The fate of the finca: Smallholders in the Hispanic Caribbean

Final Report for GS08-070

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2008: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Grant Recipient: University of Texas at Austin
Region: Southern
State: Puerto Rico
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Gregory Knapp
University of Texas at Austin
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Project Information


In Puerto Rico agronomists' training geared towards commercial agriculture in the United States led to imposed cultivation techniques that disregard local knowledge and led to a loss of autonomy and sustainability. Recognizing the difficulties and inapplicability of many of the farming techniques taught by local extension agents, either the farmer survives “illegally” or cuts him/herself off completely from government support. The lengths to which a farmer will go in order to farm without government interference depends primarily on their relationship to ecological resources.


The purpose of this project is to analyze the role informal networks play on farmer survival in the central region of Puerto Rico. Recent rural livelihoods research has focused on niche markets and income diversification (Morris and Evans), for the adoption of improved land management practices, and landholder’s integration into an increasingly globalized economy (Zimmerer 2007). The role of small landholder regional networks, reciprocity, and family structures play a critical part, albeit non-monetized, in small farmer survival and management (Netting 1993), but has not been the central focus of current rural research. This investigative project evaluates the ability of small farmers to maintain their livelihoods in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico using informal networks and local knowledge.

Current discourse on economic development and environmental conservation, places the farmer as inefficient producers in the densely populated Caribbean islands (Ryder 2002). Further scientists and politicians tend to agree that the land would be more beneficial as forest (Aide and Grau 2004). Madsen and Adriensen (2004) state that recent research in geography leaves most of the dynamic world of land use by rural actors unexplained, calling for renewed attention to the physical and philosophical research of rural areas. This research analyzes the linkages of smallholders with each other and their environment, and the degree to which farmers shape the highly diverse landscape in which they live, thereby creating the Puerto Rican agricultural landscape.

The current largest threats to sustainable agriculture in the Caribbean are the increasing costs of production (Martin 2007) and its consideration as environmentally detrimental. For this reason, governments and conservation efforts have focused on fomenting migration and concentrating population into urban areas (Rocheleau et al 2001). This work’s hypothesis is that the ecological services and informal networks help to decrease operating costs, helping farmers maintain livelihoods. Further, our hypothesis is that farmers are efficiently managing the resources available to them by increasingly relying on informal resources, such as ecosystem services.

Recent research has focused on income diversification as the way for smallholder survival. Netting, in his 1993 work, hypothesized that family farms will have the best chance of surviving given their ability to rely on family networks. This work will expand on Netting's hypothesis of survival mechanisms used by smallholders, focusing not only on families, but also on social networks and resources used by farmers. The goal of this research is to analyze the contribution of networks to farm survival, extending beyond family networks. If my hypothesis proves correct, the disappearance of these networks would accelerate the decline of smallholder farmers even when income diversification strategies are put in place.

This research will focus the analysis on: social networks that buoy the rural economies, without which, I argue, income diversification would not be enough to maintain smallholder farming; and on the general positive contribution of farming in the Caribbean to local economy and ecology.

This research identifies survival mechanisms used by farmers so that conservation goals can be implemented.By learning from and building on established local techniques, tapping into the resources and networks farmers already use will help validate and start a local knowledge database that will compliment scientific research. Such knowledge can be used to help farmers skip generations of experimentation by implementing successful techniques to farmers in similar situations and areas. Implications extend to other island nations, areas of development, land use management and policy towards alleviation of poverty, as well as towards what Bebbington calls the linking of international actors through local networks (Bebbington 2001) by its potential future connections of farming technologies and knowledge to other Caribbean islands or smallholders in developed areas.

Project Objectives:

1. To analyze how much of the farmers' current survival relies on a diverse set of social networks, by documenting sources of income, and estimating costs of labor and services not accounted for in the formal economy

2. To analyze the history of land use and evaluate how rural space is used in Puerto Rico, and what changes are occurring in land management and the current concentration and ownership of land.

3. Document ecological services and local knowledge that farmers identify as decreasing costs

4. To analyze the potential benefits of small farm agriculture in the highly populated island of Puerto Rico.


Materials and methods:

The researcher used multi-sited ethnography as designed by Marcus (1995) conducting semi-structured interviews to place the farmer and rural use at various scales. People and discourses were tracked across scales to reveal social networks and interpersonal relations that directly shape the agricultural landscape in a multi-sited ethnographic analysis (Marcus 1995).

Ethnographic interviews were geared towards farmers’ values, practices and techniques used to stay in production. To address the criticism, that rural geographical research has moved away from farming (Morris and Evans 2004) the researcher focused on agricultural activities, and also encompassed other factors that impact the time and energy devoted to farming.

Over 50 farmers were interviewed at various organizational levels. Data from each farm was collected specifically about income distribution to determine what the potential costs would be if social networks had to be bought and sold as labor. Each activity, social interaction and how they contributed to the farmers stability over time was documented based on farmers perceptions, observed and lived situations.

