U.S. territory is conducive for business, not for row crops
The island poses no threat of freezing, maintains a day-time temperature in the high 80s and is just a short flight away for many in the eastern half of the U.S.
"It was the worst corn I’d ever seen … I thought they would throw in the towel."
While seed companies such as AgReliant Genetics, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto and Syngenta have made significant investments in Puerto Rico, farmers are advised not to.
Jim Shearl, director of quality assurance for AgReliant Genetics, planted his first acre and half of corn in Puerto Rico in 1985-86. At the time, he served the Illinois Crop Improvement Association.
"It was the worst corn I’d ever seen," Shearl says. "When my board of directors came down to check it out, I thought they would throw in the towel, but they said let’s grow more." Shearl and his assistant manager Paul Palmgren were tasked with overcoming the weed and insect pressures that came with the fertile soil and tropical climate.
Doug Miller, Illinois Crop Improvement Association CEO, agrees with Shearl. "The weeds never rest, and the insect pressure is high," he says. As a business, it’s easy to operate in Puerto Rico, but it can be agronomically challenging and overly bureaucratic at times, Miller says.
Shearl explains that U.S. farmers in Puerto Rico would not be able to compete with those in Argentina, Brazil and the U.S. mainland. "While there is a lot of poultry production on the island, most of the corn and soybean meal must be shipped in," he says, noting that the island has a population of 3.7 million, is mostly mountainous and is only 90 miles from east to west.
Puerto Rico is best suited for grow-outs and nurseries. "In delivering farmers high-quality seed, one of the assurances is conducting a grow-out, and a lot of that work is done in Puerto Rico," Shearl explains.