Hurricane Maria: One year later, farmers still reeling from catastrophe

Global Business

Hurricane Maria: One year later, farmers still reeling from catastrophe

Puerto Rican farmers are still reeling from the catastrophe left by Hurricane Maria, one year later. They’ve lost revenue, infrastructure, and production capabilities. But some still believe the island can boost its exports through innovation and persistence.

CGTN’s Nitza Soledad Perez has the story.

During the first days after Hurricane Maria, the Fernandez family couldn’t move milk off of their farm. No trucks could get to their ranch.

“This farm was completely devastated. The road is still hardly maneuverable. We couldn’t sell milk for ten or fifteen days,” dairy farmer Luis Fernandez said.

The big trucks from the pasteurizing plant couldn’t navigate these roads. They could only sell milk to cheese farmers, who operate with smaller trucks. They lost close to 250 thousand dollars in sales. Repairing the farm will likely take another one hundred thousand.

Luis Fernandez and his two sons run the business. Between their two operations, they own over five hundred head of cattle. It’s been a challenge staying afloat. Even before Hurricane Maria, they felt the squeeze of Puerto Rico’s financial crisis.

“Fresh milk consumption decreased as the country entered the crisis. Schools closed and so many kids and their families left, so you can imagine, the fresh milk market changed,” said Luis Fernandez Jr. “we are throwing away all that product and there are so many starving people in other countries. Here, we throw it away right in front of the farm, and it’s the highest quality.” 

There is a plan to start exporting all that extra milk. Suiza Dairy, a Puerto Rican company owned by the conglomerate Grupo Gloria, just completed a $40 million plant that will produce extended life milk. According to Puerto Rico’s Department of Agriculture, they are just waiting for approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Puerto Rico is currently exporting mangoes, tomatoes, watermelons, and some artisanal coffee. But officials here said an island as rich in soil as Puerto Rico, should be able to sell more.

“We want to rehabilitate our farms, re-educate our farmers in new technology and machinery, and we also want to return to our high-grade coffee production and insert it back into the export market. They are the ones that pay a better price for the work of our coffee growers,” Puerto Rico Agriculture Secretary Carlos Flores said.

The Fernandez family have innovated on their own. The trucks couldn’t come to them, so they built their own specialized truck to transport their grade A milk to the processing plant. They are now waiting for the new plant to start buying their milk.

“We, the industry, all the dairy farmers, are waiting for that plant to launch. Many are putting their faith in it because if it doesn’t open, many of those dairy farm businesses will be forced to close,” Luis Fernandez Jr added.

The Fernandez family has managed to stay in business for 35 years. They, like many others – are counting on new markets – to survive in the years to come.