Mike Romano Puerto Rico Blog 3


I took a different approach to this blog post, and made a blog that would represent a conversation I would have with a visitor at open house. I feel that our main goal at open house is to educate our visitors in creative and engaging ways. This blog post, I made a video of images I took during our visit to Cafe Gran Batey which was a coffee farm in Puerto Rico that produced very high quality coffee. Before the trip, I was unfamiliar with the process of harvesting and producing coffee. I feel like many of our visitors, especially kids, will also be unaware of the process and I think it is important to show them how it works considering the coffee industry in Puerto Rico is one of its largest. Basically, my vision for open house is to attract as many visitors as possible, and to explain to them our experience and what we learned. I feel that with a process like this video above, it will be easier for our audience to understand our experience through explanation with pictures. I feel that this type of video, along with our previous ideas we discussed as a group, I think we can effectively engage with our visitors and make it a fun experience for all of our visitors.

My experience in Puerto Rico

For the open house, I envision a walk through, maze-like both with many spaces separated by large sheets that are printed with different panorama pictures. Each panorama will be of a different location. One will be the mountains with the rainforest, another the beach and the coral reefs, and others for the coffee farm and the fruit plantation. We will further enhance the spaces by adding extras such as sand and a coffee plant. In each space there will be a monitor showing video from our experience in the different locations, integrated with or followed by brief educational information about each setting. In between each setting we will have other monitors and/or pictures showing the transitions for each place we visited. Those monitors will have video of the views we saw while in the van, fun music, and pictures of our apartment or Mayaguez. The last section will be discussing the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez and our project there. The video will show our game, include segments of the interviews we conducted, and discuss our experience as a whole. Once the participants have left the booth we will sum up the experience and answer any questions that they have.

Agriculture Processes Comparison


Our EOH booth will be accessible and fun for all potential visitors. My vision is a booth with multiple forms of media throughout and an inviting display with the colors and cultural feelings of Puerto Rico infused throughout the booth. At the main table there will be multiple, approachable attendants inviting passerby’s into a trip through Puerto Rico. Once a visitor decides to check out our booth we will show them the displays playing multiple videos covering three varied topics which will encompass our journey. As they look at the topics they can walk up to the monitor to learn more. At the monitor they will put on headphones and learn more about the topic. At the monitor there will be panorama dividers which will be displaying images of Puerto Rico. These dividers will help the visitor be fully emerged in the Puerto Rico Experience. In addition to these stations, we will also have a monitor playing the interviews we conducted in Puerto Rico. These interviews touched on Illinois vs Puerto Rico as well as the importance of maintaining the environment. Finally, we will be there to give further information to visitors who have further interest or questions. Our booth will help educate visitors, while letting them enjoy themselves and providing the potential for further involvement.

A New Vision

As a student I find things easier to understand and pay attention too if I am interested. So, for this booth I think it is important that we do our best too spark the interest of our visitors.  That is what I have tried to do with my video, I want to draw the viewer in with an explanation of our fun adventures and then follow up with the main topic of our trip: agriculture. With this in mind I want to explain how I want the booth to be set up.  First of all I want big Puerto Rican and University of Illinois flags hanging above our booth and carnival barkers spread out in front of the booth attracting visitors.  Once we have visitors I envision the booth being a three part tour. The first two sections being virtual tours of our adventures in El Yunque and our snorkeling trip. I want to use all the footage we have of our trip and monitors to make it seem as though they were on the trip with us.  The final part of the booth is a crash course of Illinois and Puerto Rican agriculture.  We are going to use pictures and facts we learned from the different farms and have a little quiz game at the end of the booth to give the participants a chance to win a small prize.  I plan to make this booth a huge success and hope that people of all ages can enjoy.

Local realities of global issues

Global climate change is uniquely affecting all places around the world. Living in Illinois, I can conceptualize the causes of climate change and read about the sIMG953544evere weather events occurring around the world, and I can detect that the seasonal variations are not quite the same, but I cannot truly understand the gravity of the effects of climate change until I hear about them first hand from those experiencing them and suffering their consequences.

Visiting Puerto Rico, I had that eye-opening experience. At the small family owned coffee farm in Puerto Rico, Café Gran Batey, the owner’s son reflected on climate change causing significant reductions in coffee yields with the this year and last year their lowest coffee yields on record. Yield has drastically decreased because of changes in a climatic pattern essential for coffee growing.

