When visiting Puerto Rico you will find green rolling mountains that meet at sharp points, and a half hour later you will find yourself in bright green plains that mingle with marshland and the sea. Through this diverse ecosystem of an island, farms of all sizes are scattered about, managing to coexist with whatever climate may come along with the land. Pondering on this island’s beauty I thought out loud on numerous occasions, “There’s so many farms…everywhere you look!” And the response that repeatedly met that, “…and it didn’t always used to be this way.” Puerto Rico is quite literally in this sense experiencing a new Spring.
Puerto Rico is its own island: as much as it’s evident that it is a U.S. territory and popular tourist destination, it holds on to it’s history and diverse culture. Through history, this island has seen many cultures, and along with that comes food. Beginning with the Taíno people speaking the Taíno language, who are indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida. Taíno people are all but erased from history books of the U.S. education system while Christopher Columbus remains the headliner. He and the Spanish brought with them infectious diseases, exploitation, and wars against the Taíno. From there, Puerto Rico began to produce cattle, sugar cane, coffee and tobacco, which led to the importation of slaves from Africa. As a result, Puerto Rican culture evolved through a mixing of the Spanish, African, and indigenous Taíno and Caribbean Indian races that shared the island.
Without knowing the history of a place you won’t be able to understand its present. Roughly 30 years ago Puerto Rico saw a huge societal change of geographical relocation, more people wanted to live in urban areas and saw farming as an occupation as the past. “[Agriculture was] a sector that dominated the economy until the 1940s, when the territory began a decades-long transformation into a more urban, developed society where few wanted to work on farms.” This event was called Operation Bootstrap, when the U.S government encouraged and incentivized corporations to begin manufacturing on the island. This led to a push for people to leave the land. Chef turned farmer, Raul Rosado, states, “ [being a farmer]…is not something that the schools or the older people want you to be…they tell you you’re not going to have a good income and that those people don’t live well.” On top of this immense cultural change where imports became necessary as the agricultural industry dwindled, the island is still grappling from a 10 year recession. A visible sign of this throughout the island is closed local businesses, abandoned shells of what once held a community together.
However, now the government is taking some initiatives to expand the sector of agriculture once more, “The government helped launch Finca Fraternidad, or ‘Fraternity Farm,’ by providing 1,350 acres of vacant public land. This rice venture is one of about 350 farms that the government supported to reduce Puerto Rico’s reliance on expensive food imports and spur growth.” Not only is it vital for people to be interested in agriculture but also to understand the importance and sustainability of it. Food imports are extremely expensive, yet food it a basic human need. Another economic ripple in the pond of importing food is the unattainability of it, leading to huge portions of the population requiring food stamps or government assistance. It seems fundamental to want to grow food within the island, lessening the need for the government to aid in that aspect and allowing for a once again self sufficient population.
Agriculture in the Puerto Rican economy trails behind tourism and manufacturing, unlike the U.S. economy, where one of the leading industries is agriculture. Yet, these days little markets are making a comeback. Where one can find typical Puerto Rican fruits and vegetables once again, at a price that is relative to the local economy. Farmers markets have apparently tripled in the past 4 years, according to Mayra Nieves, president of a local non-profit organic food cooperative. People like Raul Rosado are taking the initiative in finding solutions, he began an organic farm which not only sells produce but also led him to start a seed selling business “Caribbean Eco Seed”. With this business he not only sells criollo, or native seeds, but he also advocates for seed saving. Seed saving will play a vital role for Puerto Rican farmers in the future to decrease dependency on genetically modified seeds (GMO). Not only is agriculture once again at the forefront, Puerto Rico is taking it one step further to promote sustainable agriculture. That is, growing food that is healthy for people and the earth.