Is Puerto Rico the Next Sustainable Ag Hot Spot? | Civil Eats

Is Puerto Rico the Next Sustainable Ag Hot Spot?

As the U.S. island territory faces a $70 billion debt crisis, some advocates see sustainable farming as one potential solution.

Raul Rosado Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico native Raul Rosado, a chef by training, would escape to the forest when he needed a break from his cut-throat kitchen career in the crowded capital city of San Juan. By chance, he met a farmer while hiking in Utuado—the lush, west-central mountains of Puerto Rico—and Rosado came to enjoy this simpler life that the farmer led in tune with nature.

Rosado, then in his 20s, began helping on the farm and soon was helping city dwellers get started with their own gardens. This was just the beginning of his work in changing the way people on this 100-by 35-mile island source their food.

Rosado, now 35, says farmer is not an occupation presented as an option to young Puerto Ricans. “It is not something that the schools or the older people want you to be,” he says. “They tell you you’re not going to have a good income and that those people don’t live well.”

This negative connotation started to take root in the late 1940s, when the U.S. government’s Operation Bootstrap (“Operación Manos a la Obra”) provided incentives for corporations to bring manufacturing and industry jobs to Puerto Rico, taking people off the land and away from the once-thriving—now non-existent—sugar plantations. Somewhat out of necessity—and thanks to the nation’s current debt crisis and unemployment rate—Puerto Ricans’ negative image of farmer is wearing off, but slowly.

Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and its crippling $70 billion debt and teetering food system has left the U.S. government shrugging its shoulders. As neither a state nor an independent nation, Puerto Rico is subject to laws unlike those of actual states, including barriers to trade, and its citizens are not afforded the same rights (i.e., voting), as other U.S. citizens.

Spending three months in Puerto Rico in early 2016, I expected locally grown tropical fruits in mom-and-pop grocery stores, chefs serving Caribbean fare rooted in what they grow year-round, and home gardens on every block. Instead, major-chain grocery stores carried overpriced avocados from the Dominican Republic, while restaurants dished out Sysco-supplied ingredients—mostly battered and fried. While I got to know a few farmers and food advocates throughout the island, the general population showed a lack of agricultural knowledge and, frankly, interest.

Puerto Rico’s Ag Roots

In 1956, income from other industries outpaced agriculture for the first time in Puerto Rico. Since then, but particularly for the past 30 or 40 years, the importance of agriculture has been downplayed here, according to Luis Mejía-Maymí, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education state coordinator for Puerto Rico and agricultural-economics specialist for the University of Puerto Rico Cooperative Extension.

Prime agricultural lands—largely located along the northern coastal plains—were developed for industry and tourists, and farming and gardening skills were lost between generations. As of 2013, there were, more than 5 million Puerto Rican citizens living on the U.S. mainland and only 3.5 million on the island, yet Puerto Rico still has 1,164 persons per square mile, according to Mejía-Maymí. And as a result of dwindling capital and a lack of infrastructure and distribution systems, it became easier for grocery stores and the food-service industry to ship food from the mainland than to grow it there.

A Turn-Around Begins

Despite the larger downturn, local farming in Puerto Rico has begun to make great strides in recent years. Puerto Rico has reclaimed more than 30,000 acres of agricultural land—often taken back from jungle forests, which quickly encroach on untended land—and more than 1,700 new farms have begun operations since the current Puerto Rico Secretary of Agriculture Myrna Comas Pagán took office in 2013. (The island had only around 13,000 farms in 2012.)

Various factors have led to the rebound in agriculture, including the time it takes to transport food to the island. Like many modern island cultures, including Hawaii, Puerto Rico imports the great bulk (85 percent) of its food supply. “We buy a lot of things that come from very far, like Australia and the Philippines,” Mejía-Maymí says. “It can be weeks or months before it gets to the people here.”

Mejía-Maymí also points to Puerto Rico’s economic crisis as a driver of the growing interest in farming. “It’s not easy to find a job,” he points out. While many young people continue to move off of the island, others “are looking at agriculture as an alternative for their life.”

