OPINION: Puerto Rico’s potential agricultural renaissance

The story of Puerto Rico is told, in large part, through its agricultural history. The ups and downs of this critical industry are a window into the evolution of Puerto Rico’s economy and the effects of colonialism and other forces. And an agricultural renaissance is key to the island’s future prosperity.

On Borikén, the Taínos originally cultivated pineapples, cassava and sweet potatoes, supplemented by seafood. In the early 1500s, the Spanish made first contact, introduced livestock including horses, sheep and cattle, and now-iconic Puerto Rican crops such as sugar, coffee, tobacco and ginger. Many Taínos were brutally enslaved, forcibly assimilated, or died during this period.

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During 400 years of Spanish rule, many local farmers eventually prospered, growing a vast range of crops and livestock. The economy thrived and the Puerto Rican peso was of comparable value to the U.S. dollar during the late 1800s.

After the United States took over the island in 1898, the farm economy took a tragic turn. In 1899, when Hurricane San Ciriaco destroyed many of the island’s farms, American banks began loaning money at extortionate interest rates, absent any usury laws, leading to mass defaults and farm foreclosures.  

Sadly, this lending trap decimated the agricultural middle class at that time, resulting in a large-scale takeover of farming lands by major U.S. corporations. The corporate demand for increased sugar output destroyed the diverse crop production existing at that time. The sugar industry later suffered a tremendous decline from the 1940s to the 1970s, with the last major operations closing in 2000. The agricultural middle class has never fully recovered from this colonial lending scheme.

In 1976, Congress exempted U.S. corporations operating in Puerto Rico from paying federal corporate income taxes. At that time, my family was still farming dairy, coffee and tobacco in Sabana Hoyos, Puerto Rico. Like many other families, my relatives largely abandoned the family farm and began working in high-paying jobs in the pharmaceutical industry, which were created in large part due to this tax exemption. However, this prosperity was short-lived, as the exemption expired in 2006. This has caused mass unemployment, a deep economic depression and a terrible debt crisis.

Last June, Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which created a framework for Puerto Rico to reorganize its debt under the supervision of a fiscal control board and U.S. Bankruptcy Court.  These proceedings are ongoing. I have joined other members of Congress in advocating for a deep reduction of Puerto Rico’s debt, eligibility for earned income tax credits and child tax credits — currently only available for a family’s third or subsequent child, likely due to a legislative error — and greater access to federally backed small business and agricultural loans. Puerto Rico also faces trade obstacles as many Central and South American competitors pay pitifully low wages and observe few environmental laws, resulting in lower agricultural prices comparatively.

Ultimately, the U.S. government must right these historic wrongs and compensate for its shortsighted economic meddling. Boosting farming again will go a long way toward ensuring renewed prosperity in Puerto Rico. I traveled back to Puerto Rico in May and saw firsthand farm after farm abandoned during this crisis, blighting the island’s graceful mountains and countryside.

As a Floridian, I understand the power of agriculture, which is our second-largest industry. It employs over 2 million people and contributes more than $104 billion to our state’s economy annually. With 21st-century technology, many agricultural jobs are higher-paying, such as machine operators, truck drivers, suppliers, botanists, exporters, commodities experts, lawyers, sales personnel, warehousers and longshoremen.

Currently, agriculture makes up a paltry $808 million, or about 0.8 percent, of Puerto Rico’s gross domestic product. The island is primed for a comeback fueled by small local farmers who enjoy a year-round growing season and can grow a wide variety of premium specialty crops, such as coffee, mangoes, papayas, plantains, melons, cassava, sweet potatoes and yucca, among other crops. 

Our U.S. Congress must empower Puerto Rico’s agricultural renaissance. Here’s my plan: 1) increase access to agricultural loans to small farmers, 2) teach best farming practices, 3) address trade disparities, 4) encourage the commonwealth to streamline local regulations and inheritance laws, 5) open nonsensitive federal and commonwealth lands and 6) incentivize new markets for these goods on the mainland. 

Together we can help bring lasting prosperity back to Puerto Rico by unleashing the potential of its people and developing its natural resources.

Soto represents Florida’s 9th District and serves on the Agriculture Committee. He is the first Floridian of Puerto Rican descent to serve in Congress.