Exploring Agritourism to Increase Agricultural Sustainability and Resilience in the Municipality of Utuado, Puerto Rico

Progress report for LS20-339

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2020: $300,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Grant Recipients: Troy University; University of Puerto Rico; Arizona State University
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Co-Investigators:
Dr. Katja Brundiers
Arizona State University
Dr. Pablo Méndez-Lázaro
University of Puerto Rico
Expand All

Project Information

Abstract:

On May 2017, the Government of Puerto Rico declared bankruptcy and the US government assigned PROMESA (Puerto Rico Financial Oversight and Management Board) the new mechanism in charge of making financial decisions in the island. In September 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico leaving catastrophic damage and high loss of life (Melin & Conte, 2018). One of the hardest hit areas was Utuado, a municipality in the Central Mountain area of Puerto Rico (Farinas, 2018). It took local authorities about 10 days to begin assisting the people of Utuado and it was 42 days before the first federal presence arrived to provide aid to the communities (Millman, 2017). Civil society organizations felt catalyzed into actions to advance social change. First among them was the Corporación de Servicios de Salud y Desarrollo Socio-económico del OTOAO (COSSAO), a registered non-profit, and community-based organization that pursued sustainable development in Utuado municipality since 2013. The experience of the Hurricane strengthened COSSAO’s determination to transform its seven member barrios in Utuado into self-reliant and sustainable communities. COSSAO built alliances with other civic organizations, academia, and private companies. Utilizing their own capital, the communities stabilized infrastructure, cleared debris, and constructed a community primary health center in four months with no external funds. 

Additionally, local farmers decided to rehabilitate hurricane-destroyed and abandoned farms. Many farms, each about 15-20 acres, have been abandoned, especially as young people and families with children moved away to look for better conditions. The goal is to improve the quality of life, agricultural sustainability and resilience to extreme weather events. One approach is through the development of sustainable agriculture that acts as a tourism destination, i.e. agritourism. Agritourism diversifies revenue for producers of agricultural commodities by allowing tourists to visit agricultural operations, enjoy local specialties, and interact with host farmers. By combining sustainable agriculture practices with high-quality, experiential tourism experiences, new enterprises and opportunities for community socioeconomic development and nature conservation will be created. The farmers here explicitly stated that they have a deep interest in agritourism.

The purpose of this research is to determine whether and how agritourism can improve the quality of life, socioeconomic development, agricultural sustainability and resilience in the municipality of Utuado, Puerto Rico. For beginning farms this could mean laying the groundwork for sustainable agricultural production and operations for agritourism. For established farms this could mean developing value-added products and services. Further, there will be strategies for agritourism development, creation of value-added products and services and most importantly, an emphasis on outreach activities and educational materials to share the insights gained from the research project with other farmers.

This systems research design involves farmers, community members and scholars in the process of co-creation of knowledge and adopts a transformative sustainability research methodology (Wiek et al. 2012). The whole system approach (social, economic, ecological) will strengthen strategies to transform unsustainable social, ecological, and economic dynamics into resilient systems, able not only to recover from shocks but bounce forward towards sustainable development goals (Walker & Salt, 2012).   

Project Objectives:

The overall objective of this collaborative research project is to determine whether and how agritourism can increase agricultural sustainability and resilience of the municipality of Utuado, Puerto Rico.

  1. To clarify how agritourism can contribute to agricultural sustainability and resilience
  2. To determine available farmer support for agritourism and how farmers can best access these resources
  3. To provide strategies for creating an agritourism destination
  4. To define the potential of agritourism to create value-added products and services
  5. To identify the ways in which these agritourism products and services can contribute to the sustainability of the community and vice-versa how existing community assets, such as the Primary School Educational Farm and the Health Clinic, can contribute farmers’ agritourism endeavors. 
  6. To conduct outreach activities and provide educational materials to share the insights gained from the research project with other farmers and collaborating community organizations in order to inform practical and evidence-supported action towards sustainability and resilience. To strive for creating co-benefits for the local community, specifically for vulnerable populations including children and the elderly, when researching approaches towards these primary objectives. 
  1. To strive for creating co-benefits for the local community, specifically for vulnerable populations including children and the elderly, when researching approaches towards these primary objectives.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Juan Biblioni - Producer
  • Luis Curbelo - Producer
  • Jesus Martes - Producer
  • Emanuel Perez - Producer
  • Dr. Javier Pérez Lafont (Educator)
  • Francisco Valentin - Technical Advisor
  • Evelyn Perez - Producer (Educator)
  • Max Perez - Producer (Educator)

