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Berenice Carmona, pastry chef at Atelier, Cocina Abierta in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

How Puerto Rico’s Food Industry Is Picking Up the Pieces After Hurricane Maria

Months later, chefs and farmers are still processing the catastrophic effects

Today, nearly three months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico’s shores, locals are still processing its catastrophic effects. In looking at the food and agricultural industry, a six-letter word comes to mind: change.

“The game changed. Everything changed,” says Patricio Schames, co-owner of Cincosentidos, a restaurant group in San Juan. “I mean, right after the hurricane, and even now, it’s very expensive and hard to go eat mofongo,” she says, referring to the island’s unofficial signature dish, a plate of mashed plantain dressed up with garlic and pork. “There are no plantains.”

A month after Maria viciously ravaged Puerto Rico, much of the island’s electric grid and pipelines were still in disrepair; most people went weeks without power or running water. Today, 93 percent of the island has water, but “remains on a boil advisory,” according to NPR; only 66 percent of residents have power, and almost a thousand people are still living in shelters. Telecommunications towers were destroyed, and even today many are still without a consistent cell phone signal or Wi-Fi access. Restaurants are starting to open up again, and have become hubs for communities, but farmers and their land were especially hard hit.

Thousands of acres of farmland was washed away overnight. After Irma and Maria, every farmer in Puerto Rico “lost at least 80 percent of their crops,” says Ian Pagán Roig, who has a masters degree in soil sciences and started renting land in 2014 in Toa Alta, an area along the northern coast of the island, to live out his dream as a farmer. “There are those who lost everything. But we were lucky. We lost our plantains, we lost our yucca, cucumbers, and eggplant, but we still have the sweet potatoes and yams — and we still have our soil.”

The struggles of Puerto Rico’s economy go beyond the disaster caused by the hurricanes in the Caribbean this year. But before the storms, the island was experiencing a farming renaissance, spearheaded by young farmers and a new approach shaped by sustainable, cooperative, and eco-agricultural practices.

While the Puerto Rican government gave generous subsidies and some of its top agricultural land to biotechnological companies such as Monsanto, a new generation of farmers fought for space on their island. Despite droughts, floods, and competition from the mainland — 85 percent of Puerto Rico’s food is imported from the U.S. because of the Jones Act — local farmers were making headway in the markets, and selling locally grown produce to restaurants. Then the hurricanes arrived.

“We lost $45 million of net produce just with Irma, and $200 million with María,” Carlos Flores Otero, the Secretary of Agriculture of Puerto Rico, says. “To all of this, we must add more losses in other agricultural sectors and infrastructure, such as ornamental ranches, hydroponic farms, fishing farms, milk farms, cattle, chicken farms, pork farms, among others. We estimate the global losses at $2.8 billion. This is by far the worst agricultural catastrophe in the history of Puerto Rico.”

Still, Flores Otero seems optimistic. He said that the federal Department of Agriculture promised to aid Puerto Rico with $1.27 billion from the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program. “U.S. Secretary of Agriculture [Sonny] Perdue is committed to helping us,” he said, and Perdue sent “a task force to examine all losses and has provided us the opportunity to get back on our feet through 11 different federal programs.”

If that money has changed hands, it hasn’t been announced. Things still look pretty grim. The milk industry, which was the first to recuperate, lost 50 percent of its production, mostly because of the lack of electric power and the loss of 4,200 milking cows. According to Flores Otero, the coffee industry lost half of its plants and might take three years or longer to return to the same level of output. The chicken and egg industry lost 60 percent of its production, “and had to bury an estimated 1.3 million chicks.”

“It’s been hard, but I stay positive,” Flores Otero says. “Before Maria, we imported 85 percent of our food and produced 15 percent. Now we’re down to producing 5 percent and importing 95 percent. But I see a lot of potential, because there is no way but up. Besides, we have a lot of young farmers that are willing to help us move forward.”

“The produce might still be out there,” says Natalia Lucia Vallejo, the chef at San Juan’s Finca. “But the communication with the farmers — that’s not the same. [We go] weeks without cell phone or Internet access. How do we know where to get this or that produce? It’s been hard.”

The chefs and owners of Cincosentidos at Atelier, Cocina Abierta in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Cincosentidos owns seven restaurants in Puerto Rico’s metropolitan areas. But only Atelier, Cocina Abierta, a busy, tourist-friendly restaurant in Condado, was functioning full-time a month after hurricane Maria; three weeks ago, the group’s Italian concept, Nonna Cucina Rústica, also re-opened after the group purchased a new generator. Cincosentidos’s four other restaurants are closed, while Panka, a kiosk inside a food truck lot called Lote 23 in Saturce, now sells croquetas instead of its old menu full of Peruvian dishes.

“We had to change our menus, our focus,” says Martín Louzao, a chef and co-owner of Cincosentidos Culinary Group. “We’re in a very tourist-y area, and right now the only tourists we see are folks from FEMA or the Army. We’re basically cooking for the locals right now, for our barrio.” Barbara Ruiz, one of Cincosentidos’ operations managers, adds, “And, we’re not taking reservations, only walk-ins.”

Restaurants have lost even more revenue because in the days after the storm, Governor Ricardo Rosselló imposed a curfew (which lasted until October 18), and approved a dry law, banning alcohol sales for nine days. Needless to say, this impacted servers and bartenders, many of whom are still without jobs. Chefs and restaurateurs now divide their time between cooking and “looking for diesel for the generator... making sure we can give hours of work to employees... [and] making alliances with other chefs from other restaurants or culinary groups,” says Crystal Díaz, Cincosentidos’s marketing director. Normal restaurant life is a thing of the past.

“I have friends from the industry that have two, three kids that walked many miles just to get to [their job at a hotel] and find out there were no hours for them to work,” says Davo, a bartender at a restaurant in Condado. “They walked because there was no gas.”

A return to some sense of normalcy might still be a few more months away, but food purveyors and some famers are looking on the bright side.

“With our agro-ecological project we have access to have many, many, many crops,” Pagán Roig says of his profitable, sustainable farm called Josco Bravo. “We grow vegetables, we grow farinaceous produce, we grow fruit. It’s an all-year-around deal, and even though we have faced bad climate, such as droughts or the hurricanes, the fact that our soil is so well kept has helped us a lot.”

Ian Pagán Roig at Josco Bravo.

Josco Bravo’s top soil was so good that they went back to planting crops within days of the hurricane; most farmers’ top soil ran off in the flooding. And, because Josco Bravo doesn’t use tractors, the farm didn’t need fuel to begin farming again. “We plow with bulls, old school,” he says. Pagán Roig’s positive attitude belies his financial troubles. He’s facing eviction, and is supposed to go to court to fight for his farm. But that’s all on hold because the judicial system has not yet restarted operations.

“We’re resisting. We’ll find a way to keep going,” Pagán Roig says, after acknowledging that he might lose his farm. Right now, he’s focused on what he knows: growing food. “We just started to have our first crop rebirth: lettuce. Let’s see what happens,” he says.

He might end up selling that lettuce to Schames, chef Louzao, and Cocina Abierta. “Everyone needs to come together. Chefs, farmers, consumers, everyone,” Schames says. “We need to understand that things have changed, but change is not necessarily a bad thing.”

Hermes Ayala is a field producer and journalist based in Puerto Rico. Antonio Andrés Rodríguez is a Puerto Rican photographer who currently lives and works in the Bronx.
Editor: Daniela Galarza and Erin DeJesus.

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