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Puerto Rico's Dairy Industry, Once Robust, Flattened By Maria

A dairy farmer in Manati, Puerto Rico in a milking parlor on Thursday. Puerto Rico's dairy farmers account for about a third of the island's total agricultural production. Now they're struggling to recover their cows and get them milked.

Manuel Perez is a veterinarian who specializes in caring for cattle, and he knows many of Puerto Rico's dairy farmers.

Yesterday, he got in his truck and went to visit one of them. The route he took, along the island's northern coast, winds past forests. Until a week ago, when Hurricane Maria ripped through, it was beautiful.

"I tell you, it's just gone. It's all gone," Perez says. "A lot of the trees are down, and the trees that are standing don't have any leaves at all."

When Perez got to the farm, which sits beside the Manati river, he found that the hurricane had flooded the farm, torn away fences, and sent cows fleeing for miles across the countryside.

"They have found cows all over the place, and they're still looking," he says.

Dairy farmers are the biggest single part of Puerto Rico's agricultural economy. They account for about a third of Puerto Rico's total agricultural production, thanks to strict limits on imported milk. Milk is one of the few foods in which the island is largely self-sufficient.

Now they're struggling to get back on their feet.

This farmer used to have 670 cows. He's found more than 70 cows dead, and had to bury them. He had 125 heifers — young cows that aren't giving milk yet — and 40 goats. He's only been able to locate about a quarter of those animals.

Dairy farmers have a particular problem in disaster situations. A cow isn't a factory that you can shut down and start up again when the power comes back. She needs to be milked; otherwise, she'll eventually get sick or stop producing milk altogether.

So farmers are getting those cows back to the milking machines as quickly as possible, running the machines off generator power.

"When we got [to the farm], they were milking," Perez says. "It's all muddy and dirty and doesn't look very good, but he's milking. He's milking with a generator."

"Dairy farmers are strong people, you know?" Perez continues. "They rebound back; they fight like crazy. So they're trying to make it back to where it was. They're fighting."

According to Perez, this particular farmer doesn't expect to get reconnected to the island's electrical grid for at least two months, and he's not sure how long his old generator will last; he's trying to find a newer one.

The farmer also needs more fuel to keep it running.

Manuel Perez says that the crisis on the island starts with the lack of tanker trucks to deliver fuel around the island. Without gasoline for their cars, people can't move. Then "the businesses cannot work because the employees don't get there. And you go on and on and on, it's a domino effect and it's a complete disaster."

There's still a lot of hope on the island, he says ... that things will come back together. But it's going to take a while.

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