Puerto Rico Is Sowing A New Generation Of Small Farmers : The Salt Decades of industrialization have left the island reliant on imported food. But change is coming — from government subsidies for small farmers, to classes that teach school kids how to grow food.

Puerto Rico Is Sowing A New Generation Of Small Farmers

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Puerto Rico is a tropical island, but it produces very little of its own food. After decades of industrialization, the U.S. territory imports more than 80 percent of what's consumed on the island. There are signs that that's changing. NPR's Greg Allen spent time in Puerto Rico talking with people about the island's growing interest in producing and buying local.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The town of Orocovis is in Puerto Rico's mountainous interior, a two-hour drive from San Juan on the island's coast. But at a small school here, for 15 years, Dalma Cartagena has tended the seeds of an agricultural movement.

DALMA CARTAGENA: (Speaking Spanish) Buenos dias.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Speaking Spanish) Buenos dias, Senora Cartagena.

ALLEN: Cartagena teaches agricultural science. It's a special curriculum she developed that teaches children from the third to the eighth grade how to grow their own food. This fourth-grade class is getting ready to transplant small lettuce plants into the garden.

CARTAGENA: (Speaking Spanish) Cuando no tenemos compota, que utilizamo?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: (Speaking Spanish) Estiercol.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: (Speaking Spanish) Estiercol.

CARTAGENA: (Speaking Spanish) Estiercol curado, verdad que si.

ALLEN: When we don't have compost, what do we use, Cartagena asks. Manure, her students say.


CARTAGENA: (Speaking Spanish) Un poquito de composta.

ALLEN: Outside, Cartagena's students grab shovels and hoes and go to work in the school's garden. She shows them how to add a little compost with each plant. Cartagena is teaching her students a community-based, sustainable approach to food production. It's part of a new way of thinking about agriculture in Puerto Rico.

For decades after World War II, the island turned away from farming as urbanization and factories transformed the economy. In food production, as in so many things, Puerto Rico looked to the mainland, importing things like rice, vegetables and beef. At the same time, the island's agricultural secretary, Myrna Comas Pagan, says Puerto Ricans push their children away from the farms.

MYRNA COMAS PAGAN: They say if you want to be a prosperous man, you will need to study medicine or engineering. Agriculture is for people that don't have anything to do.

ALLEN: Since being appointed secretary, Comas has made it her mission to improve Puerto Rico's food security. She wants to increase agricultural production, so the island can sustain itself after a natural disaster or other events that could make imported food expensive or unavailable.

But there's also a grassroots effort underway in Puerto Rico.


ALLEN: You can see it in the walk-in refrigerator at a market and restaurant in San Juan - El Departamento de la Comida - the department of food.

PAXX MOLL: We got here green beans. This is cabbage, plum tomatoes, green tomatoes.

ALLEN: Paxx Moll, head cook at El Departamento, says it's all organic and produced by a growing network of small farmers on the island. Owner Tara Rodriguez Besosa is an architect in her early 30s who got into the business several years ago selling her mom's organic produce at a San Juan farmers market.

TARA RODRIGUEZ BESOSA: Setting up a little table area and selling every Tuesday afternoon - that's really how it started.

ALLEN: Many of those getting into farming and food production in Puerto Rico are young entrepreneurs like Rodriguez who are making their own opportunities in a troubled economy. But, she says, there's still a stigma attached to farming as a poor man's occupation - a job for a jibaro.

BESOSA: Jibaro has been a term that a lot of people use in a condescending way. So it's like when you call someone a jibaro it's like in some sense of the word ignorant.

ALLEN: Organic farmer Ricky Cruz Ortiz says he doesn't worry about being called a jibaro. He studied engineering and later went back to college for a degree in horticulture. He raises vegetables, greens and herbs and supplies some of San Juan's top restaurants.

RICKY CRUZ ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish, through interpreter) I'm seeing more and more young people interested in agriculture, and even more with organic agriculture. I think that people are yearning for contact with the land.

ALLEN: If trends continue, Agriculture Secretary Myrna Comas believes Puerto Rico may double its food production within a decade. If so, Dalma Cartagena and the children in her classes in Orocovis deserve some of the credit.

CARTAGENA: (Speaking Spanish) Si, claro que esperamos que...

ALLEN: "Of course," she says, "I hope they work in agriculture eventually. At some point, I asked myself if I was just training laborers, farmers. But in reality, I'm preparing them to make good decisions when it comes to the environment and healthy foods."

CARTAGENA: (Speaking Spanish) Un poquito mas lejo.

ALLEN: Cartagena says other schools have adopted her curriculum and are now teaching kids about the land and growing their own food. She's part of a movement, one to make the island self-sufficient and reclaim Puerto Rico's agricultural traditions. Greg Allen, NPR News, Orocovis, Puerto Rico.


BLOCK: And it's not just food, Puerto Rico also imports nearly all of its fuel for generating energy. Power costs more there than in any state except Hawaii. Tomorrow on Morning Edition, Greg explains how energy has helped create an economic crisis in Puerto Rico.

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