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By Dana Honn

My wife, Christina, and I recently had the chance to return to one of our favorite destinations, Puerto Rico. The purpose of this trip was not only to gorge on mofongo (a famous Puerto Rican dish made from plantains), but to reconnect with the amazing people we met on our trip in 2014, and possibly meet some new friends.

After a few days of sightseeing, we visited the Mercado Agrícola Natural, held every Saturday in the San Juan Museum courtyard in Old San Juan. We had the opportunity to speak once again with Elena Biamón and Miguel Sastre, owners of Café Tureygua/Finca Gripiñas, a ten acre, organic coffee plantation in the Jayuya mountains. Elena manages the farm, which has expanded since our last visit, and covers all aspects of production, from seed to package. There are a wealth of challenges for small-scale organic producers, including a recent drought which impacted many farms, such as Finca Gripiñas. The effects of carpet spraying for Zika-bearing mosquitos is another issue which has created alarm, since the application of these pesticides can be detrimental to bees, beetles, butterflies and other pollinating insects. As any organic farmer will tell you, it takes time and care to nurture the ecosystems which make organic farming possible, and a system’s delicate balance can easily be altered. There is currently a petition to “STOP federal fumigation of 3.5 American citizens in Puerto Rico with pesticide Naled as effort to combat Zika virus.”

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Expanding on my previous blog post, the island imports the vast majority of the food it consumes (circa 90%), most of which belongs to the industrial variety. That’s why farmers, fishers, chefs, restaurateurs and consumers who are producing and living good, clean and fair in Puerto Rico are so amazing. They are moving against a current which has been the status quo on the island for decades, and this can’t be called a home-grown problem. In 1917, the U.S. Government instituted the Jones Act, requiring that everyone purchase their imported goods from American-made ships with American crews. This evolved into a situation in which American food conglomerates control the market (and markets) flooding the island with commodity food and chain fast food restaurants, creating areas even more devoid of real foods than we find in some suburbs and inner-cities on the U.S. Mainland. This does not mean that it is impossible to find artisan and heritage foods across the island; quite the contrary. Puerto Rico’s foodways are as unique as they are flavorful, and utilize locally harvested varieties of fruit, vegetables and seafood. In fact, our friend Chef Javier Pacheco manages to locally source about 85-90% of the food for his San Juan farm-to-table restaurant, La Jaquita Baya. Located in San Juan’s Miramar neighborhood, the restaurant serves as a tribute to a chef who has forged direct partnerships with his farmers and fishers, and encouraged them to increase their production as he grows his audience.

On our last day, we visited the Mercado Agroecologico in Rincón, which boasts a bustling farmers market. We had the opportunity to meet with Julitza Nieves, Puerto Rico’s Slow Food Boricua convivium leader who is recognized as a specialist and educator in the art/science of making fruit preserves. After finding Julitza at her market stand, Productos Montemar, which sells jams, jellies, seasonings, spices and hot sauce, Julitza talked to us about the local farm and food scene and introduced us to Sonia Carlo, one of the Puerto Rico delegates to Terra Madre 2016.

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Sonia lives in Cabo Rojo, where she and her husband have their certified, organic family farm (the first on the island) which supplies local markets, their own CSA and farm stand (Rincon), as well as a few restaurants with organic produce and products under the label “Sana.” For several years, Sonia has been working to educate and organize local farmers to be sustainable and competitive. She states, “Our future plans are to educate farmers to work together for a better future and to not depend on external outputs. A lot of family farms are struggling in Puerto Rico because of the lack of knowledge, inputs and competitiveness with other farmers. In the past 8 years there have been only a handful of ‘organic farmers’ and only one market on the island, now there are over 150 ‘organic’ farmers, 3 ‘organic’ CSA , 5 Markets and 3 major chains of supermarkets that are willing to buy local and organic.” So if you happen meet Sonia at Terra Madre 2016, you’ll know what an incredible and important role she’s playing in her surrounding communities and beyond. This is in addition to making the best hot sauce we had the pleasure of tasting on the island!

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I look forward to connecting with you all at Terra Madre in Turin this September. I’ll be there as part of our New Orleans/Louisiana delegation, and we’re organizing a casual gathering at a local restaurant of people interested in tropical foodways. If you live in a tropical or sub-tropical location, or if you’d like to connect with people who do, please drop me a note at Dana@SlowFoodNewOrleans.com and I’ll forward the meetup information as soon as it becomes available.