It has been more than three months since category 5 Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. Some 40 percent of the island still is without electrical power. Damage to major roads and bridges makes many communities on the island difficult to reach. That’s especially true in rural areas.
The hurricane’s death toll, officially 64, could be over 1,000, according to a New York Times report. The relief agency Refugee International says the U.S. did a better job of responding to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a foreign nation, than it did the disaster in Puerto Rico, which is part of the U.S.
While there is a short note on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service website that the USDA has delayed mailing the Puerto Rico Census of Agriculture forms and the Risk Management Agency page on national disasters and crop insurance, we could find nothing on the USDA website about the impact of Maria on Puerto Rican agriculture.
The most recent statistics on Puerto Rican agriculture comes from the 2012 Census of Agriculture. At that time, there were 13,159 farms with 12,000 of those farms being classified as individual or family farms. Only 2,156 of Puerto Rico’s farms were reported by the 2012 Census of Agriculture to use the crop insurance program.
The area under agricultural production encompasses a total area of 568,000 acres and the average farm was 43.2 acres. Eight thousand of the farms in Puerto Rico were smaller than 19.4 acres.
Looking at the average age of the principal operator, Puerto Rican farmers were not too different from farmers on the mainland. The average age was 59 with 507 of the 13,159 principal operators under the age of 35. Of the households of the principal operators, 7,876 reported total income of less than $20,000.
With such a large portion of Puerto Rican farmers at subsistence or near-subsistence levels of income, the impact of Maria on farm households must be devastating.
The U.S. Forest Service, which is a part of USDA, also has responsibilities Puerto Rico. It administers the El Yunque National Forest which “is the only tropical rain forest in the national forest system. At nearly 29,000 acres, it is one of the smallest in size, yet one of the most biologically diverse of the national forests hosting hundreds of animal and plant species, some of which are found only here.”
El Yunque was closed on September 6 in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and has remained closed since then. According to Grizelle Gonźalez, an ecologist who has worked at El Yunque for 25 years, the forest “was completely defoliated…the canopy was completely gone. It was almost like a desert landscape.”
Gonźalez says that researchers believe that “as many as one-fifth of the trees in the 28,000-acre tropical rainforest may eventually die as a result of the storm.”
While some help is reaching urban areas in Puerto Rico, much remains to be done for the rural residents and farmers who live in remote and not-too-remote areas of the island. In the end, we must remember that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and we would not tolerate the same level of inaction with regard to Iowa’s 3.4 million residents as we have seen with Puerto Rico’s 3.1 million people.
This article was originally published in MidAmerica Farmer Grower, Vol. 37, No. 149, December 22, 2017. Dr. Harwood D. Schaffer is Adjunct Research Assistant Professor, Sociology Department, University of Tennessee and Director, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. Dr. Daryll E. Ray is Emeritus Professor, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee and Retired Director, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. Learn more at http://www.agpolicy.org.