Puerto Rico's Hurricane Recovery Hinders Farm Businesses' Seed Research : The Salt Many agriculture companies rely on the island's climate for the research and development of commercial corn, soybean and other seeds grown in the U.S. But the storm wiped out needed infrastructure.
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Puerto Rico's Hurricane Recovery Hinders Farm Businesses' Seed Research

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Puerto Rico's Hurricane Recovery Hinders Farm Businesses' Seed Research

Puerto Rico's Hurricane Recovery Hinders Farm Businesses' Seed Research

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Most of the seeds that grow corn, soybeans and other crops across the country have something in common - a strong connection to Puerto Rico. And following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the island's crop research companies are scrambling to ensure the critical winter season won't be lost. Iowa Public Radio's Amy Mayer reports.

AMY MAYER, BYLINE: Puerto Rico is not a major producer of grain, but for more than 30 years, its hot winter days and warm nights have played a key role in the seed business. Test seeds for 85 percent of grain grown in the U.S. pass through the island. Raechel Baumgartner Delgado is a science officer with Third Millennium Genetics, a company that works with Midwest seed producers to run winter research projects. The plan was to use two farms in Puerto Rico this year. But after the storm wiped out generators and damaged buildings, she says they're down to one. That farm could have accommodated more seed research if it didn't already grow melons.

RAECHEL BAUMGARTNER DELGADO: One of the things we kind of talked about was stopping the fruit and vegetable growing in favor of our customers, and as we thought about it, we realized we couldn't because we needed the food on the island.

MAYER: Among those they will share it with - laid-off employees.

DELGADO: We've also had to cut back staff - not being able to handle our normal project load.

MAYER: But even with spotty cell service and limited electricity, Baumgartner says their planting regime is mostly on schedule. That's good news for customers, including Les North of MayerSeedline.

LES NORTH: This is the hotel where we stay.

MAYER: OK.

NORTH: And that's the beach, and I'm sure a lot of this is gone now.

MAYER: North leaves his Iowa home each winter to walk the rows that Third Millennium has planted for his company. His trip may be shorter than usual this year.

NORTH: I hope to be down there probably between Christmas and New Year's, but the hotel doesn't have rooms available at this point.

MAYER: Federal emergency responders were occupying all the rooms when he called. But despite the challenges, he expects to be able to verify the quality of the plants.

NORTH: A lot of that is looking for the off types where you go along in the fields and you'll see some tall corn out in the field, something that's taller or something that's a different color or something's got a different silt color.

MAYER: Too much of that and the whole lot might be bad. It's the stuff no lab test will reveal. He estimates 50 to 70 percent of corn seeds get put through this type of in-the-ground testing. Seeds are a multi-billion-dollar industry dominated by global powerhouses like Monsanto, Bayer and DuPont, which also have farms in Puerto Rico. Liliana Sanchez Cortes runs Puerto Rican operations for seed giant Syngenta. Speaking via Skype, she says there are challenges ahead.

LILIANA SANCHEZ CORTES: My boss asked the question immediately, are you going to be able to run the season? And I explain, yeah, this is my work plan, and this is how I need your support.

MAYER: The company has given employees generators, water and ice. Still, she says things are tough for the 45 full-time workers, some of whom lost their homes. And she's struggling to find enough seasonal workers since thousands of people have fled the island.

CORTES: We are trying to look for the people that usually come to work for us, and they are not in the island anymore.

MAYER: But seed companies remain committed to Puerto Rico because of its climate and location - something even Hurricane Maria couldn't strip away. For NPR News, I'm Amy Mayer in Ames, Iowa.

SIEGEL: And that story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that covers food and agriculture in the Midwest and the Great Plains.

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