Research

Materials and methods:

The overall objective of this collaborative research project is to determine whether and how agritourism can increase agricultural sustainability and resilience of the municipality of Utuado, Puerto Rico. 

To accomplish the seven objectives, we draw on the “transformative sustainability research approach” developed by Wiek et al. (2012). This approach involves four major research steps. All four steps are conducted through collaborative and participatory research activities, involving the participating farmers and—depending on the research objective—other local experts including community entrepreneurs, community members, representatives of COSSAO’s initiatives, and representatives of government and non-governmental organizations.  The participatory research approach will be designed in a way that it allows for peer-learning and capacity building throughout the project.

The first step conducts a systematic analysis of the current state of the system to identify the key drivers of the agricultural system in relation to  ongoing local tourism and community development efforts and their current outcomes. A sustainability assessment allows determination to what extent the agricultural system and related tourism and community initiatives are meeting sustainable development objectives, including those related to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are a framework to achieve a better and more sustainable future that were set in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and intended to be achieved by the year 2030. For example, “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all” (SDG #8), “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.” (SDG #15), and SDG #3 “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all and at all ages.” (SDG#3).  

The second step develops a systematic and sustainable vision for agritourism in the community. This vision is informed by guiding sustainable development principles. The outcomes of these two research steps provide the reference points for the third step. 

This third step conducts research on strategies that have the potential to transform the current state towards the sustainable vision for agritourism in the community. 

The fourth research steps encompasses implementation of the key elements of the strategy prototypes as pilot projects to test and evaluate their effectiveness.  

To focus each of the four steps on the themes related to agritourism (including sustainable farming and agroecology, eco-friendly and socially responsible tourism, as well as community development and well-being) we incorporate two additional concepts in each step. These concepts are complementary. The first is a set of methods that allow to evaluate and design sustainable agricultural systems. It is called the Framework for the Evaluation of Natural Resource Management Systems Incorporating Sustainability Indicators (in Spanish: Marco para la Evaluación de Sistemas de Manejo de recursos naturales incorporando Indicadores de Sustentabilidad, MESMIS). MESMIS was developed specifically for sustainable development projects for small farmers and local contexts, ranging from the farm level to the village level in Latin America as has been successfully tested over recent years. It helps to build an integral understanding of the opportunities and constraints for the sustainability of the socio-ecological systems that are forged by the intersection of environmental processes and socio-economic conditions. Second, it is a flexible concept that can be adapted to the different levels of information and technical skills that are available locally. Lastly, it proposes a process of participatory evaluation that emphasizes group dynamics and continuous feedback from the evaluating team. (http://www.mesmis.unam.mx/)

The second additional concept is the “One Health” concept, a worldwide strategy for fostering collaborations and integrated considerations of all aspects of health care for humans, animals and the environment. Individual and community health depends on healthy ecosystems and management of hazards as well as animal health. The concept of “One  Health” clarifies the relationship between agritourism and community development (http://www.onehealthinitiative.com).

Step 1: Current State Analysis and Sustainability Assessment  

Contributes to: 

Research objective #1: To clarify how agritourism contributes to agricultural sustainability and resilience. 

Research objective #2: To determine available farmer support for agritourism.  