This research project took an activist geography perspective into working with small holder farmers to evaluate how they stay in production using social networks and ecological services that may reduce costs. While the focus was on the central region of the island and on small farmers, interviews were conducted with larger landholders, government officials and other researchers to share and learn from their perspective.

Based on the interviews, the researcher ascertained what is the discourse surrounding the ecosystem services the farmers may be drawing upon. Through the interviews the researcher also investigated the attitudes of people towards the land and what methods they are employing, if any, to diversify and improve crop production or sustainability.

The materials necessary were a four-wheel drive vehicle and a computer. Interviews were conducted across many farms and markets, in addition to consistent attendance to different farmer’s grassroots organizations and workshops.

Research results and discussion:

Historical Context

The Caribbean island's economies, developed mainly as a benefit to the mercantile western empires, are now shifting towards more service and tourism economies (Conway 1997). Puerto Rico, the smallest of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean Sea, shares many of the Caribbean’s intricacies and contradictions, but it also has a slightly different development path than other Caribbean islands. Puerto Rico is still under US rule having been controlled continuously by a foreign economic power since the 1493 conquest.

When other Caribbean islands focused on sugar, the economies of scale benefits of sugar did not apply to Puerto Rico until after the economic protection of the US occupation, and protection did not last past World War II (Crist 1948). After the initial incentives towards agricultural protectionism to guarantee tropical goods for the US market (Crist 1948), the focus shifted under Operation Bootstrap to manufacturing (Dietz 2002). Today, the Puerto Rican economy has moved almost completely (99% of the economy comes from other sectors) away from agriculture.

The history of the Caribbean has had a long contribution of smallholder sustainability. Farm workers in Caribbean plantation economies maintained their own plots of land and within these plots workers experimented with multiple varieties of agriculture foodstuffs (McCook 2004). However, political goals such as conforming the Puerto Rican economy to the United States capitalist market, and environmental factors such as the consecutive hurricanes and the earthquake in the first half of the 20th century led to extreme poverty for Puerto Rico’s farmers, loss of land, and the start of a major exodus from the farm to the cities (Alvarez, unpublished).

Loss of land and decreased production, along with the goal of turning Puerto Rico into a major market for United States products resulted in a de-valuing of the Puerto Rican traditional diet of tubers and the promotion of imported foods as being nutritionally superior.

A well-remembered and cited example was that of government officials visiting farms and saying that the local breadfruit gave children parasites at the same time that the American produced potato was promoted for consumption (Alvarez unpublished, and other first hand sources).

In 1941, the government passed the law of 500 acres, a modest agrarian reform, that aimed to redistribute lands among small farmers and “arrimaos” (workers living on the farmland of their large landholder boss). However, according to farmers that remember these times, implementation was less than stellar as small farmers were given “bad lands”, the lands left over by the large landholder, in sizes not appropriate for the available working family unit.

Lack of land for production, a shift in dietary consumption from farm products to imported goods such as the American potato, and the decreased production of sellable products due to consecutive natural disasters and economic shifts, such as the loss of U. S. protection for the export of local sugar cane, led some credence to the idea that local producers did not know how to farm properly.

Operation Bootstrap
The global impetus of the Green Revolution, combined with the government’s goal in Operation Bootstrap of industrializing the island, while increasing GDP, led to a massive social change. In less than one generation a massive exodus from the rural areas to the urban centers and from the island to the United States generated a sense of success for the economic development of Puerto Rico and served as a sort of escape valve (Alvarez unpublished, Rivera-Medina and Ramirez 1985) for the Puerto Rican economy.

The loss of local knowledge was accelerated by the introduction of agricultural practices from the U.S. that stressed mono-cropping systems and paid incentives for farmers to use chemical fertilizers. One such example, remembers a farmer, was the new way that coffee roots were pruned, damaging the bush so that it became more feasible (with that particular planting technique) to produce only with fertilizer.

At the same time foreign food was being promoted and valued over local production, leading to the removal of local staple food plants such as breadfruit trees. The shift in incentives towards chemicals and in demand towards imported products led to an abandonment of agricultural public policy, and the creation of a subsidies system for agricultural production that focuses on chemical dependency and government regulation.

Today’s farms in this area are the modern results of the organizational legacy of plantation economies (Weis 2004), and the industrialization driven by the United States government, which led to massive farm abandonment. Currently, local food production is not considered cost effective, however, the sector of smallholders still contributes to food security (Beckford and Barker 2007), for this reason May and Bonilla (1997) suggest that food subsidies are necessary to increase food security.

Agricultural policy has often been at odds with local knowledge. One such example is the case of rice in Puerto Rico. In the middle of the 20th century, families in the mountain region had achieved rice self-sufficiency, with several dry rice varieties being cultivated and shared among smallholders for family consumption (not for commercial use). Agronomists and government officials insist that Puerto Rico is not able to produce rice, that it has never been produced in the island, and that the only way to do so is in large scale wet paddies.

