Puerto Rico's Dairy Industry, Once Robust, Flattened By Maria | KERA News

Puerto Rico's Dairy Industry, Once Robust, Flattened By Maria

Sep 29, 2017
Originally published on October 1, 2017 7:49 pm

Manuel Perez is a veterinarian who specializes in caring for cattle, and he knows many of Puerto Rico's dairy farmers.

Yesterday, he got in his truck and went to visit one of them, Jose Antonio Lopez. The route he took, along the island's northern coast, winds past forests. Until a week ago, when Hurricane Maria ripped through, it was beautiful.

"I tell you, it's just gone. It's all gone," Perez says. "A lot of the trees are down, and the trees that are standing don't have any leaves at all."

When Perez got to the farm, which sits beside the Manati river, he found that the hurricane had flooded the farm, torn away fences, and sent cows fleeing for miles across the countryside.

"They have found cows all over the place, and they're still looking," he says.

Dairy farmers are the biggest single part of Puerto Rico's agricultural economy. They account for about a third of Puerto Rico's total agricultural production, in part because Puerto Rico has set limits on milk imports. Otherwise, Puerto Rico imports most of its foods.

Now dairy farmers are struggling to get back on their feet.

Lopez used to have 670 cows. He's found more than 70 cows dead, and had to bury them. He had 125 heifers — young cows that aren't giving milk yet — and 40 goats. He's only been able to locate about a quarter of those animals.

Dairy farmers have a particular problem in disaster situations. A cow isn't a factory that you can shut down and start up again when the power comes back. She needs to be milked; otherwise, she'll eventually get sick or stop producing milk altogether.

So farmers are getting those cows back to the milking machines as quickly as possible, running the machines off generator power.

"When we got [to the farm], they were milking," Perez says. "It's all muddy and dirty and doesn't look very good, but he's milking. He's milking with a generator."

"Dairy farmers are strong people, you know?" Perez continues. "They rebound back; they fight like crazy. So they're trying to make it back to where it was. They're fighting."

Lopez doesn't expect to get reconnected to the island's electrical grid for at least two months, and he's not sure how long his old generator will last; he's trying to find a newer one.

He also needs more fuel to keep it running.

Manuel Perez says that the crisis on the island starts with the lack of tanker trucks to deliver fuel around the island. Without gasoline for their cars, people can't move. Then "the businesses cannot work because the employees don't get there. And you go on and on and on, it's a domino effect and it's a complete disaster."

There's still a lot of hope on the island, he says ... that things will come back together. But it's going to take a while.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In addition to losing its communications networks, Puerto Rico has also lost many of its farms to Hurricane Maria. Nearly 80 percent of agriculture on the island has been destroyed. Puerto Rico actually imports most of its food. But there is one big exception - milk. Dairy farmers meet most of the island's needs, and they account for about a third of Puerto Rico's total agricultural production. At least they did until Hurricane Maria came through. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Manuel Perez is a veterinarian specializing in cattle, and he knows a lot of Puerto Rico's dairy farmers. Yesterday he got in his truck and went to visit one of them on his farm. The route he took along the island's northern coast winds past forests.

MANUEL PEREZ: I tell you, it's just gone. It's all gone. All the trees, it's just - a lot of the trees are down. But the trees that stayed up don't have any leaves at all.

CHARLES: He got to the farm and found that the hurricane had flooded it, torn away fences, sent cows fleeing across the countryside.

PEREZ: They have found cows all over the place and still looking.

CHARLES: This farmer used to have almost 700 cows. He's found over 70 of them dead and had to bury them. He had over a hundred heifers, young cows that aren't giving milk yet, also a few dozen goats. He's only been able to find about a quarter of those animals. A cow's not a factory that you can shut down and start up again when the power comes back. She needs to be milked or eventually she'll get sick or stop producing milk altogether, so dairy farmers are getting those cows back to the milking machines as quickly as possible, running the machines off generator power.

PEREZ: When we were there, they were milking them. It's all dirty and didn't look very good, but he's milking. He's milking with a generator over there.

CHARLES: How was the farmer doing?

PEREZ: Dairy farmers are strong people. You know, they will rebound back. And they fight like crazy. You know that. So they're - you know, they're trying to make it back to where it was. You know, they're fighting.

CHARLES: Perez says this farmer won't get regular electricity back for two months, and he's not sure how long his old generator will last. He's trying to find a newer one. He'll also need more fuel to keep it running. Manuel Perez says from what he's hearing and seeing, the crisis on the island starts with a lack of tanker trucks to deliver fuel around the island. Without gasoline for their cars, people can't move.

PEREZ: The businesses cannot work because the employees don't get there. And then you go on and on and on, and it's a domino effect and it's a complete disaster.

CHARLES: There's still a lot of hope on the island, he says, that things will come back together, but it's going to take a while. Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KISHI BASHI SONG, "CAN'T LET GO, JUNO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.