Puerto Rico has a dry season and a wet season. In the early months of the year, the dry weather allows for the coffee plant flowers to open and be pollinated. Then, in the later months of the year, the wet weather is essential for the coffee bean to grow and hold in moisture. However, climate change has flip flopped the seasons. More rain at the beginning of the year is knocking off the flowers and not allowing them to open for pollination. Less rain at the end of the year is producing coffee beans with dry centers.

The truth of the owner’s son concern about climate change became even more evident in the storage room where there were few bags filled with coffee beans compared to the amount of space available. Making the connection between the weather causes and the almost empty storage room, I reflected further on society’s dependence on agriculture for goods, and the potential extent of economic IMG_3548and food availability consequences for producers and consumers.

The severity of climate change and its effects on agriculture, however, did not discourage me. Instead it reaffirmed for me that solving global issues in agriculture would require developing dynamic regional solutions for regional climatic and agricultural variations.

Before coming to Puerto Rico, I was curious to find out the status of conservation, including their methods of conservation and how much land is protected. At El Yunque National Forest, I was happy to find that their educational materials discussed the interdependency of different species in an ecosystem and of people on ecosystems. Then, at Hacienda Buena Vista, I was impressed by their mission to preserve biodiversity and historical sites and their ideal of sustaIMG_4152inable agriculture as well as their focus on education.

All of my questions about Puerto Rico’s status on conservation and sustainability have yet to be answered. I want to find more quantitative data about energy, recycling, and biodiversity that my observations cannot provide. My observations still have allowed me to reflect on global sustainability, especially when comparing Illinois with Puerto Rico. From my experience in Illinois, I know that it is still developing in many areas of sustainability, and much work as well as research needs to be done to both implement and improve programs. Puerto Rico is in the process of development too. Puerto Rico has showed me further that all places around the world are at different stages of achieving sustainability and that achieving sustainability will require collaborative effort from all fields on a local level.

With a few more days left in PR, I am anxious to ask more questions and experience more of the island. I am especially excited to ask students at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez about their perspectives on sustainability, and, having enjoyed PR so much myself,  I am curious to know what they especially like about the island.

Farms in Puerto Rico

Visiting farms is one of the most exciting part of the journey for me. It is planned and designed to enhance our understanding about agricultural sustainability. During the second week of the trip, Dr. Rodriguez brought us to several coffee and fruit farms around the island.

The first farm we visited was Hacienda Buena Vista up in the mountain. It is no longer in operation but it is preserved as a historical site where people are welcomed to learn coffee production and agricultural conservation. During the trip, I learnt to distinguish coco trees and cacao trees and the mechanics involved in coffee production. Coffee beans are peeled off from the outer layers by a machine using friction, and are consequently grinded using the grinding machine powered by hydraulic power. The grinding machine was specially designed for the farm, and there is only one such machine in the world. To ensure ample water supply in the farm, water is channeled from mountain down to the farm with an elevation about a thousand feet. As we were climbing up to the high end of the farm, we came across a few small entries by the water channel, and the guide told us that those were designed for child slaves to get in and clear the roots and soil that clogged the water channel. Slaves were commonly involved in agriculture activities and provided cheap labor service during old time in Puerto Rico.  Enslavement is no longer exist today, but labor has become an expensive resource today.

On the visit of the second coffee farm—Café Gran Batey in Utuado, I learnt about more issues related to Puerto Rican agriculture. This farm is one of the major coffee producer for the local market. Different from Hacienda Buena Vista, it does not have large canopy of trees to provide shading for coffee trees, so the farm grows citrus trees next to coffee trees to create artificial shades. The purpose of the shade does not only reduce the extent of sunlight but lengthens the growth period for better quality coffee. When the coffee beans reap, the farm hires local workers to pick them. The owner of the farm told us that it is difficult to hire workers to pick coffee beans nowadays because local labors need less incentive to work with the unemployment welfare from the state. On average, those workers work for three to four hours a day in mornings. As compared to other parts of the U.S, agricultural industry in Puerto Rico is more dependent on human labors given the different types of crops grown and geographical challenges in Puerto Rico. Automation and large off-road machineries are not as applicable in fruit plantations as in flat corn fields. Unfortunately, less people among the younger generation are willing to work on farms, and the agricultural industry that thrived Puerto Rican economy is now in a decline. To help the agricultural industry be more efficient and economic, traditional agriculture that is labor intensive is expected to shift to machinery-led modern agriculture. Besides labor, agricultural activities are also highly depended on weather. Last year, the overall coffee production reached an all-time low  and fell short of the local coffee demand because of the off rain and dry season. Although agricultural engineering can help farmers in many ways, there is a limit when it comes to the nature. At the end of the trip, we sipped in a cup of coffee accompanied with a piece of pound cake in the mountain. It was an very enjoyable experience!

