Puerto Rico's Hurricane Recovery Hinders Farm Businesses' Seed Research

Nov 29, 2017
Originally published on November 29, 2017 10:09 pm

Puerto Rico's hot winter days and warm nights have played a key role in the global seed business for more than 30 years. So, the devastation wrought on the U.S. territory by Hurricane Maria in September stretches to the croplands of the Midwest and Great Plains.

Fields in Puerto Rico are used for research and development of up to 85 percent of the commercial corn, soybean and other hybrid seeds grown in the U.S., according to the Puerto Rico Agricultural Biotechnology Industry Association.

From small regional seed producers to multibillion-dollar powerhouse players like Monsanto, Bayer and DuPont, companies that strive to improve the quality and consistency of their products or want to verify the purity of their seeds before putting them on the market turn to Puerto Rico. There, one can plant three seasons of corn and soybeans year-round. Sunflower, sorghum and cotton also are grown for research.

The hurricane knocked out power to millions and destroyed water infrastructure. It also tore up plants across the island, washed soil off fields and knocked down fences.

"The winds were so powerful that they basically devastated and blew off everything that was green," PRABIA executive director Beatriz Carrión says. "Everything that was standing up. Trees. Everything."

Some projects were moved quickly to other locations where seed research is done, like Hawaii, Chile and Argentina. Because most of the planting for this winter had not begun yet, Carrión says the biotech companies were able to get their operations up and running.

"Our companies have water and some already have electricity," she says. "we are open for business." But that doesn't mean business is as usual.

Minnesota-based Third Millennium Genetics (3MG) has farms in Puerto Rico to help Midwest seed producers run winter research projects. The plan this year was to have two farms in Puerto Rico, 3MG first science officer Raechel Baumgartner Delgado says.

The company scaled back to just one after the storm wiped out generators, stole the roof off of a building and damaged another. Instead of squeezing more profit from the single farm by growing contract research plants, 3MG is producing watermelon, honeydew and cantaloupe.

"One of the things we kind of talked about was stopping the fruit and vegetable growing in favor of our customers," Baumgartner says, "and as we thought about it we realized we couldn't because we needed the food on the island."

There have been other challenges: spotty cell service, limited electricity and having to layoff employees when it became clear there would be less work.

"We kind of operate like family," she says, "and so to have to reduce the number of staff has been difficult."

Yet, the projects are mostly on schedule, and planting is now underway.

That's good news for Les North of MayerSeedline, who leaves his Iowa home each winter to inspect the rows of corn 3MG has planted in Puerto Rico for his company. He looks for anomalies that, if too common, may indicate a problem with a whole batch of seeds.

His trip may be shorter than usual this year because federal emergency responders were occupying all the rooms through the end of the year when he called last month.

"I hope to be down there probably between Christmas and New Year's," he says, though the earliest he could make a reservation was Jan. 2. "The hotel doesn't have rooms available at this point."

Still, he expects to be able to verify the quality of his customers' corn seeds in time for them to ship to farmers in the spring.

Purity standards have been around since the 1939 Federal Seed Act, which aimed to protect farmers.

"It was trying to do away with the situation, 'Let the buyer beware,'" Iowa State seed lab manager Mike Stahr says. "And so the seed companies, if they want to stay in business, they're going to have to keep the farmers happy."

North estimates between 50 and 70 percent of the seed corn planted in the U.S. has been put through an in-the-ground test — whether that's in Puerto Rico or other places. Though lab testing has become more sophisticated over the decades, Stahr says there's no substitute for growing out the plant.

"There's value in doing both," Stahr says. "There's certain characteristics we can't see in the lab."

Liliana Sanchez Cortes runs Puerto Rican operations for seed giant Syngenta. She rode out the hurricane in her home in Ponce, but quickly went back to work assessing the damage.

"My boss asked the question immediately, 'Are you going to be able to run the season?' And I explain, yeah, this is my work plan and this is how I need your support."

