Puerto Rican Farmers and Relief Volunteers Take a Moment to Celebrate
Months after Hurricane Maria, the fight to get small producers back on their feet still feels overwhelming and brutal. On January 30, a fundraising push offered small glimpses of hope.
City Winery's Michael Dorf and a dozen sound and production pros from each of the country’s half-dozen locations are shin-deep in muck on a mountainside clearing surrounded by snapped and broken trees. Slapping at mosquitos and unraveling extension cords, they are attempting a Fitzcarraldan task: to build a stage in a storm-ravaged jungle. In four hours, 200-some Puerto Rican farmers and stateside volunteers will descend on this farm in Patillas to devour a multicourse, locally sourced, fundraising feast; drain 15 cases of City Winery pinot, syrah and chardonnay; and dance to the sounds of salsa legend Johnny Rodriguez and his All-Stars.
This is Puerto Rico in late January, months after Hurricane Maria, and Dorf and 125 of his employees at City Winery are helping to pioneer a new project in voluntourism. City Winery crews are working at five farms throughout the island, pulling fallen trees off shade-grown coffee bushes; replanting onion, eggplant and tomato fields; and hauling out debris from shattered buildings. It is phase two of Camille Collazo’s plan to get Puerto Rico’s small producers back on their feet. What she thinks they need most now is free labor.
Collazo is the executive director of the non-profit Visit Rico. A thirtysomething designer, she was studying for her master’s degree at New York’s School of Visual Arts when her father was diagnosed with cancer, and she took an interest in healthy foods and supporting the farmers who grow it.
“I was very angry,” Collazo tells me as we watch Dorf screw boards milled from storm-felled trees onto pilings cut from the same. A volunteer stint at a fundraiser for Diet for a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappé’s Small Planet Institute gave her emotions a direction. “They were auctioning off agritourism experiences, and I thought, ‘That’s what I’m gonna do.’”
For her 2014 thesis, Collazo founded Visit Rico. Before the storm, her group ran five farmers markets and brought agritourism to more than 20 farms, training farmers to host and educate guests. And they showed local and off-island visitors alike how delicious sustainably grown food can be by treating them to gorgeous, farmstead meals.
Visit Rico was one of several recent efforts by young Puerto Ricans to go back to the land, as a means of income that honors their heritage and rejects colonial dependency. A tropical island with a year-round growing season and fish-filled seas, Puerto Rico had been importing 85 percent of its food. The Jones Act, which forbids any but American ships to deliver goods to the island, helped drive up prices. And the $73 billion in government debt had left money and jobs scarce and the infrastructure in shambles.
Still, change stirred. University and government support for small-scale agriculture was on the rise. Beginning farmers were learning the ropes at the grassroots organic farm school, La Organizaión Boricuá de Agricultura Eco-orgánica. Farm-to-table restaurants like Finca and the vegetarian El Departamento de la Comida were cropping up in San Juan, and schools and community groups were getting into growing. The amount of land under cultivation rose 50 percent in just four years. Then the hurricane hit. Island farms, most of them uninsured, were destroyed.
“So we did a pivot,” Collazo says, “shifting agritourism to the Regrow Puerto Rico Fund, to give cash to farmers.” With the help of donors like Willie Nelson’s FarmAid, Visit Rico raised more than $450,000 for cash grants to storm-affected growers. It was at a dinner for the Fund at Gramercy Tavern in November that Collazo met Michael Dorf. Thinking that it would be a great team-building experience for City Winery’s annual offsite, Dorf offered to bring staff to Puerto Rico. Collazo asked him to do something that City Winery does well—produce a concert—to bring some much-needed joy to struggling farmers. From there, the idea snowballed. Pretty soon, City Winery was soliciting donations of sound equipment that could stay on the island after the show, and Dorf was traveling to the island to find a farm with willing hosts and a natural amphitheater in which to build a permanent stage.
Now, here we are at Casas de la Selva, a research farm for sustainable, biodiverse forestry run by Thrity Vakil and her partner Andres Rua, a musician who uses performance to lure volunteers and community to the farm. Help is sorely needed here; the land must be reforested, and its fallen trees reclaimed for hardwoods. But, first, it must be cleared of debris. Dorf has organized City Winery work groups based on profession. The floor staff and office workers have gone to other farms. But the winemakers are here, fixing up the composting and chicken coop areas, dragging splintered wood and bent galvanized roofing away, and boasting about it.
“This is actually going to do more for team-building than anything we can think of,” Steve Feke, the Boston location winemaker, tells me. “And the wine guys, we’re the best guys for it. We’re mechanical; we can make stuff; we clean all the time. We’re just doing it in a cellar as opposed to a jungle.”
The chefs are here, too. Huffing and puffing down the farm’s steep, dirt driveway, hacking away at vegetation with machetes and digging out red rainforest clay to rehabilitate the drainage ditch. Big, burly fellows, they’re working up an appetite.
