Seniors from the UIUC Agricultural Science Education Program recently spent a week in Puerto Rico to expand their knowledge of tropical agriculture, Caribbean history and ecology, and the Puerto Rican economy. From May 3 through May 9, Dr. Erica Thieman, accompanied by Mr. Gary Ochs and Dr. Cecilia Suarez, led a study abroad experience for a group of 10 UIUC students as they toured farms, el Yunque National Park, and points of cultural interest on the island of Puerto Rico. Through cooperation with Wanda Perez from the Farm Service Agency (FSA), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the group toured five farming operations and a coffee processing facility along the southern coast and central mountainous regions. Also included were tours of a university agricultural experiment station, a grain mill, and a university tour. Additionally, students visited an Indigenous Culture Center, beach, and closed out their week with a two-day stay in the rainforest.
Through visiting the farming operations, the group observed and learned about the different approaches producers take in the production of a variety of fruits and vegetables. Producers in Puerto Rico are very diversified and possess a wide range of skills to produce crops requiring vastly different production methods. Bananas and plantains are a large component of Puerto Rican agriculture in the regions visited, as evidenced by every farm producing one or both crops. At the Jose Fabre Laboy farm in Sabana Grande, students visited the fields where bananas, plantains, avocado, and lemons are grown, in addition to observing bananas being harvested and then processed. At the Fabre farm, practices utilized in the production of organic bananas were a focus with legume cover crops in use and special bags impregnated with pepper and garlic place over bananas on the trees to repel pests. While visiting Finca Vicenta, Inc and the associated William Mattei Papavius coffee processing facility in Adjuntas, the group saw coffee tree production integrated with plantains in the central mountainous region of Puerto Rico. A contract farming operation of government-owned land by Fernando Machado having numerous wind turbines in the windy and flat region of Santa Isabel reminded the group of Central Illinois. At this farm, pineapple and papaya were the focus crops; the tour closed out with a treat of freshly harvested and sliced papaya and pineapple. At Fulgencio Rodriguez’s operation, Rico Banana, in Guayanilla, large-scale banana production and processing were observed along with greenhouse production of mint specifically raised for use in the mojito drink. The group finished their tour of producer fincas (farms) with a visit to Erick Torres Calcerrada’s operation, also located in Guayanilla, which is one of the few large-scale producers of Spanish Limes (quenepas) on the island. Erick and his sons also produce hydroponically grown lettuce in greenhouses. Mango, guava, taro root, star-apple, and cherry production were included in the tour of the University of Puerto Rico Agricultural Experiment Station in Juana Diaz where students tried many of the over 150 varieties of mangos, guava, cherries, and star-apples grown on the farm.
A tour of Molinos de Puerto Rico, a grain mill that is a subsidiary of Con-Agra, featured a visit to the harbor. This is where grain arrives and milled products are shipped out via barges going to Miami, FL. Breakfast pastries and lunch were provided at Molinos, both of which included baked goods made fresh by the on staff baker who utilizes a test kitchen to provide directions to bakeries on specific properties of the flours they purchase. The land-grant and agricultural University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez provided students an opportunity to visit with current students of the University and meet Dean Monroig from the College of Agriculture.
The Indigenous Ceremonial Center in Tibes was visited for the group to learn more of the history of the inhabitation and settlement of Puerto Rico. Our guide of the ceremonial grounds utilized by the Tainos and Inari peoples shared his knowledge of practices of the early inhabitants of the island specific to the native trees and other plants. The final experience of the trip included a two-night stay at Casa Cubuy Ecolodge in el Yunque National Park, the only rainforest in the U.S. National Parks system. The group went on an approximately 9 mile hike with tour guides who provided historical information on the uses and importance of the rainforest along with a wealth of horticultural information on the plants of the rainforest. The hike included several stops to swim in reservoirs and pools created by waterfalls, with rock climbing of several hundred feet of a waterfall. Students remarked on how interesting it was to see tropical house plants common in greenhouses growing wild and reaching sizes and proportions they did not know were possible of plants like philodendron, ferns, and bromeliads. Students returned from the trip with many photos, a much deeper knowledge of fruit and vegetable production, and lesson plans utilizing information from their experience for the agriscience classrooms they will be teaching in beginning Fall 2015.
Claire Geiger, one of the students who participated in the experience, said, “The trip to Puerto Rico was an amazing opportunity to see different agricultural practices in use. Being immersed in the culture also gave me a better understanding for the reasons they produce the variety of produce they do. During my time here at the University of Illinois, I've learned and researched practices like using nitrogen fixing cover crops and irrigation, but I haven't seen them used in the industry often. This trip provided me the chance to see both implemented in the production of plantains. We also visited one of the University Research Farms trying different varieties of mangoes and how each variety is marketed to different consumer types based on their needs. What an experience!”