Puerto Rico struggles to recover after hurricane razed crops

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FILE – View of a damaged plantain farm after Hurricane Fiona hit the island in Guayama, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, September 20, 2022. Hurricane Fiona destroyed $159 million worth of crops in Puerto Rico, decimating fields of plantains, bananas and other crops, the island’s agriculture minister said on Tuesday, Oct. 18. (AP Photo/Alejandro Granadillo, File)

YABUCOA, Puerto Rico (AP) — Hurricane Fiona destroyed $159 million worth of crops in Puerto Rico when it hit a month ago, decimating fields of plantains, bananas and other crops, the island’s agriculture minister said Tuesday.

The U.S. territory’s fragile agricultural sector is barely starting to recover from the Category 1 storm, which hit the island’s southwest region on Sept. 18 and unleashed what officials described as “historic” flooding and dozens of landslides. It also destroyed more than 90% of crops across Puerto Rico.

“A lot of us underestimated the phenomenon,” said Manuel Cidre, secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce. “It was much more damaging to agriculture in the south than many people thought.”

Heavy rains smothered hundreds of acres’ worth of crops and fierce winds flattened young banana and plantain trees, which bend easily starting at a constant wind of 20 mph given the heavy bounty they produce, said agronomist Peter Vivoni, president of the Puerto Rican Agriculture Hall of Fame.

Also hard hit were vegetable and coffee plantations, said Agriculture Minister Ramón González.

On a recent weekday morning in the southeastern town of Yabucoa, farmer Anastacio Silva Gómez surveyed the damage that Fiona caused, recalling how it turned land that he had fertilized a week before the storm hit into a river. He lost 20,000 young plantain trees, noting that he sells bunches at $10 each. He also lost tractors, fertilizers, pesticides and other supplies.

“It was too much rain,” he said quietly. “The rain wreaked havoc.”

Silva and others like him also had been preparing land to plant more crops, but now are unable to do so given the severe financial losses, which is of great concern to many farmers.

“How are we going to lift up the agriculture sector if there are no seeds?” Vivoni said, adding that officials should launch a seed inventory in Puerto Rico.

Similar damage was reported in the neighboring southern coastal town of Maunabo, home to some 120 small farmers who grow crops including plantains, bananas, melons and sweet peppers.

Luis Monte Benjamín was growing bountiful crops on five acres of land before Fiona hit.

“Do you know what it’s like to see it on the floor after you’ve spent a year cultivating it?” he said. “The melons are what I mourn the most. What melons!”

For now, he said he plans to make up for some of the losses by planting a bit of passion fruit, which he said is cheaper to grow.

The storm was the latest challenge to hit Puerto Rico’s agriculture sector, which has struggled to find workers to pick crops and prompted government officials in recent years to bring workers from Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Just days after Fiona hit, Puerto Rico’s agriculture minister announced a more than $2 million aid package for farmers, with thousands applying for help. Crews also have been inspecting farms in recent weeks, with González announcing Tuesday that banana and plantain policy payments will be issued this week.

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