Good thing Natalia Lucia Vallejo is on site. Inside what’s left of the kitchen in the farm’s storm-ravaged homestead, Vallejo is stirring a stockpot with a wooden paddle. She’s cooking a lamb fricassee, made with an animal that she got from a farmer friend in San Isabel, 45 minutes west of Patillas. Vallejo has marinated the meat overnight with onion and garlic, mint and cilantro, orange and coconut in an island-made, pineapple-based wine. Now, in the home stretch of its eight hours of cooking, it is infusing this shell of a room with its heady scent.
“I love cooking slow and concentrated flavors,” she says. “My grandmother, before she died, the last thing she told me was that she wanted to eat lamb when she got out of hospital. I live with that emotion. When I cook lamb, I feel my ancestors.”
The 33-year-old chef of San Juan’s acclaimed Finca restaurant, Vallejo has made it her mission to cook locally. Before the storm, she collaborated with Visit Rico on dinners in the fields, and she organized Finca’s menu into categories such as “Beehive,” “Farm,” and “Orchard,” and filled it with local chicken broth, vegan sancocho, gratin of sweet potato and chayote.
That squash grows well on Puerto Rico. Vallejo has been sautéing a dice of it to serve with the fricassee for lunch. Later on, when Vallejo’s friend Karla Zobeida Torres arrives from Cayey, where she’s cooking avocado salad and chicken tika masala for volunteers working at two farms there, Vallejo will help her chop tarragon, dill and fennel for a chayote “ceviche” to be rolled in lettuce and doused with peanut-coconut vinaigrette as an appetizer at the dinner. Torres’ own Cayey restaurant, TeTas La Cocina, was leveled by the storm, along with her new house. She has no idea when she’ll have electricity and water again, but she’s been cooking on the weekends over an open fire because people up in the mountains near her restaurant need a decent meal.
Vallejo and Torres; Margot Melero from San Juan’s Galician restaurant, Bodegas Compostela; Verónica Quiles from El Departamento de la Comida—all the chefs cooking today are women. It’s Vallejo’s aspiration to formalize the arrangement.
“Finca closed after the storm,” she tells me as she ladles stew, chayote, a French radish salad and more onto platters for lunch for the hungry crew. “I’m fine with that because I was planning on doing something on my own, anyway, collaborating with women chefs. I want to connect with and empower them because this is an important time for us after Maria. Most people look at the island differently now. The blinders are off, and we can see clearly.” It’s like the onion, she says, has been peeled to its center.
That’s an optimism shared by everyone I meet here. And it all comes down to food sovereignty. Today, much of the island’s agricultural land is given over to international biotech and non-food commodities like commercial flowers. “We feel embarrassed that we produce a lot of the GMO seeds to be sold around the world,” Collazo had told me.
But that’s not the way it needs to be post-Maria. Just as they did in the pre-industrial 1930s, Puerto Ricans might again grow and consume a majority of their own food. Take Vallejo; now that she doesn’t have a restaurant gig, she earns her money by throwing a pop-up in her home called La Salida (“The Exit”). “I work a lot with local produce mostly from the agroecological movement, which represents the resistance of the colony,” she says. “Food, for me, is political.”
It’s the word on everyone’s lips here: agroecology. It’s a systems-based way of farming that thinks beyond traditional organics. It employs practices that are sustainable and healthy for the land, the farmer, the economy of the farm, and the wider community. And, in its focus on the interconnections between humans, farmland, and habitat, agroecology helps create networks of like-minded advocates interested in transforming people’s relationship to food.
“I believe seeds are the way Mother Nature expresses her love for us. They’re little embryos, and she gives her children to us. That’s her sacrifice, and I like to work with her. I’m her ally.” Small and intense, Visit Rico permaculturalist Mara Nieves is speaking rapid-fire at me.
Nieves is building a seed bank in her home, receiving donated seeds from around the world—antique spinach from Egypt, Iroquois corn, beans from the Cherokee Trail of Tears, gourds and greens from Hawaii—as well as native and landrace seeds from Puerto Rico itself, and through the non-profit Fondo Resiliencia de Puerto Rico, she’s distributing them around the island. She has given seeds to 120 different projects since the storm.
“The best way to save seeds is to plant them,” she says. “So we want a live bank and things going in the ground all the time. That’s our mission: to take all these gifts we are receiving and [to] be responsible. We’ve asked for nutritious, heirloom, organic, fast-to-market seeds”—the opposite of the GMO products that the biotech industry has cultivated here for years.
She’s been busy because new growers are “popping up like hotcakes” now. It’s part of the way the hurricane, and the federal government’s inadequate response, has raised Puerto Rican consciousness.
“We’re in the midst of a shift,” Nieves tells me, as we arrange foraged flowers in ball jars for centerpieces. “It’s been a long time coming, but Maria did a lot of work to shove us along because we did lose our fear. When you realize that you don’t have support from the government—because that’s the problem with capitalism; it pushes you to be individualistic—you start realizing you have family, neighbors, friends and it makes more sense to pool resources than to live as an individual consumer.”
