Puerto Rico finds unexpected source of growth in agriculture

In this Sept. 23, 2016 photo, Madeline de los Santos picks "aji" chiles at Capetillo community garden where residents collaborate in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. Urban community gardens are popping up across the capital that cater to people who want something fresher than the shrink-wrapped imports that have long been standard at stores and restaurants. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

By Danica Coto ,AP

GUANICA, Puerto Rico — Puerto Ricans are buying rice produced on the island for the first time in nearly 30 years. They are also eating locally grown mushrooms, kale and even arugula, along with more traditional crops such as plantains and pineapples.

The U.S. territory is seeing something of an agricultural renaissance as new farms spring up across the island, supplying an increasing number of farmers’ markets and restaurants to meet consumer demand for fresher produce.

Farming has become one of the few areas of growth on an island struggling to emerge from a 10-year-old recession and a still-unfolding debt crisis. The most recent statistics from the governor’s office show farm income grew 25 percent to more than US$900 million in 2012-2014. The amount of acreage under cultivation rose 50 percent over the past four years, generating at least 7,000 jobs.

“More and more people have noticed that this is one of the only successful ways of living on the island right now,” said Tara Rodriguez Besosa, a farming advocate and owner of an organic restaurant in San Juan that buys from local farms, including one started by her mother several years ago.

Agriculture is a small part of the economy in Puerto Rico, well behind manufacturing, finance and tourism. But the growth is notable simply because things are so bad overall. Many businesses have closed, tens of thousands of people have decamped to the U.S. mainland, unemployment is at nearly 12 percent and the government is in default. Congress gave the territory some breathing room in June with legislation to enable the restructuring of what the governor has called its “unpayable” US$70 billion debt, but the effects of that legislation have yet to be felt widely.

The agricultural rebirth can be seen in the aisles of supermarkets, where local rice went on sale in August for the first time since the last producer closed in 1989, and in the shimmering green fields where the grain is grown on the outskirts of the southwestern town of Guanica. The government helped launch Finca Fraternidad, or “Fraternity Farm,” by providing 1,350 acres of vacant public land.