Food Self-Sufficiency in the La Plata Region

Sponsoring organization: Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales

Team members: Brian Liwo (Mechanical Engineering ’20), Brandon Malarney (Management ’20), Jordan Pickunka (Aerospace Engineering ’20), & William Roe (Aerospace Engineering ’20)

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Executive Summary: Due to the Jones Act and the island’s relatively small size, Puerto Rico imports the vast majority of their food and is extremely reliant on the global agri-food supply chain. The agri-food supply chain is the movement of food from farm to table. This reliance is incredibly dangerous as a single event can cause a break in the supply chain, which can have catastrophic effects. Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the small island, cutting them off from their food imports and leaving debris that is still present two years later.

El Refugio de Vida Silvestre del Embalse La Plata (Wildlife Refuge of La Plata) is a wildlife refuge within Lago de La Plata that still struggles with damage from the hurricanes. The refuge is a popular fishing and recreation site for people from many different cities and towns in Puerto Rico. The refuge also hosts several different classes to teach children about fishing and agriculture. The Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales (DRNA), a government organization, is in charge of protecting the natural resources of Puerto Rico as well as La Plata.

The areas immediately surrounding La Plata were unable to receive food due to the damage caused by the storms. La Plata and the DRNA want to help the community, and by extension, the rest of the island, to become more food self-sufficient, but currently have no method to do so. One method of improving food self-sufficiency involves educating community members about home gardening. An effective education program should cover topics such as the benefits of gardening, implementation of beds, good practices, effective fertilization, and general upkeep of gardens. These topics provide community member with the knowledge to create a garden or provide beneficial practices to existing gardeners.

We completed a series of objectives to achieve our main goal of improving food self-sufficiency for the community surrounding the La Plata Wildlife Refuge by providing educational materials about home gardening, debris disposal, and solutions to local problems. Our first objective determined the extent of home gardening in the community, the challenges, and successes involved with home gardening; along with the locals’ preferred method of learning. Additionally, we needed to understand the strategies of debris removal to help the local communities improve their lives after a severe storm. To complete the objective, we interviewed 21 visitors at La Plata. The interviews consisted of a variety of baseline questions to obtain knowledge of local home gardening. Following the completion of our interviews, we digitized them into an Excel spreadsheet for analysis to identify gaps in local knowledge, effective gardening techniques, and preferred method of learning to aid in our education program. Additionally, we interviewed a variety of local experts, farmers, and agronomists in order to obtain information on useful gardening techniques.

Objective two was to determine materials commonly found in local areas that can be used for home gardening. Through the same interviews mentioned in objective one, we gained information on the availability of gardening resources for community members particularly relating to materials available for compost. Part of achieving this objective included discovering what locals had done with their remaining debris from Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

In order to improve food self-sufficiency in the community surrounding the La Plata Wildlife refuge, we used two growing examples to show the importance of soil health and low cost fertilization for the success of gardening. In conducting our growing examples, we hoped to also understand agricultural problems, while at the same time, implementing new potential solutions. Piles of leftover debris in La Plata provided nutrient runoff for the growing example. We planted 60 trees of three species (Guarea Guidonia, Citharexylum Spinosum, and Cananga Odorata) in two plots. One plot was with Hügelkultur runoff and the other with compost. For the second growing experiment we planted 48 Red Oak Lettuce plants and 126 Roma tomato plants in eight garden beds split between two different plots. One plot was designed to not receive any potential Hügelkultur runoff while the other was sloped with the land to receive runoff. Each week we took data on leaves, buds, and sprouts for our trees; height, number of leaves, and yellow leaves for our tomatoes; and number of leaves for our lettuce. Overall health and qualitative observations for all plants were recorded. The data was used to observe how different types of nutrients affect plant growth.