Café Gran Batey in Utuado

Café Gran Batey in Utuad


After learning about coffee production, we had a chance to study nutrient loss in plantain farm and visit the packaging factory in Matex fruit farm. In the plantain field, Dr. Perez who is an Agricultural and Biological Engineering professor in the Mayaguez University introduced us the method to detect the nitrogen concentration in the soil and air. The purpose of the project he is leading is aimed to help plantain farmers find the most sustainable recipe for the plants and surroundings. From this experience, I realized the importance of agricultural and biological engineering in the society as it helps to solve and improve the most primary and fundamental industry in the world — agricultural industry. After watching the demonstration of collecting air samples, we headed to the package factory in the farm. All the plantains are consumed locally but fruits like mangoes and Spanish lemons are exported to other parts of America and European countries for higher profits. The farm also installed a lot of solar panels were installed with the help of government funding, such action promotes sustainability and reduces electricity bill in operation. From the farm manager, we learnt that the farm has been operating for twenty seven years, but it took five to ten years to start making profits. It really takes a lot of capital and determination to start up a farm. Agricultural industry is primary but it is not necessarily lucrative. Regardless, I hope more young people will step into agriculture with more help and encouragement from the state and the older generation.

Dr. Perez demonstrating air sample collection in Matex

Dr. Perez demonstrating air sample collection in Matex

Surf’s up

Continuing on what has been an extremely eventful time in Puerto Rico we have had the fortune of being able to stay in an apartment right on the border of the Recinto Universidad de Mayagüez. Some could say we’re getting a full experience since we’re staying in an apartment with barely any of the utilities that are commonplace in Illinois. I absolutely love it, I’ve always liked camping and living very frugally so this is even more comfortable for me. We get to take cold showers as well because the weather is always at a perfect temp and then at night it gets nice and cool. I haven’t had one uninteresting day here yet. Fortunately when we interacted with the students at the university we were able to find out that they are just as concerned about the effects of human interaction on the environment as us. It doesn’t alleviate the issues we face but it helps to know that a larger global scale we can all come together as one to prevent us from destroying the only sure source of life we have. At the same time when we go to the farms here they are much different as well. I wouldn’t say they are more environmentally friendly for the purpose of helping the Earth, it’s maybe a more economic purpose but whatever works I guess. The farmers here want to grow as much as possible in as little space as possible, they use citrus trees to cover the coffee plants so they can control climate, grow more, and sell a diverse amount of crops to use for multiple purposes. This is a much more eco friendly way of doing it rather than creating mass production farms in Illinois that get carpet bombed with fertilizers and pesticides. I personally think that food should never be one of the things that people should be cheap on because it affects our bodies so intricately. I think the locals here have a much higher appreciation for their food which is why it seems like they are much more aware of where everything comes from. At the end of all of it we need to educate both sides on the sustainability of the agricultural practices on either side. There are factors we all should improve on but some of these farms are doing it completely correct here. For example we visited a plantain farm where they use drip irrigation to effectively water their plants and a fertilizer that slowly deteriorates by use of a polymer so it is easily able to be fertilized without producing any significant runoff. In Illinois we still face a huge runoff problem that leads to Eutrophication in the Gulf of Mexico. I think the best course of action is to take what we learn here in Puerto Rico and apply it to what we’re doing in the farms of Illinois. Aside from the farms we got to spend a substantial amount of extra time at the beach since my last post. I’ve been pretty burned but body surfing 14-18 foot swells was definitely worth it. It’s incredibly interesting to see how much different certain parts of Puerto Rico can get. Isla Verde compared to Mayaguez is unrecognizable. It completely caters to the United States tourist and they don’t ever leave the strip. They stay on the beach and make sure that they just lay out and watch the water, I personally don’t like it and think it’s a waste of a vacation but to each their own. It’s kind of sad because they miss out on a lot, but there’s a gucci store so that makes up for it I guess.