Local historical context: Puerto Rico

Ayala and Bergad (2002) have done most of the archival work describing land use changes in agricultural Puerto Rico during the period of transition from Spain to United States. In their research, they were challenged by the small amount of information available for that period of Puerto Rican history. This problem, they state, stretches throughout the Caribbean. The work by Carro-Figueroa and Weathers (2003) highlights the current anti-rural bias, which suggests that the situation has not changed or perhaps even worsened in recent years.

Land concentration in Puerto Rico decreased after United States occupation (Ayala and Bergad 2001). The number of smallholders increased and farm size decreased, based on subsistence plots and coffee parcels. The agrarian reform size was then based on subsistence parcel size and not for the market (Ayala and Bernabe 2007), in part because agrarian land reforms have ignored non-farm activities and ultimately led to failure (Heath 1988).

The Puerto Rican economy was characterized by the production of sugarcane in a plantation setting at the change of political ownership. Coffee on the other hand was never important to the United States because it was considered local, and Puerto Rico itself had an established coffee culture before the United States intervention, unlike tobacco and sugar. Coffee cultivation helps with food security, though the ratio has not been determined (Bergad 1978). Coffee and tobacco had originally lower levels of land concentration and higher levels of subsistence, but the lack of importance of the coffee culture for the United States meant that the coffee industry was neglected by the United States in favor of plantations, particularly sugar (Crist 1948).

In the 1940s, Operation Bootstrap shifted production to export rather than food production through industrialization (Dietz 2002; Klak 2004). Direct corporate investment became the decisive factor in turning the Puerto Rican economy from agriculture to industrialism while at the same time increasing its outside dependence (Bergad 1978;p.74). In this shift to industrialization, money became the way to satisfy urban and rural necessities (Bergad 1978) and the money culture caused the major exodus from rural areas and facilitated massive migration to the coastal areas (Bergad 1978).

Puerto Rico in the Wider Caribbean Economy

Current Caribbean governments have a bias against agriculture, in the Jamaican government there is a bias against local food production (Beckford and Barker 2007). The majority of research resources has gone to export crops such as sugarcane (Beckford and Barker 2007) and subsistence agriculture is sacrificed as export agriculture was increased (Bergad 1978) moving most farmers towards a market orientation. This has led to an inability of farmers to compete, which has been used to justify irrelevancy of the farm sector (Weis 2004). Not even plantations with their once preferential market are any longer desirable (Weis 2004). The small size of island populations cannot support the internal market economy (Heath 1988), and these attitudes have also been fed by a strong United States policy of agricultural exports that, Weis (2004) argues, is turning Jamaica into a “consumption appendage” of the United States. With its long history of food import export economy and dependency, one could argue this is the case for the wider Caribbean. Lastly, Weis (2004) states that United States agricultural interests are “actively planning to feed the Caribbean” (p. 482) a statement that supports the purposeful move away from agriculture in order to maintain a strong export agriculture in the United States economy which feeds into the Caribbean’s already high trade dependency (Klak 2004).

Physical Environment
Eighty percent of the island is mountainous with elevations going up to over 1300m in less than 10km (CIA 2008). The average rain for north and south ranges between 900-1100mm but the actual average is not known for the mountain region specifically. The average temperature of the central region is 70-78 degrees Fahrenheit, which has deemed it “officially” ideal for coffee, but not other products, despite a long history of cultivation of many other products in this region. The mountainous region of Puerto Rico covers over 80% of the island, and it is dominated by small farms, making it home for the largest population of farmers.

Of 18,000 registered farmers on the island, around 8,000 of them farm less than 10 cuerdas (cuerdas and acres are approximately the same). About 1000 of them farm 100 cuerdas or more. The numbers of farmers have been decreasing since the 1940s and farm size has been increasing, suggesting that the small holder is being pushed out so that most of the island is held by 1000 farmers.

Present Context of Agriculture in Puerto Rico

The Puerto Rican Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from agriculture has been decreasing since 1940s (Dietz 2002). Today one percent of GDP comes from agriculture (CIA 2008), and three percent of the labor force is employed by agriculture. Recent sociological studies of farmers in the central region addressed the increased modernization of small farmers and documented how the decrease of small farmers is the result of 30 years of anti-rural policy (Carro-Figueroa and Weathers 2003). Despite these anti-rural policies, farmers in her sample mostly see themselves still farming in ten years (Carro-Figueroa and Weathers 2003). In their research Carro-Figueroa and Weathers conclude that the decrease of small farms has slowed down, but they highlight a source of potential problems in which farms may be under-represented due to census qualifications.

The rural community seems to be a buffer of economic changes; family farms are described as fragile but stable, and they state that multiple jobs are not a strategy used by farmers (Carro-Figueroa and Weathers 2003). Follow-up work by Guptill (2006) focuses on alternative forms of agriculture such as organic production and farmer’s markets. These two latest studies suggest the little research done on rural communities that rely on cash crops.

