As a tropical Archipelago with diverse forests, topography, and land, Puerto Rico should have a thriving agricultural industry. At least three universities and a few technical colleges in this U.S. territory offer degrees in Agriculture. Between its climate and human capital, it would seem like the best scenario for farmers and their products. However, seeing as more than 80 percent of the products consumed locally are imported, the reality is that Puerto Ricans have a long way to go to achieve food sovereignty.
Special Report By Cristina Ramirez Doval
Married couple Joaneette González and José Dilan decided that helping Puerto Rico move towards food sovereignty would become their lives’ calling after a catastrophic climate event in 2017 confirmed them it was time to act.
“We had talked about embarking on an adventure to develop a visionary project focused on educating people about food security and food sovereignty. After [the passing of Hurricane] María, there was a food shortage, and that’s when we finally decided to start the project.”, González said.
In 2017, they founded Frutos de la Montaña, located in the municipality of Morovis.
This micro business is based on three principles: agricultural production, the conservation of Puerto Rico’s natural resources, and the protection of various pollinator species such as bats, bees, and birds.
It also promotes education in Sustainable Agriculture.
González teaches high school students Floriculture and Horticulture, while Dilan has worked in beekeeping, aquaponics, and hydroponics.
Church leaders in other towns like Manatí and San Juan have invited both to teach their congregation about food sovereignty and at-home agricultural practices.
González has provided several workshops for her students’ parents.
“Anyone who asks us for help, we answer. Whether it’s a question, to collaborate with other agricultural workers in production, to give them a small tour of our farm, or to come to our property to relax and meditate, we’re always accessible”, González assured.
There are two practices which, according to González and Dilan, set them apart from other agricultural businesses in the archipelago.
The first one is their efforts to protect pollinators.
“There is a high population of pollinator species all over Puerto Rico. Sadly, due to the exploitation of the environment, and the construction in floodplains and in coastal areas, many species have receded into the mountainous areas”, Dilan pointed out.
He also said that Frutos de la Montaña offers sanctuary to these species, which are mostly bees, birds, butterflies, and bats.
“We take care of bats because they prey on the insects that infest crops, something that actually works to our benefit”, he emphasized.
The second practice is water collection.
Dilan said that they have installed gutters in every ranch to collect water.
“Last year (2022), there was a drought that lasted from February to June, we lost more than half of our crops, climate change is becoming more and more unpredictable”, he mentioned.
According to the couple, these regenerative practices, along with land preservation, help distinguish them from large scale agricultural companies in Puerto Rico. While they agree these industries are important, Dilan and González believe small scale producers are the ones who give back to the environment and the people.
“For example, small agricultural workers respect the land, and that is essential, because a lot of organisms that help plants grow live on the earth; without healthy land and water you cannot grow food”, González emphasized.
To Dilan and González, small-scale agriculture is important and needs to be taught, since it benefits the environment, it promotes food sovereignty, and it can help others develop a sustainable business model. That is why they have decided to take their project to the next level by passing on the knowledge they have acquired.
Not only is González a high school teacher, but she also possesses a Master’s degree in Special Education.
She and Dilan are currently making repairs to the farm so that it becomes wheelchair accessible and adequate for people with functional diversity.
“We want to provide them with the tools to go into the workforce, we had been discussing this for years since we firmly believe that young people can work to become agricultural entrepreneurs”, González said.
They intend to teach functionally diverse students through a paid internship experience if they receive enough support from units of local government such as municipalities.
In an Archipelago where more than 80% of products are imported and where construction is causing a heavy negative impact on the land, projects such as Frutos de la Montaña stand out by implementing regenerative practices.
Not only González and Dilan have been able to overcome challenges such as natural disasters and a theft incident, but they continue to produce crops and even sell them to other farmers when the latter fall short.
Their regenerative practices preserve the soil and help plants grow, while also taking care of the species responsible for pollination.
Food sovereignty is crucial for Puerto Ricans, which is why the natives continue to teach about its importance while also providing the tools to any person from their community interested in learning about agriculture.
But agricultural production, crop sales, and teaching others is not enough, according to the duo.
“Our government needs to take action, what we need is a serious agricultural revolution”, sustained Dilan, “Flat plains have been compromised for urbanization, but what will we do during a crisis like the one we had after [Hurricane] María, if an external factor prevents food from coming in through the seaports?”
The couple believes Agriculture and Food Sovereignty classes should be mandatory from grade school. “I teach my students about it, and not just from the food perspective, but as a trade, or an exchange model”, González explained.
Dilan stated the Puerto Rican Government should implement a better subsidy model than the current one, so business owners can offer more competitive salaries to their agricultural workers.
To learn more about Frutos de la Montaña’s work visit their Facebook page
Photo Credit: Frutos de la Montaña