Methods to achieve objective #1 and #2: 

  • Systems-analysis using stakeholder interviews and focus groups will be employed to identify drivers and effects of the agricultural system in relation to tourism and community development initiatives.  Special attention will be given to determine available farmer support for agritourism, in particular support for minority and limited-income farmers. The MESMIS concept provides useful resources to carry out this step in a participatory manner. It suggests five general attributes to analyze socio-ecological systems from a farmer and community perspective (productivity, stability, reliability and resilience, adaptability, equity, and self-reliance). For each of these attributes it offers a set of system strengths and weaknesses and related indicators that have been used in previous case studies and can be adapted to analyze the interlinked environmental, social and economic aspects. Examples of these groups of indicators include e.g., returns efficiency, biodiversity, distribution of cost-benefit, participation, capability for change and innovation, and self-organizing behaviors. The resulting community-based current-state systems map will be further detailed using evidence generated from accompanying desk research. 
  • We will use a survey-based questionnaire administered to community residents to assess community resilience through a Confirmatory Factor Analysis. A Confirmatory Factor Analysis helps assess the fit between observed data and an a priori conceptualized, theoretically grounded model that specifies the hypothesized causal relations between latent factors and their observed indicator variables. This Confirmatory Factor Analysis will use a scale to measure community resilience. This scale was developed by the PI of this project and tested in similar projects in the Commonwealth of Dominica, Sarapiqui River watershed in Costa Rica, Dana Biosphere Reserve in Jordan, Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark in northern Vietnam and DaNang in central Vietnam (e.g. Holladay & Powell, 2013; Powell, et al., 2018).
  • A sustainability assessment will appraise to what extent key sustainable development goals are being developed. To facilitate this, the research team will create an initial appraisal and discuss and refine it using community-based focus groups. 

Participating cooperating partners will be involved in these objectives. This step will involve the participating farmers in order to understand their farm operations within the local and broader regional context. It will also involve the participating project partners, i.e., representatives of COSSAO as and representatives from the University of Puerto Rico-Utuado’s Sustainable Agriculture Department. Additionally, experts from local and regional tourism and agricultural organizations will be invited to participate in the focus groups. 

Step 2: Systemic and sustainable vision for agritourism in the community 

Research objective # 1: To clarify how agritourism could contribute to agricultural sustainability and resilience. 

Research objective # 2: To determine how farmers can best access available farmer support for agritourism. 

Methods to achieve objective #1 and #2: 

  • Community-based visioning exercise using focus groups. There are two inputs for the community-based visioning exercise. First, the research team will research case studies of agritourism and community resilience in the South of the USA and the Caribbean to identify evidence-supported practices for and outcomes of sustainable agritourism for farmers and the community. An example of peer-reviewed case study is “Bright Spots: Seeds of a Good Anthropocene,” featuring sustainability solutions emerging from agroecology and tourism (Bennett et al., 2016) 
  • Special attention will be given to review successful practices for minority and limited-income farmers accessing available support for agritourism, especially considering the barriers and discrimination which these farmers have endured in the past. Second, we will look at the results from the sustainability assessment (above). The sustainability assessment provides value judgment of the current management systems and thus provides suggestions for a future-oriented improvement of the socio-environmental state of the system. The latter will also inform the visioning exercise. The resulting community-based future systems map will be further detailed using evidence generated from accompanying desk research. 
  • Against the backdrop of this community-based vision, we will work with participating farmers one-on-one using a narrative method, helping them craft a vision for their farms.

Step 3: Strategies to towards sustainable agritourism in the community 

Research objective #3: To provide strategies for creating an agritourism destination.

Research objective # 4: To define the potential of agritourism to create value-added products and services. 

Methods to achieve objective #3 and #4: 

  • To identify strategies for objectives #3 and #4 we combine stakeholder interviews and desk research to carry out the following activities: 
  • Tourism asset mapping to identify tourism assets appropriate for local sustainable agritourism development; we will conduct a survey and semi-structured interviews with local, regional, state-wide and international experts.
  • Market analysis of value-added products and services, conducting a survey and semi-structured interviews with farmers and experts along the food value chain (e.g., suppliers, producers, distributors, retailers, consumers).