Farms and agricultural research in Present Day Puerto Rico

Agriculture's contribution to the national economies has been decreasing in the years since trade liberalization and smallholder farms have been decreasing all over the Caribbean (Carro-Figueroa 2003, Greenberg 1997). Current economic policies favor large landholders to focus on economies of scale thereby increasing the difficulties small holders face (Guptill 2004). Further, tourism and conservation discourse qualify agriculture as an inefficient use of land for Caribbean islands with more desirable options elsewhere, further justifying agricultural policies that may hasten land abandonment and concentrate population in urban areas (Rocheleau et al 2001, Korovikin 1997,).

The island’s central mountain range is the center of smallholder agriculture where coffee is produced as the cash crop in a multi-cropping system (Carro Figueroa 2003) of what Weisskoff (1985) described as sub-subsistence level. The benefits of agroforestry coffee production both to sustainability and the local environment have been documented in different research avenues (Vandermeer and Perfecto 2006). In the case of Puerto Rico, Bergad theorized that the small parcels of coffee production provided sustainability to small family farms given the large amount of food production that could take place alongside the marketable coffee (Bergad 1978). However, Caribbean farmers have changed their growing practices based on agricultural technologies not adapted to the region (Hope and Spence 2006).

Agricultural research is generally based on “scientific” rather than local knowledge (Bebbington and Carney 1990). Much of the agricultural development that occurs is based on the US model of commercial agriculture. Scientific knowledge based on green revolution technologies promoted by the land grant university (Alvarez, unpublished) is used to train local agronomists, and, in turn becomes validated and mandated in agricultural policy.The top down approach conditions farmers’ to accept government aid.

Agricultural policies and incentives have been designed after green revolution technologies that are better suited for large parcels of land (Bebbington and Carney 1990). Among these policies is the restriction that the primary source of income must come only from farming and that government aid is intended mainly for fertilizer. The fertilizer and planting program is stipulated by the recommending agronomist. It generally involves removal of trees, a specific spacing of crops depending on the coffee variety, and no multi-cropping. This would seem to explain the decreased number of farmers in the coastal flats of Puerto Rico, where mainly urbanizations and large industrial agricultural endeavors are located.

While in other Caribbean islands agricultural neglect and conservation efforts have been documented as a cause for poverty and land abandonment (for example see: Rocheleau et al 2001), in the case of Puerto Rico, the one-size- fits-all policy of both central governments adds an extra layer of complexity to farming and to farmers' livelihoods. Many of the regulations at the local level address the simple use of government funding, aid for specific purposes. In the case of government aid, much of it must be used to buy fertilizer, negating the potential positive effect of the original aid (Guptill 2004). The different policies that link specific practices to aid have generated a level of dependency that Guptill described as akin to a veiled rural welfare.

In the case of Puerto Rico sub-subsistence agriculture was practiced after Spain ceded the territory to the United States in the Treaty of Paris (Weisskoff 1985). Conway’s work in 1977 addresses how small islands of the Caribbean remain resourceful, despite external domination and government mismanagement. Parts of this resourcefulness within the agricultural sector stands squarely outside of the legal realm, breaking established rules designed to control and properly label resources. In the case of farmers, in order to be considered a “farmer” having a second job or any other type of income is limited. This benefit of being considered a farmer is imperative given the tax breaks and different wage salary allowed to farmers whose income is, among other things, less consistent. In the case of coffee, the crop has an income window of 3-4 months. So, in order to qualify, farmers must live on food stamps for the majority of the year unless they break the law by supplementing their income with an off-farm job.

Some aid for farmers is paid as salary compensation in addition to the salary paid by the farmers towards agricultural labor. Money to help defray costs, loans and even insurance are contingent upon following strict rules and recommendations by agronomists trained in green revolution technologies such as chemicals for fertilizing and pesticides, how to manage soil resources, limestone application, distance between crops and no multicropping. Multicropping is prohibited based on various erroneous principles such as the fact that intercropping cannot be insured due to increased risks.

Much of the money must be used to buy chemicals to use in the farm, these chemicals must be applied on time and all of it used before a certain period of time. So while the money assistance is a welcomed relief, it forces farmers to homogenize production to one crop and most of the money ends up being spent back on chemical inputs (Guptill 2004). Farmers are thus trapped in a treadmill of poverty as coffee only produces three to four months a year and the rest of the year is spent on food stamps.

By imposing regulations that prevent farmers from generating income, this situation leaves farmers all the more open and welcoming of any government aid, regardless of the conditions. This dependency institutionalizes the very poverty that the incentives were designed to combat.

Case Study # 1
Among the farmers interviewed were a woman in her 60s who can afford to insure only a portion of her mono-cropped coffee against hurricane damage. She follows the government regulations for growing a particular variety in order to receive the aid payments. She has stopped depending on the salary compensation for her commercial plot of coffee due to frustration over the amount of paperwork and the delays in the payments. At the time of our interview the government was 9 months behind on paying the agreed upon agricultural subsidy.

The rest of her farm is fully intercropped, growing coffee varieties for her own use that she considers superior to the commercial variety. This plot is grown without chemicals, and the plants are spaced appropriately according to her long experience.

