The catastrophic weather event named Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rican soil and billions of dollars in damages have been reported thus far. This cyclone ripped through the heart of this American territory and crippled its ability to generate electricity, supply water, interrupted communication lines, supply roots, medical services, and also devastated agriculture.
“Following what has really transpired in the agriculture sector has been extremely challenging,” said Jonael Bosques, Agriculture Agent from UF/IFAS Extension Hardee County. “Over half of the island is without telephone service, and the agriculture sector has been uncommunicated for the most part until recently”. Mr. Bosques, a native from Puerto Rico has been tasked to serve as the delegate for Puerto Rico at the National Emergency Support Function team for Agriculture and Natural Resources (ESF-11). This team is comprised of members from USDA, American Veterinary Medical Association, Cooperative Extension, and various public and private national and international organizations to assess, coordinate and implement strategies to provide assistance to the agricultural sector or our nation.
As a Puerto Rican and Extension Agent with close ties to the agriculture sector, I have been working with Mr. Bosques in devising a plan to quantify the needs of the community in the Island, and as communications somewhat improved, I had the opportunity to call several farmers to begin this task.
My first contact was Mr. Jorge Rivera, owner of Tropical Heifer Inc. This 200 head dairy operation sits in the municipality of Jayuya. It supplied a quota of 109,353 lbs. of milk every two weeks, which adds to a total production of 2.62 million lbs. of milk per year. The impact Hurricane Maria had on this dairy has been like nothing the owners have ever encountered.
Category 5 Hurricane Maria produced wind gusts of over 200 miles in the interior of Puerto Rico. Rivers rose, roads were washed and entire buildings disintegrated. Tropical Heifer Dairy was not spared from the wrath of this cyclone. “We were stranded with no communications with the outside world for thirteen days. Today we had the blessing of finding out about other farmers. Regarding our farm, we had to relocate our herd to a neighboring farm in another farm in the municipality of Hatillo” – Mr. Rivera accounts.
The stress from moving dairy cattle in peak production added to the already uneasiness in the herd caused by the cyclone produced an increment in disease and a subsequent reduction in productivity which in turn resulted in a loss of close to 45% of milk production per day. “The days following the storm we had to dump the milk because there was no way to get the milk to the processor”, he added.If the situation does not improve we estimate an annual loss of $592,614.00 for Tropical Dairy Farm alone, and like this farm (which is a medium sized dairy in the island) there are 280 more; all of which are in the same situation.
Jorge Rivera estimates a direct loss of $225,000.00 on his farm. “You can add to this number the costs of medications and the lack of production from cows because they will not be able to get milked, so they will have to be dried” (will not be milked anymore for this production cycle).
Tropical Heifer Dairy had an animal loss of just eight heifers (young cows) with a total worth of $4,000.00. Damages to farm buildings are estimated to reach close to $100,000.00.
Getting back on their feet
Mr. Rivera’s priorities are now to:
1. Continue their regular milking schedule and find the fuel to run the generators that cool the milk prior to transport.
2. Rebuild the damaged structures on the farm.
3. Source feed for lactating and dry cows as well as the nourishment for the rest of the herd.
4. Start replacing heifers and cows that have been diseased or that are ill due to subsequent infections after the storm.
“We are in a position to help these people”- stated Jonael Bosques. The agricultural sector of Puerto Rico will not recover if their counterparts in the US Mainland do not lend them a helping hand”.
“People from the government are starting to assess the damages left by Hurricane Maria. There are non-governmental organizations like American Humane Society, American Holstein Association, Ranch Aid, NCBA, and many others that are accepting donations to lift Puerto Rico’s agricultural industry out of crisis mode”, Mr. Bosques added.
You can also contact your legislators, senators and other elected officials and ask for their support for our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico.