Puerto Rico seeks to revive coffee industry amid island's lowest production ever

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Coffee production in Puerto Rico has hit the lowest level ever in the island’s history, leaving farmers and government officials worried about how to revive a once burgeoning industry amid a deep economic crisis.

Farmers produced some 80,000 pounds (39,900 kilograms) of coffee during the most recent harvest, which represents only a third of local consumption, Agriculture Secretary Myrna Comas said Thursday.

Production in previous years has fluctuated between 105,000 pounds (47,600 kilograms) and 150,000 pounds (68,000 kilograms), according to department statistics.

“We need to fortify this industry … and restore its much-deserved standing,” Comas said. “We were once known worldwide for the quality of coffee produced on this island.”

The U.S. territory has since been forced to import coffee from countries including Mexico and the Dominican Republic to meet local demand.

The reasons behind the recent production drop are many, and farmers worry that few solutions will be found.

One of the main problems is a severe shortage of coffee pickers, said Wilfredo Ruiz, president of the Puerto Rico Coffee Buyers & Growers Association.

An estimated 35 per cent of the crop is lost every year because there is no one to pick it, leading to millions of dollars in lost revenue, he said.

“This keeps getting worse every day,” he said. “There is no substitute for farm workers, and there won’t be one. As people become educated, the last choice is to work in agriculture.”

The government previously tried to draft troubled teens and inmates as pickers, but the measures weren’t considered successful. Comas said part of the problem was lack of co-ordination, with inmates being sent several months too late to pick beans. She said she would revive the inmate program this year, as well as look at ways to increase salaries for coffee pickers.

Another problem that led to the limited harvest was a lack of seeds, Ruiz said.

Farmers buy locally produced seeds from greenhouses contracted by the government, but few seeds were available last year for unknown reasons, he said.

In addition, a rise in the cost of fertilizer has led farmers to abandon their land or to use it on a limited basis, he said. Currently, a 100-pound (45-kilogram) bag costs about $38, up from $22 in 2005, he said.

The government supplies farmers with two bags per 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of coffee produced, but Ruiz said the arrangement is flawed because farmers are not given enough fertilizer to protect the coffee plants that were not picked due to a lack of workers.

The emergence of a pest that began attacking coffee fields in recent years also is being blamed for a drop in production, as well as the lack of workers to spray fields with pesticides, Ruiz said.

He and other agronomists called on the government to provide more incentives to help revitalize the island’s coffee industry.

“During the previous administration, there were no new coffee trees planted,” said William Mattei, coffee sector president of the island’s Association of Agronomists. “It’s something that needs to be done.”

Some farmers have chosen to focus on the lucrative, high-quality coffee market to survive economically, while others are experimenting with cultivating coffee plants near coastal towns with high unemployment rates in hopes of luring workers, Mattei said.

Currently, the majority of Puerto Rico’s coffee is grown along the island’s central mountain region, but many of those farms have been abandoned. Only about 4,000 coffee farmers are left, compared to some 11,000 farmers less than a decade ago, Ruiz said.

There have been recent attempts to revive the sector, however.

In May 2011, the Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters company opened the largest coffee-processing plant in the Caribbean. And this month, the Caribbean’s first university laboratory dedicated to coffee tasting opened at the University of Puerto Rico’s Utuado campus in the island’s central region.

In another push to help boost the industry, Comas this week signed an agreement with farmers to plant 16 million coffee trees in upcoming years. She said the move would generate more than 2,500 jobs and benefit all coffee farmers.

While many celebrated the news, Ruiz remained skeptical.

“The secretary’s project has to be coupled with a solution to find farm hands,” he said. “Otherwise, it will be in vain.”