Her house, though missing an entire wall and clearly under slow construction, holds four sets of new solar panels costing approximately $400 each. The panels have been bought over many years and installed by her son, a mechanic, to follow the sun's movements. In order to make up for diminished farm income, she hopes to eventually not have to pay an electric bill.

Even though she is not breaking rules and therefore not endangering her aid, she has chosen to only enroll a very small percentage of her crops so she can retain multiple varieties of coffee and continue production practices she favors such as multi-cropping.

Case Study #2
Another life-long farmer lives with his wife and his grown children on a 30 cuerdas farm. His son has had to stop working on the farm because if he is found out, his income would exceed the limit for much-needed food stamps. So it was easier for the farmer to stop paying his son, and work the farm alone than to have him risk losing the little government aid received. Most of what they eat is produced on the farm. There is not enough cash flow to pay for the transport of the plantains and bananas planted within the coffee.

Based on knowledge gained from a lifetime of raising coffee, this farmer departs from the regulations by planting different varieties of coffee at spacings different than that which the agronomist has suggested. In front of these plantings, he grows a façade of coffee trees spaced according to the regulations. These are the plants the agronomist sees.

In this case the agronomist is past retirement age, and has seen all the changes back and forth in Puerto Rican agriculture. He long ago gave up trying to enforce unenforceable rules. A younger agronomist might force this farmer to change his practices, but for now this farmer keeps receiving government aid while continuing to farm in a way that it works for him.

Case Study #3
One of the last farmers interviewed in the predominantly coffee region of central western Puerto Rico attempts to follow all the rules that he has been given. He cut every tree in his farm. He professes his love for using chemicals because they help him. He lives alone with a much older uncle who cooks and cleans the half finished house, cement blocks stacked high with construction halted. The uncle and the farmer live meagerly. The uncle mends their clothes to the point that some of the holes no longer sew together. Their stark living conditions are accentuated by the fact that almost all the food had to be bought from outside since he had cut nearly all the trees, including fruit trees, and removed as many tubers as possible. Despite his attempts to follow all the regulation, before the end of our interview the farmer confessed that he works in Puerto Rico only three months out of the year, on average. The rest of the year he works in the United States as farm labor and that is how he makes his “real income”. If his off-farm income is discovered he will lose all benefits.

Though current discourse on economic development and environmental conservation in Puerto Rico defines the small farmer as an inefficient producer, and theoretical studies are increasingly labeling actual farming as less and less a part of rural life, my research indicates that farmers are highly efficient in the use of their resources, and that the actual act of growing crops has always been but a fraction of what constitutes being a farmer.

Problems with current survival for small farmers using conventional methods of production, seem to be attributable to policy interventions that go counter to the farming lifestyle. They are trapped in a cycle of dependency initiated in the 1940s after the green revolution and the industrialization project for Puerto Rico. Small farmers that converted to conventional methods of production find it impossible to abandon these for what they recognize as more sustainable methods of production.

Further, this generation of farmers consists mainly of men and women that were raised with chemical production and methods. The focus on large scale industrial production since the 1940s have led today’s farmers to view this type of agriculture as traditional for them rather than conventional, similar to Ryder’s findings in the Dominican Republic, where farmers had lost “traditional knowledge”. However, I found that, within their farms, farmers have retained or been forced by circumstances to relearn methods that decrease their dependence on outside inputs, or maximize the use of what is available to them within their land, all methods we would label sustainable.

Government subsidies as studied by Guptill are mainly for chemical inputs, leading to a type of rural welfare. The prescribed use of these chemicals determines who is allowed to receive government aid as a bonafide farmer. Proper use of the chemicals means following the directions of the agronomist assigned to your farm. In the case of coffee, in spite of all the research done that supports the conservation benefits of coffee as an agroforestry system and its benefits for smallholder sustainability on a socioeconomic level, trees and intercropping were generally eliminated.

Intercropping, a long standing farming practice is not allowed in coffee, eliminating one of the major sources of alternative income for farmers and in an extreme case, food. The chemicals provided for use in the coffee agroecosystem cannot be used in intercropping, because though deemed safe for the coffee bean, these chemicals accumulate to dangerous levels on bananas, which people eat directly. The coffee agroecosystem in Puerto Rico practices a trifecta of production akin to the “three sisters” of the Northeast United States. These three crops are coffee, oranges and bananas.

However, farmers are punished if they use the chemicals provided for coffee in this inter-cropping system. Instead of providing a different chemical, or better yet, enhancing sustainable ways of production based on intercropping, local agencies forbid intercropping for coffee farmers. Coffee production generates income only about 4 months of the year, with bananas and oranges providing some income, as well as sustenance, the rest of the year. Forbidding the practice of multi-cropping promotes non-sustainable farming practices at the ecological level, and also removes the additional economic opportunities for selling oranges and bananas.

