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The Farm Bill and U.S. Territories: Setting the Stage

May 16, 2018


Farm of Wilfredo Rodriguez-Medina, Las Marías, Puerto Rico. Photo credit: Wilfredo Rodriguez-Medina.

On the farm of Wilfredo Rodriguez-Medina, Las Marías, Puerto Rico. Photo credit: Wilfredo Rodriguez-Medina.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part blog series on how the farm bill impacts farmers and rural communities in the U.S. Territories. This series was written and researched by NSAC policy intern Dariana Mattei-Ramos, a native of Puerto Rico and an advocate for food and agriculture justice. Dariana holds a master’s degree in Food and Agriculture Law and Policy from Vermont Law School. Upcoming posts will focus on usage of federal farm programs in the territories, barriers to participation, and strategies to improve access to federal resources for these underserved communities.

In the United States, federal policies shape every part of the food and farm system and impact farmers, consumers, and rural communities both within and beyond the fifty formally recognized states. While some federal laws and legislation (including the Farm Bill) include the U.S. Territories under the definition of a “State” for the purpose of program eligibility, others may expressly exempt or have different eligibility criteria for territories.

In this blog series, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) will explore the relationship between the United States and its territories, analyze how select farm bill programs are implemented across the territories, and discuss some of the implementation challenges and recommendations for improvement. In line with NSAC’s commitment to racial equity – and with the next farm bill on the horizon – we believe it is important for marginalized communities across the U.S. and territories to have a voice in the federal policymaking process.

The Legal Relationship Between the U.S. and its Territories

The history of the U.S. Territories is an interesting, complex, and sensitive topic that warrants much discussion. In this blog series, we are only able to briefly address this history and will focus our discussions on food and agriculture policy.

Currently, there are five permanently inhabited U.S. Territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands (see map below).

Location of U.S. Territories. Source: U.S. Geological Survey

Location of U.S. Territories. Source: U.S. Geological Survey

U.S. citizenship at birth is granted in all five territories except American Samoa, where residents are considered U.S. Nationals. However, this legal status does not mean that citizens of the territories have the same privileges as those of the 50 states; residents of the territories lack full representation in Congress and have limited voting rights.

Puerto Rico, for example, has had limited sovereignty since it became a “free associated state” (“Estado Libre Asociado”, or a commonwealth) in 1952. This relationship status with the U.S. allowed Puerto Rico to have its own constitution, which was ratified by Congress and approved by President Truman. However, Puerto Rican sovereignty is still an issue, as evidenced by these three key cases: Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust, Puerto Rico v. Sánchez Valle, PROMESA Act

In 2016, Congress passed the PROMESA (Spanish for “promise”) Act, which established an oversight board to manage Puerto Rico’s finances in light of the island’s $72 billion debt. While the Governor of Puerto Rico sits on this board, he has no voting rights – meaning fiscal control is in the hands of the other board members, who are appointed by Congress.

All territories have a non-voting member in the House of Representatives formally representing them in Congress, but this representation is severely limited without the right to cast a vote on legislation. With respect to individual voting rights, U.S. citizens living in the territories cannot vote in U.S. Presidential elections, although they can vote in primary elections. American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands are still on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories (in other words, they are colonies).

Overview of the Territories 

All current U.S. Territories are comprised of small islands. Puerto Rico, the largest of the territories, is comprised of three islands (Isla Grande, Vieques, and Culebra), as is the Virgin Islands (St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John). Across the globe in the Pacific Region, American Samoa consists of five main islands (Tutuila is the largest and most populated of the five), Northern Mariana Islands consists of fifteen small islands, and Guam consists of one island. The figure below shows the population of each territory.

Population of the United States territories (2016)

The main economic driver throughout all of the territories is tourism, with the exception of Guam, which depends heavily on the military industry. Retail trade, manufacturing, and wholesale trade are also major economic activities in the territories. The islands are small in size and have limited agricultural land, which means they are highly dependent on food imports and offer few jobs in the agriculture sector. It is also important to note that following Hurricanes Irma and María, which hit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017 and severely affected all industries, both territories are still undergoing recovery processes.

Agricultural Demographics

The U.S. Territories are split between the Caribbean and the Pacific, which makes them quite geographically and agriculturally distinct from each other. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the main agricultural products are fruit, vegetables, sorghum and Senepol cattle. In Puerto Rico, the three main products are cattle, horticultural specialties, and coffee. On the other side of the globe, the main agricultural products in Guam are fruits, copra and vegetables. Finally, in American Samoa, major products include bananas, coconuts, vegetables, taro, breadfruit, yams, copra, pineapples, and papayas.

