VARA BLANCA, Heredia – The Jan. 8 earthquake caused losses of about ¢2 billion ($3.6 million) to Costa Rica’s agriculture sector.
Dairy and strawberry farms suffered the most, according to officials from the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry (MAG) who have paid a number of visits to the affected areas.
So far, 65 strawberry farms in the area of the Fraijanes, Vara Blanca and Poasito communities have been inspected for damage, and MAG said it hopes to visit 20 more later t his week.
The nine teams of four agricultural technicians each that visited the affected region have found three main problems: disrupted access to the farms, no electric power and broken irrigation pipes.
Arco Iris Farm, located in the Fraijanes community, suffered at least ¢50 million (about $91,000) in damage and lost production and is not expected to produce at its normal level for about nine months, said Guillermo Bidaurre, owner of the farm.
Arco Iris workers, along with MAG specialists, are currently trying to reconstruct the company’s entire irrigation system while also trying to cure its sick and injured livestock.
Workers have been digging to check the status of a kilometer’s worth of irrigation pipes throughout the farm. Strawberry plants have not received water in more than eight days, puts the crops at critical risk.
A loss of power during the first days following the earthquake slowed down dairy production, as workers were unable to use milking machines. This ultimately caused 15 cows to become sick and three to die from mastisis, a disease caused by bacteria in the cow’s udder that accumulates when milk is not removed.
“When the cows are being treated for mastitis they are given antibiotics and we cannot use their milk,” Bidaurre said.
Misael Espinoza, who has worked the farm for the last 22 years, says the lack of production is affecting many workers around Fraijanes.
Espinoza said he was paid about ¢27,000 (about $50) in wages last week, compared to his usual weekly salary of ¢70,000 to ¢80,000 (about $130-$150).
“I depend on this farm to feed my family and pay for my children’s school,” he said. “It is going to be very difficult for me to survive during these next few months.”
Furthermore, Espinoza’s wife, a cook at the local school destroyed by the quake, has been unable to work, leaving the family with one income.
“Right now, I’m the sole provider for my family,” Espinoza said. “I’m in the hole right now. We have debts in the millions.”
Since the quake took place, almost 70 dairy farms have been inspected, citing access and loss of electricity as their main problems.
The worst case was a dairy farm in Vara Blanca, where the quake opened a crater 300 meters long, 100 meters wide and 80 meters deep, consuming the farm owner’s two sons, 51 livestock and a house.
“That was the most dramatic loss we have seen so far,” said Gerardo Vicente, Director of the National Animal Health Service (SENASA).
Even though up to 95 percent of thedairy farms have access today, SENASA is predicting job losses in several dairy farms, and workers on 50 hectares of strawberry farms would lose jobs as well.
“These jobs are very important for the local economy,” Vicente said.
Agriculture Minister Javier Flores met with local producers last week, and asked those affected to prioritize their needs. Most strawberry growers, concerned about irrigation, mentioned water hoses and pipe connectors as their greatest needs.
“What we are interested in is reactivating production,” Flores told a group of farmers in Vara Blanca.
MAG officials shared their intention of talking to the banks that have lent to the growers to request extensions on their debt payments.
“We’re hoping to offer these small and medium-sized farms a grace period for the first year and a grace period on the principal,” Flores said last week.
This would give local growers affected by the quake a breather while they get up on their feet again, he added.
Another strawberry farmer affected by the disaster estimated that about 200 to 250 producers have been affected in the Vara Blanca area.
“We have started to sink,” said Carlos Herrera.
His farm in particular was producing 1,500 kilograms to 2,000 kilograms of strawberries on a weekly basis. He is now faced with a 50 percent drop in production.
In addition to losses in dairies and strawberry production, about ¢72 million (more than $130,000) in fern crops have been reported lost in the affected farms, MAG officials said last week.
The El Angel agribusiness, which makes jellies and sauces and whose main plant is located in Cinchona, near the quake’s epicenter, is presently evaluating damage to its installations.
Although 300 employees were at the plant at the time of the quake, only three were injured, and these are now out of danger.
El Angel is one of the few companies buying products, such as strawberries, from farmers affected by the quake and has stated that its intention is not to lay off workers and to pay their full salaries.
Dos Pinos, the leading Costa Rican dairy cooperative, estimated its losses at roughly ¢1 billion ($1.8 million).
Jorge Pattoni, general manager for Dos Pinos, said about 60 milk producers in the area were affected by the earthquake and Dos Pinos lost close to 50,000 liters of milk on the first day alone.
Dos Pinos’ normal production of about 1 million liters of milk a day has been reduced to about 988,000.
Twelve Dos Pinos farms have been severely affected. Six have no access at all.
“Six of these 12 farms have no running water or electricity,” Patonni said.
Although the losses in his company are considered major, Patonni insists that these issues will not affect the national supply or exports.
In addition, five dairy farms employing 70 to 100 families have laid off their workers, Pattoni said.
Representatives from the Inter-American Development Bank will meet with MAG officials on Wednesday to discuss financing options for those affected small farmers.
“We will discuss how these debts would be paid in addition to what type of guarantees would be requested, among other issues,” said Nelson Kopper, regional director for MAG in the western Central Valley region.