When Dave Fink packs his bags and heads to Puerto Rico eight times a year, duty-free shopping and sandy beaches are the last things on his mind. He heads south to help his Puerto Rican partners, Phil and Alba Jones, manage and market the alfalfa they raise on the south side of the Caribbean island.
Fink, a commercial hay grower from Germansville, PA, is no newcomer to the Puerto Rican hay business. He's been shipping alfalfa and alfalfa-timothy there for years. A mutual friend introduced him to the Joneses three years ago and they formed a partnership. The couple was looking for someone to guide them in their alfalfa-growing venture. Fink's main goal was to trim export costs.
“Freight is very expensive, so I'm trying to eliminate some of those costs by working with the Joneses,” says Fink. “This venture has helped me do that.”
At times, the partners have faced an uphill battle. Insects, hurricanes and crime have hindered profitability. “We're still in research and development and trying to make this venture work,” says Fink.
While growing alfalfa on the island is fraught with challenges, there are some upsides, too. “There's a market for the alfalfa and it represents a lower per-acre investment than fruit trees,” says Phil Jones. “In some cases, there's a quicker payback, too. We have more customers than we have hay.”
The island has many dairies producing milk for its nearly four million residents. There also are several riding stables and a racetrack.
Jones moved to the island several years ago from Texas after meeting Alba, a native Puerto Rican. After fish farming for several years, they began growing fruit, vegetables and alfalfa. Today, they own 400 acres and lease an additional 300. About 100 acres are devoted to alfalfa, but that number varies from year to year.
To utilize their land more efficiently, they plant avocado trees in some of the alfalfa stands. The trees are planted in rows spaced 18' apart, with 21' between trees within rows. This spacing gives ample room for hay harvesting equipment to navigate through the field.
“By doing this, we can get a cash crop while the avocados are becoming mature, which takes two to four years,” says Jones.
The partners harvest their alfalfa once a month year-round, putting up large round bales or 50-lb small ones. After cutting, the hay dries for three to five days to 16-23% moisture, then is baled with a preservative. The hay tests around 20% crude protein.
To discourage theft, they pick up and move all bales to the farmstead at the end of each day and all machinery is put away. Tall fences and guard dogs also thwart potential thieves.
Although the island's tropical climate is conducive to year-round alfalfa production, it also encourages weed and insect infestations. “The temperature only varies 15° from the coldest winter to the hottest summer here,” says Jones.
Armyworms and sugarcane beetles are the biggest problems, says Jones, who adds that stands last less than a year. “The sugarcane beetles are tearing us to pieces and may stop us. They love alfalfa and eat its roots. They come in constantly and lay eggs.”
There are labeled insecticides for armyworms, but not for sugarcane beetles, says Fink. “We just haven't been able to find the right management practice yet to control them.”
While some varieties show a small amount of natural resistance to the beetles, they don't yield well. “I wish we could find alfalfa varieties that are bred specifically for this region,” says Fink.
While the partners face a myriad of challenges in the alfalfa business, they were optimistic enough last winter to build a 50 × 100' hay shed. Its rubberized nylon walls can withstand winds up to 110 mph.
ABOVE: Alba Jones and employee Enrique Rivera check an avocado tree — grown in stands of alfalfa to maximize land use.