Most of the news from Puerto Rico lately has not been Bueno. The island’s government has declared that it cannot repay its bondholders and will carry out drastic cuts in education and social services. Students at Universities in Puerto Rico have been protesting, and the communities moral is at a low point. However, food is .bringing hope. The island’s growing with young food entrepreneurs, from chefs to coffee farmers. Last year, Agro hack, a premier agriculture innovation summit whose purpose is to propel agriculture as a sustainable source of growth and economic development drew 650 people. This year, organizers expect 1,500. There is a new wave of interest in food and in farming Puerto Rico. The new trend has Puerto Ricans going to new farmers markets. Chefs are making a point of finding local sources of food. According to Ricardo Fernandez, who is CEO of Puerto Rico Farm Credit, the largest agricultural lender on the island, it’s a dramatic and refreshing break from Puerto Rico’s past.
“Historically, agriculture has had a stigma in Puerto Rico,” he says. “It was for low-end workers, people who didn’t get an education. We’re making it more modern, more hip.” People are starting to gravitate towards farming and the food industry.
It’s astonishing, how far farming in Puerto Rico has fallen over the past half-century. According to USDA statistics, total sales from Puerto Rico’s farms have declined by two-thirds, in constant dollars, since 1964. Prime agricultural land, much of it previously used to grow sugar cane, are empty with no activity. Despite its tropical climate, which allows farmers to grow food year-round, Puerto Rico imports 80 percent of its food. Puerto Rico’s dependence on imported food. Javier Rivera Aquino, a former secretary of agriculture for Puerto Rico, traced it back to the island’s long history as a Spanish colony when native farming traditions gave way to large plantations of sugar and coffee that were shipped back to Europe. Food, meanwhile, was imported. “They were taught to produce what they don’t consume, and they were taught not to produce what they consume,” he says. “That’s the kind of dependence that was created under that colonial system.”