HATILLO, Puerto Rico ― Clusters of bruised plantains and bags
of oranges hung from René “Papo” Cruz’s fruit and vegetable
stand on the side of the road. The 60-year-old farmer sat in a
worn chair, waiting patiently for customers to buy what he
could salvage in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
“There are 68 acres [on my farm] and every single one of them
is sown ― well, they were. Now there is nothing,” Cruz told
HuffPost, adding that his family depends on what he produces
and sells to survive.
In October, when HuffPost visited Puerto Rico in the aftermath
of Hurricane Maria, Cruz said he was confident he would receive
help from the government, financial assistance to buy seeds and
clean up debris. If nothing else, he said, he had at least
insured his farm. “But [the company is] not going to pay for
everything,” he said. “The loss was too great.”
But when HuffPost reached out to Cruz’s estate last week to
follow up on what type of aid he and his family had received,
his wife, Limary Perez-Sanchez, 42, said they have not gotten
any help from any entity.
Carlos Alberto Flores Ortega, the secretary of the department
of agriculture in Puerto Rico, blames limited communication
across the island; about a quarter of the island still has no access to
telecommunications services. Communicating to farmers on how to
get aid has been slow going.
“There’s going to be plenty of people that don’t have all that
information because we don’t have telephones and we don’t have
internet,” he said, adding that farmers need to visit a
government office to make sure they are aware of all the
programs and benefits available to them.
A plantain farm in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, at sundown in
October. (Carolina Moreno/HuffPost)
But more than two months after Hurricane Maria, Flores Ortega
says he believes the agricultural sector has “just passed the
Most of Puerto Rico’s farmers lost much of their livelihood to
hurricanes Irma and Maria. Flores Ortega says 80 percent of the
crop value on the island was wiped out by the storms. He notes
it could take anywhere from 10 months to a year to get back to
regular production levels.
For now, some farmers are buying imported goods to stock their
“I’m going to buy from [abroad] because there is nothing left
here,” Cruz told HuffPost, saying he estimates it’ll take
almost a year for his plantains, coffee, oranges and more to be
ready to harvest. “We have to sell that because there’s nothing
else. What am I going to support my family with?”
Assessing The Damage
Financial loss in the agricultural sector is a blow to the
already fragile and debt-ridden Puerto Rican economy. Flores
Ortega estimates the industry is down $245 million in
agricultural products and $1.8 billion in damages to
infrastructure ― storage facilities, irrigation systems, fences
― as a result of storm damage.
More specifically, he says, the hurricane destroyed 70 percent
of the poultry sector’s facilities, killing about 2.2 million
chickens, and the dairy sector had about 4,200 cows either
severely affected or killed.
Flores Ortega says all the losses in the agricultural sector
mean a delay in his objective to reduce the amount of food
that’s being imported to the island from 85 percent to 70
percent. In fact, that number is set to increase as imported
goods are the only way farmers like Cruz can keep their fruit
and vegetable businesses running while they wait for the next
While Cruz has not received aid from the government yet,
Flores Ortega says farmers are eligible to receive financial
assistance from both his department and the U.S. Department
A plantain farm, with trees that are mostly knocked
down, in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico. (Carolina
In October, the USDA also approved $12 million
to provide dairy farmers with money to feed their animals
for one month. Farmers must apply to federal programs
directly through the USDA, though Flores Ortega says his
department is currently helping farmers with the process.
“We have been presenting to the local farmers, in different
regional meetings, what those programs are, what those
programs require, and what all the documentation is and how
to apply for those programs,” he said.
Herds Of Cows Wiped Out By The Storm
While Flores Ortega says the dairy sector is one of the
least-affected in the aftermath of the storms, those farmers
still felt their losses deeply.
Rubén González Echevarría, 34, is co-owner of a dairy farm in
Arecibo, about 43 miles west of San Juan. His brothers
Jonathan, 36, and Yamil, 38, also own the farm, which they’ve
managed for the past 15 years.
“I prepared the best I could, but the magnitude of the
hurricane winds was so strong that they broke everything,”
González Echevarría said in mid-October, as he showed
HuffPost the sheets of metal roofing that had been destroyed
on his farm.
During Hurricane Maria, González Echevarría says 20 of his
cows died when zinc roofing fell on them. Five calves died
during the storm as well, leaving him with 125 cows for milk
While coping with those losses and other effects of the
aftermath of Maria, González Echevarría and his brothers
still had to milk the cows and dispose of their milk. Blocked
roads prevented the company they sell their milk to from
picking it up for distribution, but milking had to continue.
“[The cows] are accustomed to being milked twice a day,” he
said, explaining how they could develop mastitis or other
conditions that could disable future milk production.
A cow at Rubén González Echevarría’s dairy farm
in Arecibo. (Carolina Moreno/HuffPost)
From left, Yamil, Rubén and Jonathan González
Echevarría stand in their dairy farm. (Carolina
Before the storm, González Echevarría says the farm produced
1,400 liters daily. By mid-October that number stood at 800
liters and is currently at 1,100 liters. The farmer says
it’ll take “months” to get back to normal production.
“I know it’s a long process; it’s not instant,” he told
HuffPost in a phone call last week. “I have to feel good
because what else am I gonna do?”
In the meantime, González Echevarría has been able to take
advantage of the USDA’s financial assistance for buying feed
for his cows, but he says his month of aid will end on Dec.
7. He also says he received some money that covers 40 to 50
percent of the cost to fix the infrastructure damages to his
“It’s not enough but at least it’s help,” he said. “I need
more but until now it’s worked out. Everything is flowing
little by little.”
The González Echevarría brothers’ dairy farm was battered
by Hurricane Maria. (Carolina Moreno/HuffPost)
González Echevarría, like many other Puerto Ricans across the
island, relies on a generator to operate his farm. Flores
Ortega says the long-term dependency on generators to run
refrigeration tanks for milk and more is a big issue.
“That equipment is not designed for 24/7 hours of operation,”
he said. “They are going to be presenting problems if they
are not given the correct maintenance. If that happens then
they are going to have serious problems.”
Flores Ortega says he plans to ask nonprofits for help with
obtaining generators since the USDA does not provide
assistance for generators, “because the expectation is that
we are not going to have electricity for several months” he
Looking To The Future
At 60, Cruz says he’s prepared to deal with the hurricane’s
aftermath. He also expects that it won’t be the last time his
farm will endure this type of destruction.
“We have to accept all of this because remember what they
say, about the [global] warming,” he said. “This won’t be the
[last] time that we are going to deal with this. This will
keep going. This doesn’t end.”
But Cruz says he wants to keep going because farming is “in
you, in your heart, in your faith.”
“We lost the farm but there are others who lost their lives,
who lost their houses but we didn’t lose our land,” he said.
“We have to get it up and running. We have to keep going. We
aren’t going to give up, especially not Puerto Ricans. We are
Cruz stands inside his fruits and vegetables in Hatillo. He
says Puerto Ricans have to keep going, despite the
hurricane damage they are dealing with. (Carolina
- This article originally appeared on