Farmers have devised different strategies to circumvent the regulation. Some simply ignore the prohibition and use the chemical provided for coffee on their intercropping system, a dangerous alternative. Others sell the subsidized sacks of chemicals at market price.

Farmers Insurance
Insurance premiums are perceived as higher for non-conventional/traditional farmers. But even for conventional farmers, the insurance subsidy proves to be a losing gamble. Insurance only covers 65% of the product sale price at the time of the damage. But heavy rains, generally not considered a natural disaster like a hurricane, have become common in the island in recent years (at higher intensity than hurricanes). These rains destroy, not only the product intended for sale, but many times the capital/structural investment on the land (such as contours or banks) which, along with labor, are lost capital not accounted for in the insurance reimbursement.

Furthermore in order to get subsidies it is highly recommended to get insurance, in some cases farmers were warned when they were getting too little insurance and “nudged” into insuring higher amounts of crop in order to not risk their government aid. In such cases, farmers view the insurance as a necessary loss.

A young farmer with a gully in the middle of her field typifies an example of poor use of insurance and regionally inappropriate technology. The farmer was told by her assigned agronomist to build contours in a specific manner. Though she was highly suspect of this advice, she had to follow the agronomist’s instructions to qualify for the aid. When the first heavy rains came, instead of going down the gully the water went through the contours taking away all the terracing, the irrigation system, and the crop. Five months of work completely lost for which the insurance only covered 65% of the product sale price at the time of the rains. She lost everything, except that 65%, an amount that is not enough to replant.

Luckily, this particular farmer had alternate sources of income from artisanal products and a small vegetable garden in her father’s backyard. They provided enough to get her through five months needed to replicate the work lost. That farmer has resolved to never again apply for government assistance nor to take advice from agronomists about her production.

Agronomists advice vs. farmer knowledge

The eldest farmers in my sample recall farming in their younger years as being more productive without chemicals. They used intercropping, compost made on the farm with ashes and other waste, and there were no plagues of insects. They also are of the opinion that new seeds sold by the Department of Agriculture have lower general productivity and resistance to disease.

As they reminisce, they relate how agronomists came to their parents' farms and told them how to plant and prepare the terrain. Though they both knew they were destroying the plant, they did it for two reasons-- first the university agronomist was supposed to know best, and, secondly, the monetary benefit presented to people who were paid to change farming practices. The damage to the plants from non-appropriate land preparation techniques was so severe that it forced them to acquire new seed varieties from the Department of Agriculture.

Despite being completely aware that the farming methods they knew before were better for their health and for the production of their farm, they know that now that they have used chemicals for many years, turning organic would mean a decrease in production that they cannot afford, a problem akin to the pesticide treadmill manifested in loss of soil fertility over years of chemical fertilization.

One example is a farmer with a relatively large orchard of tree fruits. This year he went “organic” with no chemical inputs due to the lack of money for fertilizer. Despite this year's abundant crop of some of the largest of that particular fruit I have ever seen in my life, he states that the trees suffered too much and he even lost a few. Hence he is doing everything in his power so that next year he can afford to fertilize at least some of them.

Use of compost was generally favored among the interviewees, but only those who knew of nearby abandoned farms (rabbits and chicken) or who could barter with the owners of such operations had access to it. If they needed to pay for compost, they could not afford to use compost on their farm.

In looking for a solution, central farmers have joined together in a project to generate compost as a means of saving money on fertilizer and for the ecological benefits of building up the soil, while getting rid of farm waste that would otherwise go to the already crowded dump yards.

Truly sustainable agriculture cannot be achieved if we lose farmers and their knowledge, or if the turnover of going in and out of farming is too high. Another local NGO focuses on interviewing and recording these elder farmers so that there will be at least one repository of local knowledge from this last generation that produced using more traditional methods, even if only in their youth. Unlike Ryder’s description of farmers in the Dominican republic, not old enough but not modern enough either, some farmers in Puerto Rico, particularly in the harder to reach mountain regions still remember traditional farming techniques, and even the most modern farmers look for ways to retain production, cut costs and prevent environmental damages over the long term.

The importance of social networks and local knowledge is critical from social interactions and sales to land access and authority over the way that land is managed. Social capital becomes a critical part of survival for most farmers, whether they are conventional or organic. Wives, children and other extended family or friends work on the farm or in the home. In cases of dire emergency, the farmer’s family becomes the source of extra income. When one farmer was diagnosed with cancer, her parents paid for the treatments. Agricultural brigades and volunteers have been crucial to maintaining her farm. Another farmer relied on exchanging lunch for a day’s work with his university classmates. Others have started promoting days on the farm as a way for people to escape urban life in exchange for farm labor.
Farm wives bring in additional income from sewing local school uniforms or selling high-value ornamental plants from the house garden. Without these social ties, many farmers would not be able to continue production.

The increased use of the house garden to grow ornamentals for sale denotes a shift from the original use of house gardens as documented by Kimber in her original work in Puerto Rico as well as more recently by WinklerPrins in Brasil describing the urban-rural networks of seed exchange for food stuffs produced by the house garden.