The government has begun supporting more farmers. Comas Pagán expects the food security plan the Puerto Rican government recently enacted to increase local food production by 25 percent in five years. She also expects the plan to lead to a 20 percent increase in gross agricultural income, which she hopes will mean an increase in overall economic strength.

“A stronger agriculture has a greater multiplier effect,” Comas Pagán told Civil Eats. “For every farm or agricultural-production job, we could generate two jobs in other, additional economic sectors.”

She points out that public-school cafeterias (“Comedores Escolares) now source 60 percent of their products locally and the Family Market (“El Mercado Familiar”) allows Nutrition Assistance Program recipients (the equivalent to SNAP benefits in the U.S.) to purchase directly from farmers. (More than one-third of Puerto Ricans receive nutrition assistance, compared to about 13.5 percent of citizens nationwide.)

The U.S. federal government is also getting involved in supporting agriculture in Puerto Rico. Farmers in Puerto Rico received $37 million in such support in 2012, including some of the same subsidies and incentives that farmers on the mainland receive—the Conservation Reserve Program, Emergency Conservation Program, and Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program among them.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture has provided $56 million in education and extension support and for research against major issues, like citrus greening. The Natural Resources Conservation Service operates a Caribbean Area office with eight field offices in Puerto Rico. These programs and incentives are now offering farmers in Puerto Rico many of the same resources and educational opportunities that those stateside are able to access.

Additionally, in 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched its StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative in the commonwealth.

And in June 2016, eastern Puerto Rico was named a federal Promise Zone, which aims to create jobs and improve access to healthcare. Among the Promise Zone’s agricultural initiatives are the development of a food hub and commercial-scale hydroponic farm with teaching kitchens and a food-business incubator. Located on northeast corner of the island, at a former naval station, Comas Pagán says, the initiative will provide for essential education and technological advancements.

Mejía-Maymí says he has seen more people—young people, especially—begin seeking information about agriculture from the university in the past four or five years. “I have seen changes in the way that society sees agriculture,” he says. “The people, in general, are giving more importance to the reality that we are very fragile in the way that we satisfy our need for food.”garden in puerto rico

Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability

Rosado’s garden has come a long way. His chance encounter with the farmer in the tropical forest led Rosado to start his own 3-acre organic farm, Desde mi Huerto, and seed business, Caribbean Eco Seeds, among the mountains outside the southwest Puerto Rico town of Patillas, in 2004. The farm is fed by the Patillas River, which flows from the Toro Negro State Forest—the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. national forest system—and features more than 70 varieties of edibles and flowers, all organic. Desde mi Huerto also offers workshops and assists home gardeners in producing their own food.

Realizing the demand for Puerto-Rico-adapted plants, Rosado says, “It was natural to turn to seed saving [as well]. We saw the need to have more diversity of seeds and to have more varieties that are adapted to our weather.”

Caribbean Eco Seeds started selling certified organic seeds to local customers and at farmers’ markets in 2012, then broke into distribution through health food stores. Now, the seeds can be found in more than 80 stores in Puerto Rico. Rosado aims to produce seeds for all of the Caribbean, noting that Puerto Rico isn’t the only island that needs help in the food-security department.

In addition to an increase in home gardening, however, Rosado has seen an increase over the past two or three years in large-scale monocultures and conventional agriculture. Corn, especially, is more visible now. Dairy is, by far, the largest sector of Puerto Rican agriculture, valued at $189.4 million. Plantains—grown on more than one-third of Puerto Rican farms—are the next most important crop, bringing $80.5 million to the market. Poultry, cattle, coffee, and bananas follow in popularity. Watermelons are also making it on to the scene.

Seed and chemical companies also undertake major crop trials in this year-round-production environment. Corn, soybeans, cotton, sorghum, and sunflowers are among the research focuses. Part of this biotechnology interest could be due to government incentives for industrial farming and biotech companies: 100 percent exemption on farm-property taxes and taxes for agricultural equipment, 90 percent exemption on income taxes for certain agricultural work, and 50 percent tax credit for investment in ag businesses.