The company gave its employees generators, water and ice — necessities on a tropical island where nearly two months after the hurricane more than 60 percent of residents are still without electricity and nearly 20 percent don't have safe drinking water, according to a report from the International Medical Corps.

Sanchez says she's gotten the support she asked for, but things are tough for the 45 full-time workers. Three lost their homes and some are still without functioning cooking stoves.

Plus, she's struggling to find the 500 seasonal workers Syngenta needs for the winter because thousands of people have fled the island.

"We are trying to look for the people that usually come to work for us," she says, "and they are not in the island anymore."

Seed companies remain committed to Puerto Rico because its climate and location make it an accessible and practical place to work during the winter. That's something even Hurricane Maria couldn't strip away.

This story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focused on food and agriculture.

Copyright 2017 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Most of the seeds that grow corn, soybeans and other crops across the country have something in common - a strong connection to Puerto Rico. And following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the island's crop research companies are scrambling to ensure the critical winter season won't be lost. Iowa Public Radio's Amy Mayer reports.

AMY MAYER, BYLINE: Puerto Rico is not a major producer of grain, but for more than 30 years, its hot winter days and warm nights have played a key role in the seed business. Test seeds for 85 percent of grain grown in the U.S. pass through the island. Raechel Baumgartner Delgado is a science officer with Third Millennium Genetics, a company that works with Midwest seed producers to run winter research projects. The plan was to use two farms in Puerto Rico this year. But after the storm wiped out generators and damaged buildings, she says they're down to one. That farm could have accommodated more seed research if it didn't already grow melons.

RAECHEL BAUMGARTNER DELGADO: One of the things we kind of talked about was stopping the fruit and vegetable growing in favor of our customers, and as we thought about it, we realized we couldn't because we needed the food on the island.

MAYER: Among those they will share it with - laid-off employees.

DELGADO: We've also had to cut back staff - not being able to handle our normal project load.

MAYER: But even with spotty cell service and limited electricity, Baumgartner says their planting regime is mostly on schedule. That's good news for customers, including Les North of MayerSeedline.

LES NORTH: This is the hotel where we stay.

MAYER: OK.

NORTH: And that's the beach, and I'm sure a lot of this is gone now.

MAYER: North leaves his Iowa home each winter to walk the rows that Third Millennium has planted for his company. His trip may be shorter than usual this year.

NORTH: I hope to be down there probably between Christmas and New Year's, but the hotel doesn't have rooms available at this point.

MAYER: Federal emergency responders were occupying all the rooms when he called. But despite the challenges, he expects to be able to verify the quality of the plants.

NORTH: A lot of that is looking for the off types where you go along in the fields and you'll see some tall corn out in the field, something that's taller or something that's a different color or something's got a different silt color.

MAYER: Too much of that and the whole lot might be bad. It's the stuff no lab test will reveal. He estimates 50 to 70 percent of corn seeds get put through this type of in-the-ground testing. Seeds are a multi-billion-dollar industry dominated by global powerhouses like Monsanto, Bayer and DuPont, which also have farms in Puerto Rico. Liliana Sanchez Cortes runs Puerto Rican operations for seed giant Syngenta. Speaking via Skype, she says there are challenges ahead.

LILIANA SANCHEZ CORTES: My boss asked the question immediately, are you going to be able to run the season? And I explain, yeah, this is my work plan, and this is how I need your support.

MAYER: The company has given employees generators, water and ice. Still, she says things are tough for the 45 full-time workers, some of whom lost their homes. And she's struggling to find enough seasonal workers since thousands of people have fled the island.

CORTES: We are trying to look for the people that usually come to work for us, and they are not in the island anymore.

MAYER: But seed companies remain committed to Puerto Rico because of its climate and location - something even Hurricane Maria couldn't strip away. For NPR News, I'm Amy Mayer in Ames, Iowa.

SIEGEL: And that story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that covers food and agriculture in the Midwest and the Great Plains. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.