Puerto Rico's farmers face near total loss from Hurricane Maria

GUAYANILLA, Puerto Rico — José Roig, 56, tried to stay positive as he surveyed his 150-acre coffee plantation clinging to the steep, storm-scoured hillsides near Puerto Rico’s southern coast.

Hurricane Maria’s winds of more than 150 mph ripped away nearly all the leaves on the once-lush tropical landscape, twisted tree trunks and exposed Roig’s shade-loving coffee plants to the sun.

“What took 35 years to build was lost in 10 hours,” Roig said, looking at a valley of destruction that spread beyond the mountain peaks in the distance and across the entire island.

Roig, who is proudly self-reliant, said his harvest was insured and vowed to recover.

But Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector was decimated by the storm, and he and government officials agreed that a full recovery from Maria’s blow will require federal assistance.

Carlos Flores Ortega, Puerto Rico’s secretary of agriculture, said the area around Roig’s farm, near the southern port city of Ponce, is known for plantains, bananas, papayas, coffee and citrus crops.

“All of that has been wiped out,” Flores Ortega said. “Farmers are used to loss, rain, heavy rains and flooding. But in this occasion, we had the worst natural disaster in 100 years on the island.”

Flores Ortega estimated the island lost 80% of its crops. The poultry sector lost 90% of its production and more than 2 million of its 2.6 million birds, along with numerous chicken coops and processing equipment.

All the plantations have been destroyed. Flooding covered 51,000 acres of coastal area. Cows and other livestock floated away in the swollen rivers. Irrigation systems were lost, and ornamental and hydroponic facilities were damaged.

“There’s no plant that can survive 150-mph winds,” Flores Ortega said.

Federal agencies and the island’s Department of Agriculture are looking for ways to restore Puerto Rico’s $1 billion agricultural sector, with grants and loans to help bury animals and to rebuild facilities and roads so farmers can go back to planting and production.

Jobs and income produced by food processors add another $3.5 billion to the island’s economy, Flores Ortega said.

Luz Quiñones, 39, who owns La Cosecha Mia (My Harvest) produce market in Old San Juan, said Puerto Rico’s farm industry was undergoing a renaissance before the hurricane, with young people getting into the game to feed a demand for organic and local produce.

That sector has grown to the point it started to export produce, Quiñones said.

“If the government doesn’t help rebuild, I don’t know if we’re going to survive,” she said.

In Yabucoa, a region on the southeastern corner of the island that produces plantains, farmer Aurelio Beltran drove through acres of downed plantain trees.

Angel Morales, president of the Yabucoa farming cooperative, said most of the valley's 3,000 to 4,000 acres of plantains were destroyed. Although farmers carry insurance, they'll still lose money because trees cost $6 to $7 to plant, and insurance only pays $3.25 a tree, Morales said.

Roig, whose forefathers established his farm in 1876 as Spanish immigrants from Catalonia, rode across his land in a rusty Jeep Renegade with his son, Jesús, 31, at the wheel.

He handed farmhand Ilaín Armánd, several meal packages from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that had been distributed by the Puerto Rico National Guard to the municipality of Guayanilla, which brought them to Roig. Armánd, 35, moved his wife and three small children to a friend’s house after his home was wrecked in the storm.

Roig estimated that 3,500 pounds of coffee beans were lost when Maria raked his plants, as well as 100,000 young plants in his now-devastated nursery. Five of his eight houses for farmworkers were destroyed.

A municipal road crew passed by after clearing the road to the last isolated farm and a family of five who rode out the storm near the mountaintop.

What’s Roig going to do now? “We’re going to work,” he answered.

“Some of the plants will dry in the field without shade, but not all,” Roig said. “Most of it will survive, what’s still there.”

In a month or two, inspectors will come to examine the damage for an insurance claim, he said.

Jesús Roig drove the Jeep to a compound of homes to check on neighbors. He exchanged hugs with Sylvia Santiago, 77, who said her son was out looking for water. Nearby, a horse grazed and came close to see the visitors, an injured dog lay on his side and panted in the heat, while chickens pecked at the ground.

Farther up the mountain, the elder Roig stooped to inspect a coffee plant. When he rubbed the yellow spots on the leaves, they turned to a reddish powder that wafted in the mountain breeze. The fungus, called roya, “was here before, but the storm weakened the plants. The disease is now spreading faster," he said.

In the distance, visible against a backdrop of hazy mountain peaks, small leaves and bright red-orange flowers sprouted on some of the bare tree branches.

“This will be green before Christmas,” he said.

Contributing: Carrie Cochran in Yabucoa

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