Fertile, lush and blessed with a balmy climate year-round, Puerto Rico is a place you'd expect to be farmers' market central. Yet, surprisingly, the Caribbean island's farm-to-fork movement is only just getting started. From San Juan's acclaimed Cocina Abierta restaurant to the hands-on agrotourism experiences on offer at El Pretexto, a new generation of chefs, growers and activists is switching up the status quo and putting Puerto Rican-grown produce front and centre.
We sat down with Manuel Baez, head of conservation and education at the farm and ecology project Finca Gaia, to hear more about the green shoots of the island's farm-to-fork scene and get his hot tips on where to try Puerto Rico's incredible homegrown produce.
Food for thought: the lowdown on Puerto Rico's farm-to-fork movement
Island fruit, left, and Baez at Finca Gaia. | Photo credit: Joe Howard
What's the story behind Finca Gaia?
Finca Gaia was founded by my parents, Ana Perez and Manuel Baez Sr. It started when my mom visited a piece of land in Dorado, just west of the island's capital, San Juan. The area belonged to my grandfather but had been abandoned for 70 years. She saw something no one else did, and convinced the family to start planting a few fruit trees there. To cut a long story short, she cherished the land, and encouraged me and my brothers to fall in love with the place, too. Now we want to share it with the rest of the world. It's a small, unspoilt, natural, peaceful piece of land where you can connect with nature and, in the process, learn so much. We grow produce and offer personalised tours and experiences.
What do you grow?
Finca Gaia has 14 hectares in total, but we only plant and grow on around one-and-a-half hectares. The rest is dedicated conservation land. We've planted just over 100 fruit trees in the growing area, including native, endemic and exotic species. Some of the fruit I'd never seen or tasted before. Our main crop, though, is avocado, of which we have around 14 different varieties. Our growing is inspired by permaculture practice - we are experimenting a lot, trying different and new ways to produce a food forest. Right now, our jackfruits are ripe and so tasty.
Pineapple ready to be harvested, left, and a Puerto Rican Tody bird. | Photo credit: Joe Howard
Tell us about the island's food systems and the innovators changing up norms.
Puerto Rico went through a time, not long ago, when people stopped working the fields and kind of abandoned agriculture. Since then, most of the products we consume are imported. That's mad, as we can grow almost anything on the island, thanks to rich soils and diverse ecosystems. A new generation is seeking to relearn and rediscover the knowledge of the land that our grandfathers had. There seems to be a need to go back to the earth and grow our own food. It's not easy to make a living from it, but we wanted to think beyond profits and ensure what we were doing was harmonious with our surroundings.
Why is incorporating ecology important to you?
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, close to 95 per cent of the island was deforested. There are more than 500 different species of natives trees on Puerto Rico but, due to the deforestation, some are in danger of becoming extinct. When we found a number of these endangered trees on our land, we were surprised. Now we're searching for and planting other endemic species, too. These past seven years we've learned so much from our surroundings, and continue to do so every day. Visit the finca and you'll learn all about our efforts, as well as the species of native and endemic birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects living between the trees. One of my favourite trees is the retama San José - I call it the Puerto Rican cherry blossom.
What's the surrounding Dorado region like?
We're just a 25-minute drive from San Juan, near the city of Dorado, which is known for its beautiful beaches. The farm is hidden in the "mogotes", limestone hills, just outside the city. The beautiful karst formations run all along the north coast; Las Cuevas del Río Camuy is a must-visit.
A naturally-formed window in a limestone cave, left, and fresh Puerto Rican produce. | Photo credit: Joe Howard
Where can we taste some of the produce you grow?
A lot of the island's up-and-coming chefs are proud to support local farmers. They know that the quality of the food we grow has no comparison, and it shows in their dishes. Yumbootik is a new concept focused on international cuisine mixed with local flavours, and it uses produce from Finca Gaia, as well as other local producers. The menu is inspired by the travels of its chef, Jonathan Cruz.
The Italian next door to Yumbootik, Bocca, is also great. The pizzas are to die for. And Berlingeri Cocina Artesanal is the best spot for vegan food - it supports a number of local farmers, including us, and the food is brilliant.
Where can we pick up great produce on the island to cook ourselves?
Try the Placita de Santurce neighbourhood of San Juan. There are also pop-up markets most weekends in city plazas across the island.
Who else is doing interesting things with agrotourism on the island?
There are so many awesome agroturism projects happening right now. For a sense of the movement, check out the work of Hacienda Plenitud, Casa Pueblo, Frutos del Guacabo, Amasar and El Josco Bravo. Most places offer tours, and you can even stay and volunteer at a few.
Any tips for getting the most out of a Puerto Rico adventure?
Engage with the locals. A lot of the treasures we have on the island, you won't find advertised and are only known by residents. Puerto Ricans are super-hospitable people and we will gladly share our knowledge with visitors seeking to enjoy the island.
Let's talk about souvenirs. What should we take home after an island trip?
I think a good local pitorro (moonshine rum) would be the easiest to transport back, along with locally grown, harvested and roasted coffee beans. Or perhaps some cacao. We have local cacao farms producing amazing chocolates. Honestly, there's so much I could suggest - I just hope island visitors have time to try it all and pick up what they've most enjoyed to take back home.
Dig up more on Puerto Rico's farm-to-fork renaissance at discoverpuertorico.com.