Row by row, Adrián Jordán García and his three workers move through the neatly planted papaya forest. The day is hot and dry, and everything is tinged with the yellow of sunny, dusty landscapes. Some workers wear long sleeves and gloves to protect their bare skin from the caustic papaya sap; others are less sensitive to it. They pop fruit off the trees with their hands, or with long tubes to access the fruit that is too high to reach.
To the untrained eye, it is difficult to see why they select some fruits and leave others behind. As soon as they’ve collected an armload, the workers whistle to García, who is stationed up on the tractor bed. They throw him the fruits, which he catches like footballs and inspects one last time before gently tossing them into the bins. Later that morning, they will be sorted and packed into waxed cardboard produce boxes, which a truck will take to a local Walmart, where they will be sold.
García grows a handful of crops to sell to the larger grocery chains on the island: papayas, watermelons, eggplants, and cucumbers have been some of the most lucrative for him. He used to grow okra as well, but it’s a crop that takes more skill to harvest properly, and he lost the only two workers he could trust with the task — one retired and one died — so he had to give it up.
García is one of many farmers in Puerto Rico who believe the way forward for the island is to reclaim food sovereignty. Whether it is to have food on hand in case of a disaster or to strengthen the poor economy by keeping dollars in local hands, to them, growing more food on this fertile island is the most important action Puerto Ricans can take.
But it’s a struggle. Reliable, skilled farm labor is incredibly difficult to find on the island. Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector was primarily focused on growing cash crops for export, such as sugar, coffee, and tobacco, since its colonization, first by Spain, and then the United States. By the 1940s, what agriculture did still exist was discouraged by the U.S. government with the Operation Bootstrap campaign, meant to industrialize the island and make it more prosperous.
The apparent progress sputtered by the 1970s. Even the last sugar plantation ceased operations in 2000. So while in recent years the debt crisis and Hurricane María have made this historical food issue appear more grave, the need to import things they could actually eat has existed for Puerto Rico’s entire colonized history. There just isn’t much of a culture of farming these days.
García farms in the southwestern part of Puerto Rico, in Guánica, on 49 acres of former sugarcane fields that he rents from the government. The fields are surrounded by low netting, which at first doesn’t appear to be substantial enough to keep anything out. García explains it is to deter iguanas. The invasive reptiles (likely introduced to the island when someone released their unwanted pets into the wild) wreak havoc on vegetable fields and have no natural predators to control their populations in Puerto Rico. When García calculated $10,000 in crop losses due to the destruction by the iguanas, he put the fencing up.
While he cannot use pesticides to control iguanas, he uses it for some tasks. When asked if he uses many chemicals on his farm, he said, “not compared to other farmers I see. They have, like, this huge bunker full of [chemicals], and I only have one or two bottles.” He uses them sparingly to save both money and the environment.
Formerly an organic farmer, he had to switch to an integrated pest management style of farming when he scaled up his operations. There isn’t enough demand in Puerto Rico for organic produce, so grocery stores won’t pay extra for it. He pays attention to what crops do well on which sections of his farm and uses rotational and companion planting.
But to make the money he needs to take care of a family of seven with no off-farm income, chemicals are sometimes necessary — whether he likes the idea or not.
García is one of many farmers in Puerto Rico who isn’t part of any specific farmers’ group and doesn’t subscribe to any one growing dogma. He simply wants to see Puerto Ricans grow more of their own food by any means necessary. If that means everything can’t be organic, that is OK with him. But still, he sees what he calls a “one-night-stand culture” in the treatment of the land on the island, and calls out the industrial farming that essentially mines the soil without putting any care back into it.
Stephanie Ocasio is a farmer in the mountains of Ciales. She thinks that while Puerto Ricans have shown resiliency, they could learn to be better prepared. “We overcame hurricane season and strong weather situations, but we can also learn from other types of resilience around the world,” she said.
She points to those who farm in regions where it snows each year, and how those farmers need to plan to save both food and money. She argues that farmers in Puerto Rico should have this same mentality, but rather than preparing for snow each winter, they need to prepare for hurricanes each summer.
Ocasio recently visited Cuba, where they can fruit to have on hand year-round, and she was impressed with their preservation methods. Ocasio also wants to see more of the root vegetables important to the Puerto Rican diet grown in Puerto Rico instead of being imported from the Dominican Republic. These viandas (staple root crops of Puerto Rico) can be left in the ground for up to six months on average, even if the green part of the plant has been blown away by hurricane-force winds.
Ocasio spends her mornings teaching agriculture classes to elementary school students in the mountains of Ciales. Classes begin with a brief lecture about farming, agrotourism, or the natural features of the island. The kids shell habichuelas (beans) grown in the school’s garden while she speaks. The second half of the class is spent weeding, harvesting, clearing beds — whatever needs to be done. The kids see the whole process of gardening in her class.
This school is in the country in the mountains, with rain and good soil, but none of the kids come from farming families. Even backyard gardens aren’t as common as one might assume. With the people working several jobs to make ends meet, many have neither the energy nor the desire to grow food.
After class each day, Ocasio heads down the rugged, barely passable road to her little slice of farmland. She enjoys a couple of hours of solitude as she plants and harvests food that she sells in CSA-style boxes to 150 customers per month. She moves quickly around her farm, through her forests of bananas and plantains, knowing exactly where to find the mature plants. She cuts down bunches of bananas with her machete, then chops down the trees they grew on, so the plants can put their energy into growing new shoots. These same plants will give her more giant bunches of bananas in about nine months. To harvest yucca, she switches to her mattock tool and hacks away at the dirt covering the edible root before she uses the weight of her entire body to pry it from the ground. Her harvests require her to put her back into her work, and she wants other Puerto Rican women to know that they can do the same.
In addition to the formal classes she teaches, Ocasio also gives lectures and workshops whenever she can to provide support to other female farmers. She is on a mission to tear down many of the stereotypes around farming and the “traditional” roles of women. She does all of this independently, and, like García, she is not dogmatic in her growing methods, nor does she subscribe to any one group.
“I do not like to represent any specific group because I represent the Puerto Rican people who do not have food,” she said. “In general, I represent the one who works; I represent the one who does not have time to plant; I represent the one that has time to plant. And that’s why I do not believe in grouping. Many times, the groups divide us, and that’s what we do not want.”
Lindsay Talley is a writer and photographer based in New York City and the Hudson Valley.