Among those with a presence are Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, AgReliant Genetics, Mycogen Seeds/Dow AgroSciences, and 3rd Millennium Genetics, and even the Illinois Crop Improvement Association has a Puerto Rico Winter Farm Team.

These incentives concern Sadhu Govardhan, founder of the Oro Verde Foundation, a nonprofit promoting sustainable agriculture and sustainable living. Mejía-Maymí believes, however, that the government is striking a balance between sustainability-oriented agricultural development and industrial farming.

“It’s important that the cake be divided into many pieces,” Mejía-Maymí says.

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

Challenges Still Remain

Several hurdles stand in the way of a continued increase in food production and the new interest in farming, but a lack of affordable land is the most significant. Puerto Rico spans less than 3.5 million miles, and only about 500,000 acres are in agricultural use. Comas Pagán says 99 percent of the land managed by the government is already in use. The department of agriculture is developing the Agricultural Land Bank of Puerto Rico to catalog private lands suitable for farming.

Additionally, slightly less than half of the island’s land is mountainous and not suitable for agricultural production. Also, Rosado says, many landowners have gotten older and passed away, while many of their heirs have left the island, creating absentee landowners.

Some Puerto Ricans, like Oro Verde Foundation’s Govardhan, blame government programs and intervention for their food-system dependency and lack of agricultural opportunities. Citizens feel uneasy with both the Puerto Rican and U.S. governments, he says. And while the depressed state of the economy is driving people to agriculture, it is also making access to land and farm-business capital more difficult.

The current bankruptcy will lead to privatizations of most of the island’s assets; the corporate takeover has already begun,” Govardhan says. “In general, it’s a race against time: Will the remainder of our farmable land be destroyed within the next few decades, or will the resurging ‘back to nature’ movement save enough land to feed at least some of the people here?”

Meanwhile, other small-scale agriculturalists and believers in a more sustainable food system, like Raul Rosado and Luis Mejía-Maymí, hold out hope. They continue to provide support to small growers—those they believe will turn Puerto Rico’s food system around.

Mejía-Maymí says he’s encouraged by the growing interest in agriculture but not ready to say it’s more than just a trend. “The next step is action,” he says.

But Rosado is encouraged by the growth in home-gardener education, which he feels is making food production more accessible to the masses. “We are basically building the future of farming here in Puerto Rico,” he says.