By carrying out our growing examples, we experienced the development of a home garden in Puerto Rico first-hand. Our gardening experience including many aspects of planning, building, planting, and maintaining a garden. Also, it allowed us to test many of the gardening methods that locals and experts recommended during our interviews. The growing example also tested the effectiveness of compost and runoff from debris piles as mediums of plant and garden fertilization. From the growing example data, we concluded that piling debris and allowing nutrients to runoff into gardens is an effective method of debris disposal with an additional benefit of adding some nutrients to the garden. We also determined that because of the poor quality of local soil, compost should be added to home gardens for extra nutrients and healthier plants.

Interviews with visitors of La Plata touched on topics like fertilization, pests, disease, everyday gardening techniques, and preferred method of education. These topics were also discussed in interviews with experts. We found that home gardens were common. Fertilization was used often, but methods varied with mixed results. Additionally, iguanas, rats, disease, and a wide variety of insects posed a threat to home gardens. Through interviews and first-hand experience, we determined that hunting, dogs, traps, naturally grown repellants, and neem oil are effective ways of deterring these pests. Finally, interviewees requested a combination of a hands-on lecture and brochure. The class aspect included a small PowerPoint for visual representation, while the hands-on activity consisted of simple growing activities. The brochure contained gardening techniques along with benefits and other small concepts of gardening. Additionally, we concluded from our interviews that pest control, composting, and eco-friendly practices needed to be emphasized in our education program in order to improve home gardening and food self-sufficiency within the community surrounding the La Plata Wildlife Refuge. We also added information on basic gardening practices and techniques aimed for beginners, such as bed creation, planting, and maintenance, but did not need a greater emphasis within the program due to most interviewees having this basic knowledge.

By spreading this information in Puerto Rico, we hope to make the locals in the La Plata area less reliant on the agri-food supply chain. We believe that by following our objectives and implementing a similar system around the world, people can become more food self-sufficient. The issue of food self-sufficiency is bigger than just Puerto Rico. It extends to all communities. With the implementation of our project on a grander scale, we feel that communities around the world will benefit from more food self-sufficiency.


Based on our time in Puerto Rico and the gathered data, we have constructed several recommendations concerning pests, growing techniques, and debris removal. We hope these recommendations will aid in our ultimate goal of improving food self-sufficiency.

We recommend that locals attempt to use true Hügelkultur. This method of composting allows gardeners to dispose of any remaining debris as well as provide additional nutrients to a garden. True Hügelkultur works best with smaller debris and cannot be properly created with large debris.

We recommend that gardeners with large pieces of debris use La Plata’s piling method of Hügelkultur. If gardeners wish to use the piling method, they should use the

Front page of a brochure the team developed to help inform community members about sustainable local food practices.

natural slope of the land to use nutrient runoff. This may provide gardeners additional nutrients if plants are placed downhill from the large piles of debris. La Plata’s method of piling hurricane debris is efficient and common in the area.

We recommend that any gardener utilizes traditional compost to help their gardens. The addition of compost will increase the carbon and nitrogen within the soil, therefore helping any plants that are placed in the soil.

We recommend that gardeners living in areas with iguanas hang cans or CDs around their garden bed. This method is a cheap, moderately successful, and non-lethal way of deterring the iguanas.

We recommend that gardeners dealing with iguanas, but do not wish to harm the reptile, use chicken wire to surround and protect their beds. This method was incredibly successful during our four weeks maintaining a garden because there were no more attacks after installing the wire.

We recommend that gardeners that continue to struggle with iguanas take more drastic measures such as either hunt them or use a dog to protect their land. This method not only keeps the garden safe but can lower the total population of iguanas in Puerto Rico. If gardeners decided to kill the iguanas, we recommend that they eat them for a source of healthy, lean meat.

We recommend that gardeners struggling with insects use natural pesticides like neem oil and BT or plant natural repellants like oregano, lemongrass, parsley, citronella, and the neem plant. All of these work towards repelling the pests, but are not guaranteed to kill the insects or entirely repel them.

We recommend that locals reuse materials to build elevated gardens. Following the passing of a hurricane, extensive amounts of debris are present in the affected areas. We noticed empty refrigerators and old tires left on the side of the road. These can easily be repurposed to both remove the debris and provide resources to local families. Elevated beds create a barrier from weeds and pests as well as providing good drainage.