Hurricane Fiona pummeled Puerto Rico’s crops, but not those grown indoors

A few days after Hurricane Fiona slammed Puerto Rico with catastrophic flooding and whipping winds that destroyed much of the island’s agriculture, Francisco Santana was packing a box of bright green lettuce for delivery. “We’re the only ones in this part of Puerto Rico that have something to ship right now,” he said.

Santana is the founder and CEO of an indoor vertical farming company, Grupo Vesan. His delicate produce had survived the Category 1 storm because it was germinated, nurtured, and harvested inside an 8,000-square-foot hydroponic warehouse on the island’s hard-hit southern coast. 

Hurricane Fiona showed, once again, how vulnerable the US commonwealth of 3.1 million people is to extreme weather supercharged by climate change. The storm knocked out power to the entire island, washed away roads and bridges, and caused billions of dollars in damage. It also devastated the island’s farmers, just as many were beginning to recover from 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

That’s what makes the idea of indoor farming, or controlled-environment agriculture, as the industry sometimes bills it, compelling, says Anabelle Broadbent, a Puerto Rican food scientist and microbiologist who has worked extensively on ag tech projects. 

“We’re in hurricane alley, and leafy greens cannot be grown outside with storms, floods, iguanas,” she said in a phone interview. “Indoor farming is not competing with traditional agriculture that can do fine outside, but it is great at growing these very fragile plants.”

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