Fluctuations in employees´ attendance, exacerbated by the January earthquakes, showed the challenges that agriculture faces in developing its potential with people willing to return to an industry that is a pillar of food security.
Faced with a request for help from agribusinesses and the government to save crops from absenteeism associated with the earthquakes, more than a hundred people came to help with the pick and pack phase, some paid and others out of solidarity. However, after a few days of work, many gave up.
Farmers point out that it is a recurring problem. Not everyone can endure hard work. Those who appreciate contact with the land stay.
For picking and packing on these farms amid the earthquake emergency, workers receive $7.25 an hour for seven-hour days, without affecting the benefits of those under government aid programs. As many of those who decided to help are still living in shelters, it represented an opportunity to add to their income and somehow return to normal life. Others came as volunteers, even from towns on the other side of the island. For all of them, the experience brought a new way of relating to the land and its produce. These experiences also reaffirmed that, even in disasters, with determination and commitment, Puerto Ricans have the capacity to keep the economy moving. However, the island still needs concrete strategies seeking that agriculture assumes its role as one of the pillars of sustainable growth.
According to Farm Credit, the food production and distribution system in Puerto Rico is very vulnerable. Currently, more than 80 percent of the food consumed on the island is imported. The federal agency defines four gaps that must be overcome: availability, accessibility, adequacy, and stability.
According to the agency, Puerto Rico imports food from 50 countries through two ports - Jacksonville in Florida, where almost 90 percent of imports come from, and the one in San Juan – and they face the risk of hurricanes. In terms of accessibility, the agency refers to a 2012 report that reveals that food on the island is up to 23 percent more expensive than in the United States, while 1.2 million Puerto Ricans depend on nutrition assistance programs to buy food.
Farm Credit also highlights that the consumption of fresh produce on the island has dropped while the consumption of fast food and carbonated drinks, which affects people´s health, has increased. The fourth point refers to vulnerabilities in the production and distribution systems due to failures in electricity and water distribution systems. The earthquakes that hit the island in January have once again proved this. Farmers in the southwest noted that the lack of power has not only affected the farms' irrigation systems but also sales because many of the products require refrigeration.
The agency proposes, among other initiatives, promoting new agricultural technologies such as wind-resistant indoor farming and protecting and maximizing existing land, as well as implementing laws to ensure greater food security. It also proposes promoting agricultural development among young people, and the creation of home gardens, among other initiatives that can be adopted individually and with support from the non-profit sector.
Until November 2019, the agricultural sector had 22,000 regular jobs, according to the Department of Labor and Human Resources. Estimates indicate that 70 percent of every dollar consumed in local products remain in the Puerto Rican economy.
Generating an agricultural culture that restores the natural bond of Puerto Ricans with this ancient science will help provide the island with food security, health, and economic opportunities. Promoting agriculture at different scales - including domestic and community – provides solid foundations for Puerto Rico's recovery.