Visit Rico was born as an experiment in social entrepreneurism in 2014 to promote organic crops, the farm to table movement, culture and a unique tourist experience in Puerto Rico’s fertile countryside.
The organization, which was the brainchild of Camille Collazo and part of her master’s thesis at the School of Visual Arts of New York for the Designer as an Entrepreneur, had hit a growing movement on the island of Puerto Rico.
As a more and more millennials joined the farm to table movement, the percentage of land under cultivation was on the upswing, an important milestone in an island that imports nearly 90% of its food. Making the most of this growing trend, Visit Rico organized ever more popular events at selected farms to highlight their produce and partnered with young chefs to create enticing menus for tourists and locals. An enthusiastic group of people were willing to pay for the opportunity to have a memorable lunch or dinner with fresh grown food amid a field. Visit Rico, as a social enterprise and nonprofit organization, had found its calling in a movement that was benefitting farmers, chefs and tourism and generating increasing buzz.
Then, Hurricane María struck and destroyed 80% of the island’s crop value production, according to early estimates by the Puerto Rico secretary of Agriculture, Carlos Flores Ortega. Particularly affected were bananas, plantains and coffee production. “I panicked after the hurricane, I thought four years of work had been wiped away,” said Collazo, executive director of Visit Rico. She was particularly concerned over the plight of the family farms she had gotten to know so well. After the initial wave of despair, Collazo and her team decided that Visit Rico had to “pivot” and respond to the immediate needs of farmers who had lost their livelihood.
Regrow Puerto Rico
“I see myself as a social entrepreneur not as someone who raises funds, but that is exactly what we did to help farmers,” said Collazo. “We created Regrow Puerto Rico and during the first phase we were able to raise $450,000.” With those funds Visit Rico provided an income of $1,500 for three months to 107 agroecological farmers. In addition, Visit Rico received funding from Farm Aid to help 60 other conventional and agroecological farmers.
City Winery also brought down its work force as part of a team building event in January and provided volunteers to work in farms. They ended their stay with a celebratory dinner and concert in a Patillas farm that was highlighted in Food & Wine and by Forbes.
As part of the process of focusing on the Regrow Puerto Rico initiative, Collazo realized she had to bolster Visit Rico’s capabilities as a young organization and submitted a grant proposal to United for Puerto Rico for $99,500 to buy its first truck, design a mobile unit for its events, and also survey farmers to have a better understanding of their status and needs. The funds have helped the organization carry on its farm recovery efforts.
In her trips around the island, she is starting to see hope as farms are coming back to life with new crops. Collazo said that she also saw the value of diversifying crops to make sure there is a source of food. One of the scariest aspects of the aftermath of the hurricane was the shortage of food items in supermarket shelves for over a month. Yet, when she visited farmers in Orocovis and other mountain towns and asked if they had food, the farmers said they were eating their “raíces”, tubers such as yautia, batatas (yams) and ñame. Because the tuber grows underground, many of these crops survived.
“One of the many issues that Hurricane María exposed was the danger of depending on imports for over 80% of our food supplies, Visit Rico is not only promoting farmers, it is contributing to retain the cultural value of certain crops and attracting foodies, volunteers and tourists to an important sector of our economy,” said Mariely Rivera, executive director of United for Puerto Rico. “As an organization focusing on hurricane relief and recovery, we immediately saw the merits of their proposal,” said Rivera.
Visit Rico will continue to work on efforts to Regrow Puerto Rico and hopes to be back on track with its events and initiatives in 2019, when the organization’s efforts of providing relief and recovery to farm sector bear fruit and they can return to organize the enticing events that they are known for. For more information on Visit Rico, visit their site at www.visitrico.org.