Puerto Rico Agriculture Secretary Myrna Comas told lawmakers during budget hearings Monday that upon arriving to the agency in January, she uncovered an entity “in a precarious situation, with the lowest budget in its history, only 337 employees, no updated agricultural statistics, and no field level progress reports to evaluate and track work.”
The agency was affected by Law 7 and Law 70 that eliminated key employees at the agency and field levels, she said.
The Agriculture Department has a budget of a little more than $16 million, but is facing a $1.1 million shortfall, related to payroll and sick leave payments, Comas told Senate Finance Committee Chair José Nadal-Power.
“This shortfall was projected in December 2012 and the funds have been requested from the Office of Management and Budget,” said Comas, prior to outlining her plans for the current term.
The requested budget for Fiscal 2014 would go almost in its entirety, or nearly $14.3 million, to cover payroll expenses, while the remainder would be split between subsidizing facilities, paying for utilities and outsourcing services.
Comas noted that the development strategy for the sector over the next four years includes strengthening Puerto Rico’s food security plan, by developing a “program aimed at increasing food production throughout the island and the establishment of home, community and school gardens,” she said.
“These are activities that should be accompanied by educational programs and practices to promote the consumption of Puerto Rican agricultural products,” Comas explained.
Another initiative is identifying off-island markets to sell excess production, such as fresh milk.
“We have already begun to sell surplus milk production to the Dominican Republic. We have signed an agreement for 5 million quarts this year, preventing having to discard that product and for farmers to experience losses,” she said, referring to the transaction announced with Pasteurizadora Rica, S.A. in effect through June 30.
Another key area for the agency, coffee production, is also high on the list of priorities, she said, adding that coffee production is currently about 80,000 bushels, the lowest in Puerto Rico’s history. Future plans call for boosting coffee harvests and planting about 16,000 additional acres of trees by involving small and medium-sized farming operations.
Finally, Comas said the development of high technology applied to agriculture is another strategy underway.
“We will maximize the use of space and promote greenhouse systems to increase agricultural production,” she said. “In this way, we can control pests more efficiently and produce higher quality crops in less time.”