Hurricane Maria wiped out an estimated $780 million in agricultural value in Puerto Rico. Thousands of acres of coffee, banana and plantain farms were flattened. But in areas where small, subsistence-style farming has persisted, some crops survived, especially the many root vegetables common in traditional Puerto Rican cuisine. Farmers dug up yuca, ñame and batata (cassava, yam and sweet potato) and exchanged them for other goods, or simply gave them away. Fallen bananas and plantains were collected off the ground and bartered. Before emergency food supplies from off the island could be delivered, an informal economy had emerged in some places, according to Avilés-Vázquez. People gathered to cook and supplemented their meals with locally grown food.
Some of those who took part are engaged in a type of farming called agroecology. As practiced in Puerto Rico, agroecology often involves polyculture, or growing different crops together; composting; limiting or eschewing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; and an emphasis on improving rural life. The guiding philosophy is to manage the farm as an ecosystem. Avilés-Vázquez points to a renowned agroecological farm called El Josco Bravo to show how interest in the approach has expanded. In 2014, it began offering a semester-long course in agroecology and received 60 applications. This year, it fielded 748.
Dalma Cartagena, a founding member of Organización Boricuá, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving traditional farming techniques, views the growing appeal of agroecology as a sign that the island is finally coming to its senses. She grew up on her grandfather’s farm in the 1960s. As she remembers those days, no one had expensive belongings, and people worked hard, but everyone ate well, nourished by the food that came from their small plots of land. Neighbors shared whatever they produced. “It was a way of being that was self-sufficient,” she says. “There was a culture of mutual help that wasn’t necessarily in dollars and cents.” Cartagena doesn’t want to do away with modern, industrial agriculture, but she wants to see the virtues of that earlier era revived.
Some agroecological practices may help make Puerto Rico’s farms more resilient to hurricanes. As the world warms, the conundrum facing farmers everywhere is how to withstand the storms, droughts, heat waves and floods that are becoming ever more extreme. The answers will differ depending on the landscape. The challenges of farming the semiarid plains of Kansas are not the same as those facing farmers in the hilly and tropical interior of Puerto Rico. But there is one broadly applicable recommendation, according to John Reganold, a professor of soil science and agroecology at Washington State University: Increase organic matter in the soil. This organic matter, the residue that living things leave in the dirt, can come from dead plants, root exudates, microbes, fungi, manure, even decomposing animals and insects. It is important, Reganold told me, because it both provides “structure” that helps water infiltrate the soil (instead of washing away) and acts as a sponge, holding onto critical plant nutrients and storing water for dry periods. Generally, the more organic matter there is in soil, the less the need for fertilizer.