Questions of Sustainability in Puerto Rico


Trimmed mango trees at Martex

One located in the tropical south; one, in the temperate north. Rain forests and coral reefs cover and sur round one while prairies and woodlands spot the other. One, mountainous; the other…flat. One grows coffee and fruits; the other, corn and soybeans. Puerto Rico and Illinois, they seem vastly different with the vast distance between them, and in most respects, they are; however, the nature of the sustainable agriculture issues that they face—socially, economically, and environmentally—are the same.

I began to recognize the complexity of the issues facing Puerto Rico, especially in agriculture, when we visited Café Gran Batey, a small family coffee farm, but the social, political, and environmental context became more defined when we visited Martex, a larger scale fruit plantation. Since the business produces high quantities of products, greater challenges in terms the cost of employment and energy arise, so current economics and policy more intimately effect the profit and production of the plantation.


For example, the cost of energy remains very high in Puerto Rico because only a few businesses or the government own the energy sources, and the rest of the energy has to be imported. In order to curb energy costs, the plantation has made various installations of solar panels. However, the plantation only installed solar panels when there were government grant programs or other subsidies, so while solar panels provide clean, renewable energy, they were only installed when economically practical for the business. Thus, sustainability on a large scale requires not simply environmental viability with energy sources that do not pollute and can be continually renewed, but economic viability with businesses that maintain profits and provide people with the products that they need.

Further considerations arise for large scale production when managing pests and other plant diseases to ensure a quality product that consumers are willing to buy. Although pesticides are detrimental to the environment and potential cause unforeseen harms to both other species and the environment, they ensure that large losses do not occur because of certain fungi or insects, and they ensure that the costumer will be willing to buy the product. The owner provided me with one example when he discussed a specific insect that made little holes on plantain peels. The insects caused no harm to the edible part of the plantain, but consumers would not buy a plantain that appears damaged and unsafe to eat.



Beyond pesticides, dominate concerns of the plantation are nutrient runoff, soil erosion, and greenhouse gas emissions. The University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez is helping the farm specifically decrease emissions by carrying out experiments that test the quantity and quality of soil emissions when different methods of fertilization are used. An example of how methods of increasing production need to be balanced with environmental impacts, and in this case, how new technology and research can help farms find that balance.

The large scale plantation, with thousands of acres in production and that uses pesticides, contrasts directly with the ideal of the first small coffee farm that we visited, Hacienda Buena Vista, which promoted an organic method of farming that promoted incorporating farming into the rain forest ecosystem to conserve land and to protect biodiversity. Comparing and contrasting the farming methods certain questions come to mind. Can small production farms provide people with sufficient resources? What are the environmental impacts of a large scale plantation? Can a medium be reached between the two methods of agricultural production?

Illinoisans are asking the same questions. We too have small organic farms that wane in comparison to the enormous corn and soybean operations. Our large scale farms contribute significantly to nutrient pollution and emissions. The solutions lie in close research that can determine the farming methods that can minimize the environmental impacts while providing people with necessary resources and ensuring long-term economic stability for farming operations.

Wherever we go around the world, we will find agriculture and other industries in the same three circled sustainability Venn diagram, attempting to reach the center where people benefit, business grows, and the environment sustains itself. Coming to Puerto Rico, I more wholly understand the intimate relationship between the three themes of sustainability. If the environment is not protected in the long term, economic growth cannot be maintained. If the economy does not grow, the people suffer the consequences.

I’m excited to learn more and visit more places so that I can better understand how we can reach that equilibrium.


A Mí Me Gusta Puerto Rico: Bobbi Toepper

Whenever I travel I am always surprised with how Americanized other countries are and the same goes for my trip to Puerto Rico. It shocks me how many people can speak and understand English outside of the United States. Even the music we heard while in Puerto Rico was a lot of the top American hits such as Justin Bieber or Adele. A lot of popular American businesses can be found all over the island like Wendy’s, Burger King, Walgreen’s what have you. It was kind of sad how easily people could tell that were tourists. Even when we tried to speak Spanish they would see right through it. But their generosity was outstanding. Once they found out that we were students from the United States they were very gracious and kind. Many were intrigued about who we were, what we were doing and where we were going. The thing that I cannot get used to in Puerto Rico is the driving. It is absolutely crazy! No one listens to stop lights or uses turn signals and U-turns are perfectly fine. That is something that has definitely shocked me while being here. The University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez reminded me a lot of the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Both campuses are very pretty and spread-out. Sports are taking very seriously at both schools. Also, both universities are known for their agriculture studies.