Nearby, Visit Rico’s volunteer bookkeeper Annabelle Longo arranges a table of soaps, mosquito repellent and other items to sell—all organic and local, made by producers from the organization’s farmers markets. Longo is older and elegant, soft-spoken in large, fashionable eyewear.
“Some of my friends had the means to leave the island and take a break. I also have the means,” she tells me. “But I really need to stay here. I think what we’re doing is very important. It’s our roots, literally. It comes from the ground, and we need to start becoming more independent for our subsistence. We won’t be totally independent for a long time, but at least we feel that we can do it on our own.”
After the storm, it was Longo’s job to hand out Visit Rico checks to farmers. “It was so difficult to find them,” she tells me. “We had to go out to the countryside, and when I saw these farmers full of hope, it was absolutely inspiring. They were not waiting for anything. As soon as they could get their hands on seeds, they were going to move on. So I feel so proud of my people.”
Now, some of those people are starting to arrive to Las Casas de la Selva for dinner. The sun is sinking, the sky pinking up. The set tables stretch across a ridge, ready to receive farmers and hungry but elated volunteers.
Visit Rico staffs the bar—it’s a nice change of pace for City Winery folks. Down on the stage, which looks miraculously sturdy, a production hand ties a mic to a wooden pole. “It’s a bit of an improvised mic stand,” he jokes, “but it really ties the room together.” Dogs and chickens wander underfoot. The clouds part, and the ocean comes into view beyond the jungle. We all sit down to eat.
I share a table with the farmers from Cayey, in Puerto Rico’s Central Mountains. A retiree who went back to the land, Geraldo Colon is a prize-winning conservationist farmer. At Brisas del Lago, he grows coffee in the shade of a biodiverse forest. Rodolfo Salgado and his business partner, Francisco Guzman, raise mixed organic produce and host guests in an AirBnB treehouse at Finca el Granadillo. Though the treehouse withstood the storm, “everything else was gone,” Salgado says. “I started crying because it was ten years of work. Every day. Every day ‘til this year. It was difficult to think, what am I going to do now? I’m 31. I started when I was 22.”
But, with help from groups like Visit Rico and support from peers, the farmers are picking up the pieces. Salgado sees his work as part of a worldwide movement. He quotes a statistic: There are 92 million millenials in the United States. A growing number of them are going back to the land. “Others are in cities, but at same time, they support their peers in the countryside,” says Salgado. “Of my friends, Francisco and I are the only ones farming. The other ones are working regular jobs, but they support us.”
Platters of food land on our table: those lettuce rolls, their filling crunchy and tart; roasted beet and tomato salads, pickled watermelon radish and baby lettuces, scattered in edible flowers; rice with local white beans; mahi baked in banana leaves; grilled pumpkin with a vibrant chimichurri; empanadillas filled with ceti, the translucent fry of the sirajo goby, a fish that spawns upstream in Puerto Rico’s rivers.
For this crowd, this local food is delicious, yes, but it’s also a livelihood. And it’s political.
“Everyone loves what they have in the fridge,” says Guzman. “I live in a concrete home. I had no problems with wind and rain during the storm, but after that, we didn’t have food, so what are we gonna do? I think that some people that weren’t convinced about it or never thought about it, after the hurricane, they’re thinking about it: food. We live in a tropical wilderness. The largest biodiversity in the world is in the tropics, so how can this happen?”
Dinner is winding down now. The crowd is making its way down to the clearing in the dark. Onstage, the horns are blowing, Johnny Rodriguez is slapping out a beat on the bongos, and his singer, Frankie Vasquez, is shaking the maracas and crooning: En este mundo hay una cosa muy mala. Que mala es, que mala es, ue mala es? Que cosa? La lengua! Se está perdiendo.— “In this world, there is a very bad thing. How bad is it, how bad is it, how bad is it? What thing? Language! It is being lost.”
It’s “Hold onto the Language,” an Eddie Palmieri song with a joyous beat and a serious message: keep the Puerto Rican language, and its culture, alive. It’s a cue for everyone to dance, to celebrate the spirit of this island and its endurance. The farmers and the City Winery waiters, the Visit Rico advocates and chefs, and the sound and production team dance together and share wine straight from the bottles. Everyone is laughing and cheering and clapping. Some are wiping away tears.
For the farmers, this might be the real gift of the day. It’s the feeling that they’re part of something larger, that people outside of their wounded fields see them and care about them and value their work. I think back to something that coffee farmer Gerry Colon told me over dinner. When Maria took everything away from him, he “didn’t know how to start again,” he said. He considered giving up the farm. But these volunteers had renewed his sense of purpose.
“If those guys come to help me, and they don’t know me but they’re waiting to help me,” he said. “That’s a sign. I say, I’m gonna keep it.”