A resurgence in agriculture, despite cultural stigma, takes root on the island of Puerto Rico. A yearning for personal and cultural meaning, in both young and old, is expressed through the cultivation of food and connection to the land. While students at the University of Puerto Rico Utuado search for a deeper meaning other than desk jobs and an Iraqi war, Senor Pons returns to his family farm, and ‘Flores Soto’ dons his burlap jacket to spread the word – Del Pais.
Broadly emblazoned upon his jacket, Del Pais can be defined as from the country or region, or what mainland Americans may translate as locally grown. But as Puerto Rico imports nearly 90% of its food, visualized in the dreams of these farmers and hopeful farmers-to-be is rather a home brew of national identity and a way of life. Locally grown seems to rather address a growing social movement rather than any particular food commodity. An agricultural sub-culture of Puerto Rico insists on living off the land despite a tangle of prohibitive labor, tax, and regulatory policies.
Señor Pons returns to his family farm, Hacienda Pons, in attempts to continue a legacy of coffee processing began by his grandfather in 1936. A glint of pride flashes across his face as he introduces the line of technology brought to the facility by his grandfather, then his father, and now by him. Well-worn buildings housing antique scales and machinery bring to mind nearly a century of coffee production, as coffee beans and “coffee dust” are scattered throughout. His return to the farm is yet wrought with questions and concerns on its future. He bemoans the cost of labor due to subsidized labor policies and predicts a labor shortage as a result of urban migration. He recycles burlap bags from Mexican coffee brought in by the government to augment local supply, as he simultaneously denounces government intervention in the coffee sector.
Señor Flores Soto is the proprietor of Castaner Supremo. A full-service coffee business, Castaner Supremo cultivates, harvests, and roasts beans all on-site and Senor Soto prides himself as an Amigo del Ambiente or friend of the environment. To slow the flow of water and prevent erosion, he employs a method of cultivation along the contours of his hilly terrain; a technique Senor Pons also hopes to bring to his local producers. Avocado, plantain, and orange trees are combined with other native tree species for a dual effect of providing shade for the coffee and to “save the birds”. Both gentlemen are interested in educating the local community on best practices in coffee production and beneficial alternatives towards economic and environmental sustainability.
Señor Soto is “saving the birds” while Señor Pons is perhaps saving the 150 local coffee producers from whom he buys beans, incentivizing quality production with competitive prices. With varying approaches, these two seeming competitors may in fact be the conduits for collective action in a highly regulated coffee market. As agriculture represents less than 5% of Puerto Rico’s GNP, outmigration to urban areas continues. (Grau et al., 2003) Symbiosis seems necessary, not only to pool resources, but to boost a dying industry. The persistence of agricultural interest despite various struggles and across generations reflects a cultural need beyond commodities. Agriculture seems to be putting up a fight. Just as Senor Pons, its resurgence seems to chime in to let Puerto Rican officials know, “I’m still here!”