Along the au topista, the high-speed highway that crosses the island between San Juan and Ponce, I stopped my car one afternoon to visit another reminder of Puerto Rico’s vanishing past. “The jtharo,” said the plaque under a statue of a rural farming family, “is the man of our land, the cultivator of our soil, genesis of our life, and an authentic expression of Puerto Rico.”
Sadly, the Aar°, this revered countryman, achieved his mythical status only after most of his kind were displaced by Puerto Rico’s industrial revolution. In 1950 the farm-based work force was 36 percent of the island’s total; today it is about 5 percent.
On an island that imports two-thirds of its food, the monument’s inscription appears ironic. “Industrialization carried people away from the countryside,” agronomist Jose Vicente Chandler told me. “Life changed with cars and televisions. Now people don’t believe that they can make a good enough living as farmers.”
Vicente Chandler’s 105-acre finca near the mountain town of Aguas Buenas is proof they can. Instead of laborious and costly hand picking, Vicente Chandler uses an innovative system of ground nets to catch ripe coffee beans when they fall. His finca makes a nice profit where others lose money.
“The trade-off is jobs for profit,” Vicente Chandler said. “One man does the work of three. It won’t help solve our unemployment problem, but this way a good farmer with high-yielding coffee can make $1,200 an acre, compared to $300 with hand picking.”
Such creative farming holds promise for other crops too. But in the west, near the coastal town of Aguadilla, a once powerful arm of Puerto Rico’s agriculture is withering. Under a searing sun a dozen men stripped to the waist were hacking 12-foothigh sugarcane with long machetes. Greasy tar from the cane stalks, burned earlier to eliminate dead leaves, smeared the cutters from head to foot.
“This is the worst job I’ve ever had,” said Jose Rivera. His eyes glittered like a coal miner’s in his smudged face.
Why not try something else, I suggested.
“I’ve looked,” he said with a sigh. “I’ve filled out all the applications, but no one answers. Unemployment is nearly 40 percent in this area, and I’ve got five kids, so I’ll keep cutting cane.”
Cane cutters start at $3.35 an hour, the federal minimum wage, and there is a long waiting list for jobs in this part of the island. But sugarcane, once the backbone of Puerto Rico’s economy and still a major crop, has become an expensive economic drain. The government buys most of the island’s crop and owns all its sugar mills, but, even with subsidies, Puerto Rican sugarcane growers cannot compete with producers like those of the Dominican Republic, where labor is cheaper. With a net loss on every pound of sugar, the government-run industry is criticized as little more than a costly, outmoded public-employment program.