The most recent Agriculture Census data available for Puerto Rico is from 2012, whereas the most recent data for other territories is from 2007. This disparity creates some challenges in comparing the current agricultural realities on these islands. Basic agricultural data based on the most recent census surveys for each territory is listed below:

  • Puerto Rico:
    • 13,159 farms and 584,988 cuerdas (traditional measure of land in Puerto Rico and roughly equal to one acre) of land in agriculture.
    • Average farm size: 44.5 cuerdas. Most of Puerto Rico’s farms are considered “small scale”: 5,129 farms were smaller than 10 cuerdas in 2012; down from 2007 when there were 7,502 farms smaller than 10 cuerdas. In 2007, there were 207 “large scale” farms (from 175 to 259 cuerdas), which spiked to 401 farms in this size range in 2012.
    • 11,938 farms were owned by an individual or family.
  • U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S.V.I):
    • Interestingly, the number of farms in U.S.V.I. grew from 192 in 2002 to 219 in 2007, while the number of agricultural acres decreased from 9,168 to 5,881.
    • U.S.V.I. agriculture is primarily small scale farming: in 2007, 39 percent of farms were less than three acres in size.
  • Guam:
    • 204 farms in 2007, up from 153 farms in 2002.
    • 1,000 acres in agriculture, with the average farm size at 9.6 acres. 27 farms were from one to two acres in size, while 17 farms were larger than 20 acres (which is the highest measure on the Census for Guam).
  • Northern Mariana Islands
    • 256 farms and 4,013 acres of land in farming in 2007. This was an increase from 2002, when there were 214 farms and 2,353 acres in production.
    • Average farm size: 16 acres. Roughly half of all farms in the Northern Mariana Islands are less than four acres in size.
  • American Samoa:
    • 5,840 farms, with 19,003 acres in production. This is a decrease from 2003, when there were 7,094 farms in 19,642 acres in production.
    • Average farm size: 3.3 acres.
    • Census data for American Samoa distinguishes between commercial and noncommercial farms. There are more farms in the noncommercial (3,872 farms) than in commercial (1,968) sector in this territory.

Food Systems and Key Issues

All of the island territories depend heavily on food imports. For example, before hurricane María, Puerto Rico imported 85 percent of its food supply. That number jumped to 95 percent following the hurricane. This high dependence on food imports threatens the food security and sovereignty of the islands, which are already struggling with extreme weather events including: rising sea levels, extended droughts, hurricanes, extreme temperatures, and frequent rain events. Though weather has always been a challenge for the islands, climate change has caused the severity and frequency of these events and their impacts to increase. Transportation restrictions (like the Jones Act) further limit access to and increase the cost of food throughout the territories.

Of all the policies and programs of the farm bill, the area of most impact for the territories is likely the Nutrition Title. Families in the territories rely heavily on support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”), which is administered differently in each territory. For example, in Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the Mariana Islands, nutrition assistance is provided as a block grant program rather than an entitlement program. Under a block granted program, total benefits to each territory are capped as opposed to based on need.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) assessed the feasibility of implementing SNAP in the Northern Mariana Islands in the same way it is implemented in the states (according to need). Unfortunately, the report concluded that making this shift would be too time consuming, resource intensive and expensive.

SNAP is especially important in the islands because in addition to providing daily nutrition assistance to families in need, it can also be utilized to provide short-term food assistance after a natural disaster. USDA provides this support through their Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP). Following the destruction from Hurricanes Irma and María, USDA approved the U.S. Virgin Island’s request to operate a D-SNAP program, and also issued waivers to increase flexibility in the administration of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (aka “WIC”) and the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. Following hurricane María, D-SNAP benefits were also made available for people using SNAP in Puerto Rico who were relocated in the contiguous United States as a result of the hurricane.

Digging Deeper into Farm Bill Programs 

In parts two and three of this series, we will examine how farm bill policies and programs are translated and implemented in the territories. The posts will analyze existing data on program usage, address questions of accessibility and outreach, and discuss the challenges that farmers within the territories face. Finally, we will look at distribution of USDA program funding in the territories, review what local initiatives are taking place, and identify opportunities to address the challenges faced by farmers and communities throughout the territories.


Categories: Farm Bill, Grants and Programs, Local & Regional Food Systems, Nutrition & Food Access


5 responses to “The Farm Bill and U.S. Territories: Setting the Stage”

  1. […] post The Farm Bill and U.S. Territories: Setting the Stage appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture […]

  2. Erik says:

    Looking forward to reading the next two articles in the series! I moved down to PR a week and a half ago temporarily for work and have been intrigued by their strange situation involving politics, financial issues, natural disasters, sustainability, food security, nutrition, and of course agriculture. Ah yes, I’m also intrigued by the driving habits of the locals, but that’s a whole other story! Viva Puerto Rico!

  3. Reana Kovalcik says:

    Glad you enjoyed the post Erik, we hope to have the next two out within the next week or so!

  4. […] holds a master’s degree in Food and Agriculture Law and Policy from Vermont Law School. The first post in this series provided a historical background on the U.S. territories, and this second post highlight how […]

  5. […] She holds a master’s degree in Food and Agriculture Law and Policy from Vermont Law School. The first post set the stage for the historical relations between U.S. Territories and the U.S. and their current […]

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