Research objective #5: To identify the ways in which these agritourism products and services can contribute to the sustainability of the community and vice-versa, as well as how existing community assets, such as the Primary School Educational Farm and the Health Clinic, can contribute to farmers’ agritourism endeavors.   

  • Define a agritourism pilot project for each participating farm. Planning backward from the vision for their farms (developed in step 2), we will use a series of workshops involving participating farmers to identify a pilot project for their farm and determine the steps to implement this pilot project for years 2 and 3 as well as a way to monitor and evaluate the processes. We will use desk research from successful case studies to inform the development of the pilots. The deliverable of this step is a strategy for the development of businesses, operations and management.

Research objective #6: To conduct outreach activities and provide educational materials to share the insights gained from the research project with other farmers and collaborating community organizations in order to inform practical and evidence-supported action towards sustainability and resilience. 

Methods to achieve objective #6:

  • Co-create educational materials (e.g. videos/films, audio, manuals, guides) 
  • Conduct small focused educational sessions using the materials to verify how successful they are, improve the approach and determine participation rates.  
  • Define how many will be educated and the makeup of the audience to be educated 

Research objective #7: To co-create benefits for the local community, specifically for vulnerable populations including children and the elderly, when researching approaches towards these primary objectives.  

Method to achieve objective #7:

  • Establish advisory committee that represents the interests and needs of the most vulnerable people in the region, including the children younger than eight years and the elderly older than 80 years. Members of the advisory committee participate in the formative evaluation and advise the research team on specifying the research strategies so that they account for determining the feasibility of the agritourism in the region and its impact/contribution to the well-being on the whole community. 
Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

12 Consultations
7 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Tours
14 Webinars / talks / presentations
10 We conduct monthly meetings via Zoom with all of our project collaborators and stakeholders invited. In the meetings were talk about progress, disseminate project information, have discussion and plan activities.

Participation Summary

15 Farmers
6 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

  • We have monthly meetings with our main partners. We also had pre-project meetings with our main NGO partner to plan this project.

  1. Developed a quantitative farmer survey
  2. Developed in-depth semi-structured interview guide for stakeholder interviews
  3. Developed a farmer agritourism readiness assessment worksheet
  4. Community-based Visioning activity using interactive software called MURAL 
  5. Google Maps with agritourism offerings and assets in the three municipalities spanning our project
  6. ArcGIS Story-Map – foundation to tell, record, and share the story of this project, including the spatial information about agritourism assets
  7. Updated Puerto Rico Tourism Company inventory on agritourism assets
  • Did not do these because of Covid-19.
  • In development for years 2-3 of the grant
  • We had two local tours of famer cooperator farms/facilities. One to Amasar, our breadfruit farm and artisan food producer. The other to the Institute of Permaculture.
  1. 1 video (7 minutes long) promoting the agritourism project 
  2. 1 podcast with Patrick Holladay & Brennan Washington 
  3. Javier Perez – University of Puerto Rico – Utuado spoke about agribusinee
  4. Nilda Luhring Gonzalez – Puerto Rico Tourism Company spoke about agritourism and certification
  5. Patrick Holladay – Troy University spoke about agritourism
  6. Pablo Mendeze Lazaro – University of Puerto Rico – San Juan & Katja Brundiers – Arizona State Univesity spoke about the assets inventory
  7. Presentations from our farmer cooperators Jesus Martes & Juan Biblioni about best practices and agritourism initiatives
  8. We will have 6 presentations at our annual (virtual meeting) April 26-27 about agribusiness, agritourism, certification, marketing, best practices and SSARE resources (Paul Vincelli)
  • June 15, 2020 Hacienda Rullan, Tetuan, 31 participants came to an agritourism informational meeting. From those 15 farmers filled out a survey about agritourism
  • Did not do more of these because of Covid-19.
  • In development for years 2-3 of the grant
  • The 15 is an estimate based on the number who filled out a survey on our field day. Of those 15, our official farmer collaborators were included.
  • This is an estimate based on our farmer collaborators along with agritourism academics and practitioners.
 
 
 
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.