Something that I thought was cool that I have noticed about Puerto Rico is that they are very proud and supportive of their country. When you would go to a restaurant they would serve the residents first. The local stands were always more busy than the chain American restaurants. This loyalty is something that America is greatly lacking.

My favorite part of this trip has been enjoying the beaches and the water. The snorkeling tour that we did was the most relaxing thing that I have ever done. La Playa Sucia has a very misleading name because it is positively gorgeous. I could not get over the beauty of that beach as the sun was setting, as you can see in one of the many pictures that I took that day below. It is surely something that everyone needs to witness at some point in their life. I have never been a very beachy person until I went on this trip. Now floating in the water or sitting in the sand sounds like the most wonderful thing to do. Going back to the cold and snow of the Illinoisan winter is going to be very difficult after being here for two weeks.

La Playa Sucia

Attending this trip has been one of the best decisions of my life. Being able to explore a new country and culture has been wonderful. I fed the fish in the ocean, as shown below, while eating a delicious homegrown steak with fried plantains; that is something that you cannot do in the States. Telling other students about our home and school was so rewarding. Being able to visit with them and teach them things about Illinois outside of Chicago and the Bulls team was worth it. Learning about agriculture in other countries has helped me become more of a global engineer. This trip will benefit me throughout my life. The global knowledge and cultural awareness that I have will push me through my career. I am very grateful for all of the marvelous people that have made this trip both fun and educational. I encourage everyone to do a study abroad at some point in their college time. Regardless of where or how long, any trip will be far more beneficial than imagined. I am so very blessed to have been able to study in Puerto Rico.

Feeding the Fish

U-Turns and Lizards

After spending two weeks in Puerto Rico, traveling to different places and partaking in various activities; there are a few things that I have noticed that reminded me about the importance of perspective. To start, simply living with twelve other people that I wasn’t the closest with reminded me how a group of people with so many similarities can still lead completely different lives. Everyone on this trip had similar interests that brought us to Puerto Rico, but we all have had different responds to the things we experienced. On the other hand, simply being in Puerto Rico has given me new perspective on global issues. Particularly, how an engineer might handle an issue they need to solve. I used to think that should they ever be faced with an international problem, they could simply travel to the area and evaluate the best way to construct a solution. But now after this trip, I’ve realized that the best way to be prepared to face global issue is to gain as international an education as possible. While traveling to the problem is necessary, I’ve found it rather eye opening to go and live in a place other than my comfort zone. This is because when living somewhere you gain a more accurate idea of what the people there find convenient and acceptable. Even though you couldn’t truly live everywhere to learn how to best handle all situations; simply the act of learning to live somewhere will give you a more open mind to deal with other places. Examples for Puerto Rico would be the commonality of U-turns, from my perspective I was always told to try to the limit the number of U-turns you make; meanwhile in Puerto Rico U-turns appear to be very common, even necessary to get the direction you want to go. Therefore, if a civil engineer would need to solve a problem, they would have to consider the differences in driving styles, while something like this might be obvious for certain places, it isn’t necessarily the case in all cases. But while you were in college you took the chance to learn in places other than you’re used to you would be more prepared to adapt your plan of action. 430

This trip has also reminded me that if one thing small thing changes in the environment, every where else can experience different issues. For example, during El nino Illinois experiences a slightly warmer and less snowy winter; but in Puerto Rico the warmer weather means less rain. While they suffered a drought last year, the warm weather this year will not help in recuperating, actually it will most likely cause harm to the quality of the following coffee harvest. While El nino is a natural occurrence, there are other factors that are quickly becoming issues, but the effect each location vastly differently. It’s important to recognize that every place has it’s own nuances and niches it needs to function properly. While we hiked around the beach in Cabo Rojo, everyone saw many bearded lizards, which actually aren’t native to Puerto Rico at all.  But people have released them and Puerto Rico has provided them with the resources to survive. Seeing all these non-native lizards got me thinking about invasive species and how a balanced ecosystem can so quickly be turned upside down by one species. It’s only after all these small observations that I realized my perspective was very one sided. It was all just facts I thought I knew and thought I understood. But in reality nothing comes close to seeing the real occurrences and the issues people are facing firsthand. Many people think that if they read about a subject they’ll be able to understand it. While they might be able to on a technical level, they won’t be able to have a full, well-rounded knowledge of said subject. Overall this trip taught me more than some facts about Puerto Rico, it broaden my perspective and changed how I plan to approach certain aspects of my education (aka study abroad in the more exotic places that challenge my comfort zone).DSC_0599