Despite rich soil and an extended Caribbean growing season, Puerto Rico has not managed to produce enough food to sustain itself since the U.S. Army seized the island from Spain in 1898. Almost 70% of the commonwealth's food is imported; the government spends $1.2 billion a year buying groceries from abroad for its 3.3 million citizens. Local officials have tried without much success to stimulate food production. Though the commonwealth has spent $60 million to develop rice farming, only 3,000 acres have been brought into production.
Last week still another attempt was on the verge of being plowed under in a contentious dispute with an Israeli-directed experimental farm. The commonwealth's secretary of agriculture Antonio Gonzalez Chapel has cut off the government's credit line for April-Agro Industries Inc., which is $33 million in debt, and announced that the commonwealth will handle the farm's winter harvest next month. April-Agro has refused to surrender, appealing to Governor Rafael Hernández-Colón.
April-Agro's enterprising president, Morris Demel, 50, a Polish-born Jew who grew up in Cuba and fled to Puerto Rico after Castro's takeover, planned to grow produce on arid southern coast farmland once used for sugar cane. Importing five Israeli agronomists and applying drip-irrigation methods developed on Israeli kibbutzim, Demel initially wanted to devote 5,000 acres to fruits and vegetables. But seven years after he began the project, only 1,000 acres are under cultivation.
The government withdrew its support after the high-cost farm project had defaulted on its loans and seemed to have little prospect of ever reaching solvency. Critics charged that instead of concentrating on popular products like honeydew melons, peppers and tomatoes, April-Agro grew too many other crops, including plantains and cabbage. Demel counters that he has created a new export market for Puerto Rican produce. In 1979-80, when April-Agro began, the island grew only about 3,600 tons of tomatoes a year, valued at just $1.4 million; hardly any of the crop was fit for export. But in the six months ending in May of this year, exports reached 4,150 tons and sold for $2.6 million.
Demel and his government adversaries are both struggling under a legacy of neglect for agriculture that began with Operation Bootstrap in the 1950s, when the commonwealth began steering its economy away from almost total dependence on sugar cane toward a more diversified industrial base in electronics and light manufacturing. Some observers believe that the island's agriculture is still wedded psychologically to sugar and is not truly interested in any other crop. Says Fernando Santiago, operator of a 600-acre farm in Santa Isabel: "Agriculture doesn't believe in vegetables."