Freelance writer Lisa Munniksma has been traveling around the world since 2011 to learn about sustainable living, agriculture, and food systems everywhere. When she's not milking goats in France or making bread in Greece, she works on an organic farm in Kentucky. Lisa occasionally writes about all of this at Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. Carmen I Ortiz
    My brother has a small farm, although he lives in town, were he used to grow coffee until the plants were affected by a disease that came from the Dominican Republic. He changed courses and is now growing more vegetables and fruits than before. He doesn't use chemical (same as me in the States). With the problems in the economy, that has helped him become self sufficient for food. I've been giving him suggestion on how to increase his yield and to use his church group to grow for their members, just like they do in my town in Minnesota. I've been doing organics since the first issue of Mother Earth News and am glad my brother is doing it also, back in Puerto Rico.
    • joey
      Is there any website used by your church that we may refer to for knowledge on this important topic?
  2. RH
    I had the pleasure of living in Puerto Rico in 2014 & 15 which gave me the opportunity to enjoy Puerto Rican coffee every morning, the best I've tasted in my 60+ years on this planet. I'm thinking that if the folks on the mainland and around the world would get a taste and have easy access through trade agreements, and if Puerto Rico could meet the demand, it wouldn't take long to make a huge dent in the $70B debt.
  3. mario
    it's not a ag hot spot.
    Ag is over in Puerto Rico...move forward not backwards
  4. Luis
    Well done Boricuas. Sustainability begins at a small scale, one home at the time. And yet, the concerns are valid; when Monsanto and other agricultural GMO companies, want to take a hold on local agriculture. That should not happen, and sustainable agriculture in small scale should lead the way.
  5. Jorge Perez
    The agricultural problem is competitive prices. The farmer works hard while the middle mans and the government red tape and taxes wants to put his fingers in the middle, leaving the farmer frustrated and broke.
  6. loraine turner
    Puerto Rico is an island and has a limited amount of land suitable for farming. This land should be used preferribly for organic sustainable produce and not be used by companies like Monsanto and Dupont which destroy the land for future generation with their genetically manipulated seeds and pesticides.
  7. Gavirio Vicuta
    No one in any American colony has the right to vote in American presidential elections, that's the only non-voting right she should reference. Toro Negro isn't the only rainforest in the American park system. What about El Yunque in Puerto Rico itself which the USDA claims is the only one? How about the tropical rainforests in parks in American Samoa? Statist subsidies and interventionism are the reason for Puerto Rico's economic malaise and why agricultural efforts will fail there too.
  8. I am 72 and living in Florida, born in Puerto Rico. I have visited the island several times, and both my mother and father are buried there. I own a home in Miami and grow some organic herbs and veggies . I have a mango, avocado, kinepa, and a star fruit tree. I have always wanted to return to Puerto Rio and buy a piece of property that has a large enough plot of land for me to grow my own vegetables and herbs, that I could leave to my children.. With all that I am reading about Puerto Rico's failing economy and rising service fees, I wonder if I can. Are any of your seeds available for sale? What do you think of my chances of moving there at my age? I am retired on a pension plan. I would appreciate your thoughts. Margarita
    • joey
      I would strongly suggest you stay there. My father came back to PR and he returned to NY. You said it, services-utilities etc skyrocketed!
  9. Pete
    Lets not gloss over the reality. My own barista at Starbucks in Condado tells me that no one wants to work the fields. It's easier to get a government paycheck.
  10. Mike Ortiz
    Wow, reading this article make me feel proud of that little island. and seeing those agro-american companies showing interest in my people make me feel proud of this country ( U.S. )..I also do small holticurture farming here in Kentucky, but always think of doing the same in Puerto Rico. in a few years I will retire, let's see what happens. keep it up Puerto Rico, giving up is not the answer..!!
  11. Rafael Ortiz
    There is only one way that the majority of Puerto Ricans can come in contact with a return to farming, and that is through education and the media. But this is the crux of the matter, that our local TV is saturated with vulgarity and hogwash and our department of education is a pathetic and shameful institution.
  12. Sandra Figueroa
    Vendor 3.04 Cuerdas (un Acre) con casa de cemento. Muy productiva en su tiempo y todavia! Buen lugar, mucha agua y mucha Paz. Vendo por haberme mudado a el Norte!
  13. Ron Ramirez
    I would like to know if both Vieques and Culebra are part of this initiative to identify their lands for farming tha will sustaine the population going forward. Please send any information so I can personally be involved at
    • Amira
      Isn't Vieques radioactive?
  14. Magha Garcia
    This journalist interview some of the most committed farmers of the ecofarming movenent plus people from the academia and government. Is very clear the lack of knowledge about who is who in the agricultural scenario. The amount of mistakes is simply unbelievable and is obvious that its turn to be a propaganda for the Department of Agriculture who currently protect and promote the agro-biotechonology industry. This is an insult toward a REAL healthy food/environment activist within the ecological movement in PR.
  15. Julian Roman
    Although I'm Nuyorican I love and support anything my people do to help themselves as they work to improve their lives. May God Bless us all during these difficult times. Look in the end 1 out of 100 politicians that can HONESTLY help anyone. Que viva Puerto Rico! I hope that when legislature relaxes laws that are currently illegal to become legal may that help as well. I am a proud and never deny my Puerto Rican descent.
  16. You've recklessly misrepresented the agricultural scene here.

    Puerto Rico is not moving toward sustainability. The reality is: those of us who are, do so knowing we are grossly outnumbered by the plantain/coffee/avocado/pineapple, etc. farmers who use chemical fertilizer & other incentives from the department of Ag and who buy herbicide and pesticides by the gallons. Those products rape the land, pollute our water & poison the food. And I haven't even touched on the antithesis of sustainability: Monsanto, DuPont et al.