The new wave of farmers has a distinct access and knowledge of computer use. They have come to recognize it as a critical tool to promote their merchandise and educate others as to why their product, grown in an ecologically sustainable manner, may be better than conventionally grown products. Computer access and skill has become a critical part of tapping into farmer knowledge and connecting to other farmers as well as potential costumers. As the number of organic farmers increase, they target mostly urban consumers through internet advertising and groups, announcing participation in markets, and CSA openings, thus extending the reach of the aforementioned social circle.

Along with electronic networks and personal social networks made up of family and friends, beginning farmers (those with five years or less) rely on teaching workshops as a way to network. The logic being that an ecological form of agriculture must be promoted, that sharing this knowledge is necessary and the more people are educated about organic methods, the more they will support their local organic farmer.

Healing workshops, better eating seminars, food preparation workshops, and information on traditional uses of plants, as well as how to produce on your own piece of land using sustainable methods are popular among organic farmers, and to some have become central to their operation. Small farmers unhindered by the government’s limitations rely heavily on alternate sources of income from the workshops, markets, construction, seed and labor exchange. This networking results in exchange of practices and seed varieties that increase farmers’ knowledge and potential resilience.

Lack of land is another commonality shared by organic farmers, given that they are also newer to the agricultural landscape. Though their parents or grandparents farmed, they themselves were almost invariably born, raised or worked in an urban setting for many years.

For these people farming became a sort of calling, be it a way to escape the hectic lifestyle of the city, or a political imperative to improve Puerto Rican agriculture, or a personal quest to relearn disappearing knowledge, or a need to conserve the environment or improve the food they eat. Thus the backgrounds of organic farmers present an unequaled access to social capital, not available to the older traditional or the conventional farmers of the island. People with resumes as publicists, biologists, agronomists, computer programmers and other professions abound among the organic farmers.

Lack of access to land, however, has become an increasingly difficult barrier to access for this new generation of farmers. Land speculation, among other things, has driven property prices to levels most Puerto Ricans canno afford. This problem is addressed in multiple ways, each specific to the farmer and the amount of land needed. Generally the bargain relies on a social contract with a friend or family member. In most cases, the temporary nature of the relationship (rent/lease/borrow) hinders the degree to which the farmer can experiment or improve the land, as they are perpetually thinking of all the improvements possible while at the same time looking for a permanent place.

Land rights security, as shown by other research, becomes a critical part in practicing and improving upon sustainable management practices in agriculture. My work supports previous findings. Though experimentation with sustainable practices is higher, due to a personal connection with the owner of the farm, young farmers are still limited in their investment on sustainable practices and land improvement, aware at “any moment” it could be taken away.

Multiple farmers mentioned incurring high initial costs for improvements but still waiting on government aid. Improvements are not possible if the farmer does not have the original capital to invest or if the liquid capital to support him/herself if the government aid never arrives (a problem consistently mentioned).

Of the farmers interviewed, those with medium-sized farms and higher capital amounts to invest were all in some stage of a transition with part of the production moving to a less environmentally impacting system of production.

One farm became a teaching lab for neighboring farmers, when it was the only one in the area that did not lose production when the heavy rains came. Its plantings held due to old tires being used as retention walls to hold the terrain and the prunnings from trees protecting the bare soil and preventing grass or weed regrowth. The farmer made it clear that he would not be able to do this without the capital to hire outside labor.
The eldest laborer, a farmer himself, helped initiate some of the sustainable practices on the farm.

None of the better capitalized, medium-sized farms in the study were generating actual profits, but rather just bringing in enough money to maintain the farm itself. The farmer was supported by another job, such as fertilizer sales for a large agribusiness company. Sustainable practices that require a large capital investment rather than small local and practical strategies, prevent small farmers from investing in their farms and create a sense that sustainable practices are specifically out of their budget/not for them.

Farmers never attempted to capitalize farming by separating labor in the way that building and selling a car are separate enterprises. Forcing farmers to limit their jobs to what outside agencies consider acceptable for farming has been detrimental to farmer survival. Farmers are builders, migrants, artisans, cooks, and more. Limiting the definition of farming to just sowing and harvesting a crop limits their income base, which is the reason many of the small farmers who try to follow the rules have to depend on food stamps.

Many also have hidden jobs to generate enough income to survive throughout the year. Since coffee, the main crop in the center of the island, produces an income approximately only 4 months out of the year, some farmers migrate to work in fields in the US to have an income the rest of the year.

Others rely on the wives’ income from several odd jobs such as sewing uniforms, selling knick-knacks, or selling expensive ornamentals from the house garden. This last practice has led to a hyper-diversified house garden as they look for varieties to cross and exchange with neighbors that a consumer may not find anywhere else.

Current research focuses on how farming is a vanishing part of the agricultural landscape, but it seems only recently, and within the industrial capitalist agriculture model, that a farmer had to invest 100% of his or her work time to one task, and those are being eliminated. Most farmers making a better living do so by diversifying their work, completely cutting off ties with government, and following only select advice from agronomists.

