The island-wide lockdown that has impacted the majority of Puerto Rico’s economic sectors has also taken another victim in the form of the farming industry. As the government considers extending the quarantine until June per the Health secretary’s recommendation, some farmers have denounced a lack of engagement from the P.R. Department of Agriculture (DA).
Vanessa Piñeiro, director of Programming and Memberships at the Puerto Rico Farm Bureau (PRFB) and owner of Finca Sangre Verde, stated farmers have developed self-reliance and a stronger sense of solidarity amid the DA’s muted operations.
According to Piñeiro, the government agency has been unresponsive in assessing the needs of the farming industry, which represents roughly 0.8 percent of the island’s gross domestic product, but whose contribution could be hindered further by the emergency measures implemented to flatten the coronavirus (COVID-19) contagion curve.
“I am not saying that [the DA] is not operating… but what I have seen is that the DA, with a budget of $9.7 million and 320 employees, we haven’t seen them in action to address the farmers’ needs during the pandemic,” Piñeiro told THE WEEKLY JOURNAL.
Ricardo Marti, owner of Piñas de Puerto Rico, noted that the DA uploaded relevant information in its website, but opined that the agency should have sent emails or other communication to the farms in its registry, adding that most information concerning the farming industry has been shared amongst farmers rather than relying on the public entity.
Meanwhile, Jorge L. Rivera, owner of Adjuntas-based Café Emy, stated that the DA’s limited operations have rendered his business inoperative. Like other companies that process coffee but do not have a farm of their own, Café Emy buys the pre-processed product from the DA’s Administration for Agricultural Business Development (ADEA, by its Spanish acronym).
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Earlier this month, DA Secretary Carlos Flores said, “the public policy and the governor’s intention is to facilitate the rehabilitation of the coffee sector, for which the [DA] through the [ADEA], established the Program for the Recovery of the Coffee Industry for the fiscal year 2019-2020.”
However, this office has reportedly remained closed since the beginning of the quarantine, which began in the week of March 15.
“We are on hold because the place where we buy coffee is closed. We cannot operate our business until the government authorizes that office to open and sell the coffee… Because of COVID-19 and through an executive order from the governor, that agency has been closed for over a month,” Rivera said. He added that, about a month ago, the ADEA opened for half a day and they were able to buy some coffee, but they have not received an update since.
This affects both small, family-owned businesses like Café Emy, as well as larger companies that are able to buy quintals (hundredweight) by the thousands, with one quintal equivalent to 100 kilograms or 220.5 pounds. Therefore, the repercussions of this gap in the DA reverberate across the industry.
But unlike larger companies, which have storage capacity, small- and midsize coffee processors do not have the facilities to store the product for later use. According to the Secretary Flores himself, the coffee industry impacts one-fourth of the island’s municipalities, for a total of 22 municipalities.
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Apart from coffee processors, other farming sectors that have faced financial strain during the pandemic include the hydroponics segment, which caters predominantly to school cafeterias and designated family markets under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Piñeiro explained that both, schools and family markets are closed until further notice.
“We face a huge challenge with family markets because we have 120 agribusinessmen who work in the family markets system. Although the [PRFB] has made several petitions to the governor, and legislation has been discussed in the House and the Senate to reopen the family markets, at least with a drive-thru, nothing has been achieved and we have all those farmers waiting for an opportunity,” Piñeiro said.
She noted that, while Flores bought produce from these farmers on one of the days when the family markets were closed, he claimed that since then the agency has offered statements “but has not been directly supporting our farmers so they may have a better quality [of life].”
Moreover, farming companies are facing labor limitations because some workers have opted to remain home for fear of getting infected with COVID-19.
Necessity Calls For Reinvention
THE WEEKLY JOURNAL asked Piñeiro how has the PRFB been able to channel its members’ concerns to the DA.
“What we have seen is that the DA is not necessarily facilitating farmers to continue working. The PRFB has given them that service… We have survived without them,” she responded. Piñeiro said that the PRFB has drastically increased its day-to-day operations because they are constantly receiving calls from farmers with questions about the executive orders’ limitations.
While some businesses are unable to maintain workflow, others have sought to reinvent their business models.
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Marti and other like-minded farmers have been preparing boxes with produce and delivering them to customers at their homes. Piñas de PR is offering this service in Cabo Rojo, Cayey, Lajas, San Germán, and Sabana Grande and even recruited people who have lost their jobs over the pandemic to assist in the farming process. The family-owned company also buys produce from other farmers to include in these customized packages.
“We started doing that since the beginning of the lockdown, when people began closing their businesses. Our main buyers are people who sell produce on the streets… that is when we decided to adapt our business to an online model. We saw other farmers doing the same thing and we got some ideas,” Marti said.
On a regular week prior to the quarantine, Piñas de PR would sell between 1,000 to 4,000 pounds of produce to small shops and sellers. Now, they are selling between 40 to 50 pineapples. With the average pineapple weighing five pounds, they are selling between 200 and 250 pounds, and up to roughly 300 pounds of produce.
Piñeiro said that, although this model represents lower revenues, the packaging initiative has exceeded expectations.
“We never thought they would have such a large reach. Some of our associates are delivering up to 700 boxes daily, which is a lot. People have shifted to buy products from Puerto Rico,” she said.
The PRFB also released an inventory on local agricultural products that is visible to the public at https://prfb.org/. The inventory allows farmers to detail how much capacity they have and when will they have products available while offering a space to market themselves.
Despite the aforementioned challenges and lower sales, farmers are being encouraged to continue cultivating their products as per usual so as to avoid supply shortage after the lockdown is lifted.
Meanwhile, Piñeiro considers that there needs to be a reform in the government’s agriculture model, which provides incentives to companies that generate more produce, thus bludgeoning small and midsize locally-owned businesses, which she claimed, have been the gears that have sustained the industry during this pandemic.
"The model is not functional. We must make a reform," Piñeiro said in her personal character and not as a PRFB-issued statement.
"We had never seen a pandemic... Sometimes we trust importation too much and we don't know when that door may close over an incident like this. We have lived through earthquakes, hurricanes, and a pandemic, so we can't always rely on [imported goods]," she added.
Dairy Industry Boosts Sales, Lowers Production
Jorge Campos, administrator for the DA’s Office for the Regulation of the Dairy Industry (ORIL, by its Spanish acronym), explained that this sector has been experiencing sales challenges since before the pandemic, and even before Hurricane Maria in 2017. Before the category-4 storm devastated the island, the dairy industry had seen an annual decline in consumption of 3 to 4 percent.
In spite of former complications, Campos noted that dairy companies have actually increased their sales in supermarkets, gas stations, and other convenience stores since the enactment of the lockdown. But because school cafeterias, coffee shops, and other food businesses are either closed or generally abstaining from selling coffee, dairy companies have nonetheless opted to reduce their production.
According to Campos, now there is an average daily production of 700,000 milk quarts, or roughly 175,000 gallons. This represents a year-to-year drop of 800,000 to 900,000 milk quarts compared to the same date last year.
While members of other sectors of the agricultural industry have expressed dissatisfaction with the DA’s office general response, ORIL’s administrator assured his office is maintaining constant communication with dairy companies while ensuring social distancing by ordering most of their employees to work from home. The entity established a landline for customers to share concerns or complaints at (787) 765-7545.
The DA secretary's office could not be reached for comment.