    You misrepresented Sadhu Govardhan's comments to bolster the "good" offered by the programs you mentioned. For the outsider, you described utopia, when in actuality it's a travesty against Puerto Rico.
  17. Eddy
    I'm proud to know that folks are trying their best to bring agricultural back. I wanted to buy fruit at supermarket last year and found non from PR, I was very surprised, keep planting and producing great food. I'm from Aguadilla, and would love to own a piece of land to cultivate it and enjoy our tropical foods.
  18. Javi
    I am proud and forunate enough to say that I spent some time last year at Desdi Mi Huerto, through the WWOOF program, and I support everything the Rasado Family is trying to do. We are building the future of farming now, and this pitoval point is all in our hands people, right now. We, the people, have to stand up, fight fot what is right, and reclaim our land. If not now, it will be gone forever. Thank you.
  19. Susie
    I visited PR many years ago and found it lovely. I hope farming comes back for them and they begin to thrive again.
  20. Maria Suarez
    There are deep ties on the Island to Pacific Grain and now Bayer who has just invested 17 millon dollars in an operation in Salinas. The Secretary of Agriculture is looking at Walmart for our food security.

    Yes, there is a movement towards agro business. Most recent example is that of the famous singer Draco who has a private label (50+ unknown coffee farmers), a foundation for cancer and is now selling his coffee at Walmart. The campaign says: we all win with Walmart.

    Walmart successfully sued Hacienda and now does not have to pay the same amount of sales tax as the rest of the small business do. But, the agro farmers want to sell to Walmart because they are looking for mass market sales. Not a very noble aspiration.
  21. hi! I'd like to learn more about sustainable farming in Puerto Rico & the current conditions / whats available and whats happening?

    Can someone please contact me?

  22. David Forward
    My name is Dave. I get laid off from my driving job every winter. (January-March). I f possible, I would like to help out in the rural and agricultural areas in Puerto Rico. I own a farm in central New York. I believe I could help. If you of any organization or individuals who need help please let me know. Thank you.
    David Forward
  23. Hi to you that makes such a amazing positive change,

    I am Victoria Worral, we are a family that is moving to Puerto Rico, San Juan this summer of 2018. We are very much into buying organic, leaving a small foodprint and getting better at it! We want to be part of the positiv change and teach our kids that we have a responsibility in how we are living every day. I have now for some month been working here in Detroit in our small community, educating, finding solutions to use less plastic and I am first getting started. So now I am reaching out to you hoping to find people/organisations in Puerto Rico, so I can keep doing what I am doing now but in a much bigger scale then now! I know what takes time, and that is to make/find connections. So thought of getting started before moving. How you can send me in the right direction. My biggest challenge is I do not speak spanish, but I just take that as a cool challenge in life;) Sincerely Victoria Worral
  24. lane ed wilson
    interested in working on an eco farm, as a route to my own small farm.
    Any opportunities will be pursued.
    Strong, healthy, energetic, green thumb.
  25. Amada T Nieves
    Retomar la agricultura más que como un medio de vida , una pasión y visión de un país salvable, es inspirador! En las áreas rurales principalmente, el Departamento de Educación ,conjuntamente con el CAAM y la UPR, deberían desarrollar programas como opciones de currículos en Agricultura ecológica. Para salvar el Planeta debemos comenzar con estos propósitos.

More from



(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Medically Important Antibiotics Are Still Being Used to Fatten Up Pigs

In this week’s Field Report, USDA data reveals that some farmers give pigs antibiotics for “growth promotion,” a practice banned since 2017. Plus: PFAS in pesticides, new rules for contract farmers, and just-published research showing a healthy diet is also better for the planet.


Zero-Waste Grocery Stores in Growth Mode as Consumers Seek to Ditch Plastic

Inside a re_ grocery store in the Mar Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of re_grocery)

Pesticide Industry Could Win Big in Latest Farm Bill Proposal

Restaurants Create a Mound of Plastic Waste. Some Are Working to Fix That.

What Happened to Antibiotic-Free Chicken?

hickens gather around a feeder at a farm on August 9, 2014 in Osage, Iowa. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images