As Hurricane Fiona continues to batter Eastern Canada, farmers in Puerto Rico assess storm damage to their sodden fields.
On Saturday morning, members of the Asociacion de Productores de Farinaceos del Este, a farmers’ association in Yabucoa, in the eastern region of the island, gathered at a local community center to discuss the state of their fields. after Fiona, which hit the island as a Category 1 Hurricane on September 18.
Ninety percent of the region’s main crop, plantains, were lost due to wind and torrential rains, said Antonio Sanchez, the association’s administrator. He estimates there are about 700 acres of plantains in the area, grown by a dozen growers.
“Most of the lowlands were flooded,” he said. “We had almost 18 inches of water in the valley.”
Potential good news is that many plants that have been bent sideways by the wind still have fruit attached. According to Salvador Coleman, a farmer in the area, these can still be harvested and put on the market, but only if the farmers have the machinery to clear the tracks, harvest the salvageable fruits and then transport them.
Crops also grew as part of a broader diversification push in the five years following Hurricane Maria. In a region once known for its export crops like sugar cane, tobacco and coffee, farmers have started growing pumpkins, eggplants, sweet potatoes and sweet peppers, mostly for domestic consumption. These have been hit hard, said Elvin Lebrón of the Eastern Soil and Water Conservation District.
There is another problem of underinsurance. Of the nearly 9,000 farms in Puerto Rico, most are considered small farms generating less than $10,000 in annual revenue, according to data from a recent census. And many of those small farmers, especially those with diversified crops, don’t qualify for crop insurance, Sanchez said. They will be left with little to no income this season, said Karla Peña, who works as a program manager in Puerto Rico for the nonprofit organization Mercy Corps.
Mercy Corps has 17 resilience centers around the island, all providing hot meals to communities, Peña said. But if the situation continues with limited electricity and limited access to clean water, the ability to keep feeding people will be reduced.
Antonio Rosa works for Cundeamor, a distributor in Guaynabo that works with a network of small and medium organic farms across the island, many of which are off the grid. Chef José Andrés’ World Central Relief Kitchen in Ponce bought Rosa’s produce this week to prevent crops from going to waste. Rosa said the south side of the island, which bore the brunt of the storm, has the largest plantain and banana farms. So his farmers stand to suffer the largest losses – or gains – depending on the extent of their insurance, he said.
“Most farmers know this is part of the risk they take when growing food,” he said. “For some farmers, it’s a great opportunity to earn a lot of money, because some of them have secured their harvest.”
But more broadly, the impact on ordinary Puerto Ricans is likely to be painful, he said.
“With inflation, local produce has been kind of a relief for our people’s pockets because it has kept prices low,” he said. “But now this storm will raise the prices of all remaining agricultural products until things return to normal.”
More support is expected. President Biden said Thursday that the federal government aims to pay 100% of Puerto Rico’s recovery costs from Hurricane Fiona for the next month, including debris removal, shelter for displaced people, the restoration of electricity and water, as well as food.
This type of short-term food aid is needed, but it will not help farmers in the long term and is likely to drive up food prices in the domestic market, farmers’ groups say.
“Farmers need support for business continuity,” said Duamed Colon-Carrion, president of Agro Tropical, a Puerto Rican agricultural company in Jayuya that specializes in cover crops. That support includes emergency working capital as well as help for farm workers, most of whom have home damage and psychological stress, he said.
“The most important thing is to attend to the emergency,” said Coleman, the plantain farmer in Yabucoa. “But what about after that?”