center, an educational farm in Las Marias Puerto Rico. It was the second day following the most devastating hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 80 years. The municipality of Las Marias was out to work clearing roads and checking in on neighbors.
“The collective understanding was that the government and the municipality were going to be very busy,” Ingley says. “No one was going to wait for them to come down our small road.”
Eighty percent of the U.S. territory's crop value was decimated by the storm, says Carlos Flores Ortega, the Secretary for the Department of Agriculture for Puerto Rico. Estimates of the damages to the agriculture industry alone run up to $2 billion. This is a massive hit to an industry that, NPR reports, was experiencing a renaissance before the storm.
Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, just days after Hurricane Irma destroyed $45 million in crop value. Maria is the worst storm in memory for most Puerto Ricans, but tropical storms cause damage, on a smaller scale, each year. Yet Flores Ortega is confident that Puerto Rico's agriculture sector will come back stronger than before, based on his government's ambitious goals to decrease the amount of food imported to the island from 85 percent to 70 percent.
But with a long road to recovery ahead, some farms are bringing hope to their communities. Plenitud, and other farms that are part of The Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica, already use sustainable farming methods such as storm water management, digging swales, and using permaculture practices to make their farms more efficient and resilient.
A hillside at Plenitud Teaching Center that grows ginger, tumeric, tarrow, string beans, and bananas. Plenitud uses practices such as terraces, swales, berms and other permaculture methods to manage storm water and reduce erosion.
Supporters hope this grassroots approach has the potential for significant impact on the future of farming in Puerto Rico. Following the storm, a Whatsapp thread including about a hundred of these farmers and allied organizations coordinated relief efforts between their communities.
Others have been developing their resilience strategies for years. Plenitud, for example, has spent the past five years hosting university students, engineers, and other visitors who volunteer on the farm while learning about sustainable design and permaculture principles. I was one of those visitors in 2012, just after they established their farm in Las Marias, about two hours west of San Juan.
Hurricane Maria served as a test of their years of preparation for these types of storms, which are a constant threat to the tropical island. The farmers admit that much of the damage, especially wind damage, cannot be prevented. But there are ways to be more prepared and resilient, they say. Landslides, for example, are a major threat to lives and structures on an island where nearly one-fourth of the land is steep slopes.
Ingley believes strategies such as storm water management and planting deeply rooted grasses in the right places helped their farm better weather the storm, while their neighbors' farms sustained more significant damage and landslides. Flores Ortega says the government is taking it a step further by studying the way the winds of Hurricane Maria destroyed many structures.
“This is a learning lesson, not all is bad,” says Flores Ortega. “In the poultry sector, we now know what are the structures that survive a hurricane cat 5.” Such insight can help for better planning in the future, he notes.
Growing the Future
While many farms are working to support their communities in the short term through food and rainwater distribution, Flores Ortega says more work is needed for the future. Plenitud is working on just that, to provide more education opportunities, workshops, and community events, to help educate and grow Puerto Rico’s farming industry.
“The benefit we have in Puerto Rico is that we have a growing number of young farmers,” Flores Ortega adds. “They bring the advantage of a new generation that are willing to implement new techniques … we want to take advantage of that.”
While Plenitud and Flores Ortega have similar long-term goals, they may be taking different paths to get there. The Department of Agriculture is focusing on making sure the island is getting access to the right funds and programs, such as the Emergency Watershed Program, which "may bear up to 75 percent of construction costs for emergency measures," according to its website. Flores Ortega says that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has promised Puerto Rico will be participating in the same programs that U.S. states have access to. Plenitud is focused on a more long-term grassroots approach, helping small groups at a time through their hands-on workshops. Somewhere along the line, maybe their programs will intersect.
“[Agriculture] is one of the economic sectors that can be easily recuperated, and we are going to prove that,” says Flores Ortega, who believes the island will have poinsettias for export by Christmas. “We will be the first economic sector in Puerto Rico that can stand again.”