Following Hurricane Maria, Farmers in Puerto Rico Find their Resilience

Five years ago, Hurricane Maria hit the American island of Puerto Rico, destroying its coffee industry. Here's how TechnoServe is helping their farmers make a comeback.

“When Hurricane María arrived, I was right here at home with my mother and my son,” says Agueda Ortiz Velez, 61, a Puerto Rican coffee farmer. “It was a very difficult moment to think that everything we had worked for and achieved during many years…would be destroyed.”

Clockwise: Agueda Ortiz Velez, Agueda’s son, TechnoServe Trainers and Agueda’s daughter Zuleyka Lugo-Ortiz, and Zuleyka’s daughter.

Five years ago today, Hurricane Maria made landfall on the American island of Puerto Rico, causing the deaths of over 3,000 people and billions of dollars in damage. And it destroyed 80% of the island’s coffee trees, devastating the livelihoods of hundreds of farmers. 

But today, Puerto Rico’s coffee is back. This year, for the first time, farmers are harvesting as much coffee as they did before the hurricane–and are looking forward to an even greater future.

How Hurricane Maria Affected Coffee Farmers in Puerto Rico

Agueda is one of roughly 2,500 coffee farmers on the island. And like many of them, coffee farming is in her blood–the land she farms has been in her family for four generations. 

But Hurricane Maria suddenly threw her livelihood and future into doubt. “It was a very difficult and complicated few months,” she says. “We didn’t have water or power. We could not go out. I spent a week not being able to get out of here and two [weeks] not knowing anything about my daughter.” 

For years, Puerto Rico’s coffee has been a symbol of pride for its people–but in the wake of Hurricane Maria, the sector was on the verge of collapse. Coffee farmers lost an estimated $85 million in revenue practically overnight. The year before the hurricane, the island had produced over 2,000 metric tons of green coffee. In 2017, it produced just over 330 tons–a drop of 84%. 

Maritza del Rosario is another coffee farmer in Puerto who survived the hurricane. “We didn’t have anything left on the farm,” she says. “[The hurricane] took everything that we planted. It was hard. It was hard to start all over again.” 

Maritza del Rosario and her father stand in their family’s coffee farm in Puerto Rico.

In 2019, however–along with hundreds of other determined farmers–Maritza and Agueda did start all over again. That’s when they joined an initiative called Revivamos Nuestro Café, a partnership between TechnoServe, Nespresso, the Hispanic Federation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Colibri Foundation to help farmers in Puerto Rico to rebuild the coffee industry after Hurricane Maria.

Partners donated two million coffee seeds for farmers to start replanting their farms–and with support from Nespresso, TechnoServe began training farmers in growing even more, better quality coffee than before. The training included lessons on regenerative agriculture, farming techniques that improve the local environment while maintaining or improving crop productivity. These techniques also improve farms’ resilience against future climate threats like hurricanes.

How Coffee Farmers in Puerto Rico Recovered After Hurricane Maria

In 2019, Nespresso bought enough coffee from these farmers to launch a limited edition “Cafecito de Puerto Rico” consumer coffee. This year, the coffee will return in select markets, building on a strong harvest that signals a milestone in Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane recovery.

That’s because the harvest that ended early this year nearly equaled the island’s pre-hurricane production levels for the first time. And the harvest currently underway is projected to even exceed Puerto Rico’s coffee production the year before the hurricane.

“Hurricane Maria, as in every farm in Puerto Rico, caused devastation,” says Rafael Rodríguez Hernández, another coffee farmer on the island. “But it also showed us we can get back up again, with even more strength.”

The 45-year-old husband and father of two children has been working in coffee farming for 25 years.  “I was born in the fields, as one would say,” says Rafael. “It is where I came from and where I will die.” 

Rafael Rodríguez Hernández stands as his two daughters sit in their truck in their coffee farm in Puerto Rico.

This year, Rafael says, he and his family have their biggest coffee harvest since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.

“Ever since TechnoServe began working in Puerto Rico and we started training, we began to apply the new techniques for planting, which by the way has doubled the harvest in certain areas of the farm,” says Rafael. “We have learned about mulching, better fertilizing techniques, and more. I recommend TechnoServe to everyone because they can help farmers move forward just as they helped me, even more so after a tragedy like Hurricane Maria.” 

Agueda and Maritza also worked hard to apply these lessons and to rebuild their farms. “It was a very frustrating time but we need to have hope,” says Agueda. “At the beginning I thought I didn’t want to, but the TechnoServe team arrived and even though I didn’t want to, they helped me start all over again, to have a new vision and to know that it could be done.”

“I know, as my grandfather and father did, I’m going to impact a lot of people economically,” says Maritza. 

“Even though Hurricane Maria devastated almost all of Puerto Rico, I would say it showed us to be stronger, to take care of each other,” says Rafael. “I would say it was a great learning experience, a great school for us as farmers and for every Puerto Rican who lived through it as well. I am sure we are all stronger thanks to Hurricane Maria.”

While TechnoServe has made several significant strides in Puerto Rico, there is still more work to be done. Will you join us in this cause? Give $100 today.