If farmers were strictly following the regulations, one would expect the Puerto Rican agricultural landscape to be devoid of trees and planted in standard-sized rows of a single crop. Instead, the agricultural landscape is still peppered with sheds full of unused chemical bags, shade trees and other diverse types of trees, as well as generally non-uniform planting distances.

These farmers are keenly aware of the illegality of their actions and that being caught would entail the loss of their farm benefits and in some cases the farm itself. While some farmers have the social and academic capital to seek options or simply ignore the rules or lobby for or help create new rules, an entire generation of farmers is trapped with little capital. These are forced to follow the rules or risk their very subsistence. They view themselves as having survived in spite of government involvement.

Some farmers view their situation as a form of resistance to government initiatives that favor large farms on the coast. Farming provides food for the family's consumption, even when no crop is sold, an advantage generally not available in the city. Farming is surviving, and despite political and economic pressures in Puerto Rico farm abandonment seems to have somewhat stabilized. Farmers are starting to reapply practices used in the past leading to the expression that the “future of farming is in the old ways”.

In order to survive farmers develop friendships with agronomists that are more acquainted with sustainable methods.

Rules and regulations abound on the island, with farmers having to follow multiple sets of federal, state and municipal laws. These policies range from defining who is considered a farmer at all, to aid for farm labor, to insurance and chemical subsidies limit and / or control what farmers plant, how they manage the land, and ultimately influence how they live. The frustration over so many regulations leads many farmers to ignore these rules, bend them, or try to decrease the impact on their farm by removing themselves from government purview.

Family support, social networks, and working on expanding and strengthening these networks, such as building grassroots alliances with assigned agronomists becomes a critical part of surviving outside the realm of these rules and regulations.

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Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Book: La Soberanía Alimentaria para Puerto Rico, Editor, In Progress

Webpage: Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA for its initials in Spanish) for the promotion of agricultural activities and provision of agroecological information on the web.

Conference Presentation: Annual Forum on AgroEcosystems: The Farmer: Central axis of the agroecosystem 17 April 2009 University of Puerto Rico – Utuado Campus, History of the International Day of Peasant’s Struggle 17th of April

Agricultural Brigades: Coordinated and helped strengthen network of agricultural brigades to help farmers in need. The Brigades allow for the exchange of sustainable agricultural practices.

Market creation: Helped with the reopening of an ecological market in Ponce. Initiative driven by several organic producers that have cooperated with the project, and who identified one of the problems as connecting with the consumer and educating him/her.

Book Reviews:

1. “The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming” by Tony Weis, Development and Change, Volume 40, Issue 2, March 2009, Pages 403 – 404, K.R. Avilés-Vázquez
2. “The Future Control of Food: A Guide to International Negotiations and Rules on Intellectual Property, Biodiversity and Food Security”, Geoff Tansey and Tasmin Rajotte, eds. The Professional Geographer, Volume 61, Issue 3, 2009, Pages 423 – 424, K.R. Avilés-Vázquez; R.W. Bussmann

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

Further research needs to focus on just a few points to start turning agricultural extension work into one that truly aids farmer sustainability and environmental conservation.

Train the trainer--help agronomists learn and replicate local sustainable practices. Most importantly, they should be able to propose low-cost, small-scale sustainable changes that farmers can implement in steps. Agronomists could better help farmers if they understood why farmers are not taking their advice. Weis states in the conclusion of his book, that addressing issues of farming with a positive attitude will improve the chances of any policy for success.

Preserve heirloom varieties--This research discovered that there are several types of seeds saved by each farmer beyond what agronomists know was cultivated in the island. Many farmers have kept and maintained the seeds for multiple reasons. At least one NGO is working to conserve dry rice seed varieties. Research should be conducted on these locally adapted seed varieties before they are lost.

Intermediaries were mentioned multiple times as a critical element in the survival of smallholders. The role of the intermediary in farm survival should be further investigated and understood.

The newest farmers (those farming for five years or less) had limited access to land and no land rights. While all of them claimed agroecological production as their priority for farming, the techniques they applied and the level of innovation they could practice was limited for some due to the knowledge that their land could taken away at any moment. It is necessary to understand and remove barriers to acquisition of farmland by younger farmers.

It is necessary to understand and support collaboration strategies to improve upon and develop new production techniques developed by farmers with such a commitment. Some of these techniques come from other countries and have been masterfully adapted to the Puerto Rican landscape, but better communication and more instituional support of these techniques are needed.

Further, the importance of these farms for conservation needs to be understood. Recent research has shown that small farms, particularly organic farms, helps, more so than corridors, in conservation of target species (vandermeer and perfecto).

Fincas/Escuelas - Farm/schools. Many interviewees mentioned their desire to conduct research on their farms, and furthermore, conservation research has shown that new strategies are more successful when the land owner is included as a participant, even at the early stages of the research planning. How to generate research strategies through participatory research is a necessary research area for agronomists and local researchers to interact with local farmers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.