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Gourmet coffee makers are barely tapping their export potential

BY JOHN MCPHAUL of Caribbean Business

June 10, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico makes some of the best coffee in the world. So, why doesn’t it export more?

This labor-intensive industry is facing several obstacles that are stunting the growth of coffee exports, the biggest being a shortage of pickers, explained Iván Irizarry Pietri, owner & manager of Hacienda Las Vegas in Adjuntas and maker of Siglo XIX gourmet coffee.

Irizarry said the number of workers in Puerto Rico’s coffee plantations has been steadily dwindling since the 1950s. The industry currently has about one-third the number of workers it had only 50 years ago. This labor shortage has been attributed to the migration of former coffee-farm workers to local and U.S. mainland cities in search of better-paying jobs in the manufacturing, construction, and service sectors. Other former coffee workers have opted to work as migrant laborers in southern and southeastern stateside fruit or vegetable farms, returning after every harvest to their families on the island.

A total of 9,845 coffee farmers operate 10,200 coffee plantations on some 56,000 acres, according to Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture figures. An average local coffee farm ranges in size between two and five acres. The coffee industry employs about 15,000 workers, with the number going up to 25,000 during the August to December harvest season. Most of the workers come from communities in the mountain region, Irizarry said.

Ironically, local and federal government subsidies to low-income families have worked against the Puerto Rico coffee industry. "Coffee picking is a low-wage job, and a lot of government subsidies end up being incentives not to work," Irizarry said. Coffee pickers make between $100 and $150 a week unless they are picking ripe beans for gourmet brands, in which case they make between $125 and $175 a week, he explained.

Programs such as welfare and unemployment insurance inhibit workers from taking coffee jobs. "Sometimes [potential workers] will come and ask for work, but when I ask them for their social security card and they see they will be formally on the payroll, they don’t come back because they are afraid of losing their benefits." Irizarry added.

"There also has been a lot of talk in the industry about the possibility of hiring people from outside [to do the job]," Irizarry stated. The idea would be to bring in migrant workers, a.k.a. <I>braceros</I> with immigration documents, from other Caribbean islands such as the Dominican Republic or Haiti, to complete the work. Irizarry said he presently doesn’t hire immigrants.

Benjamín Gómez, manager of the Café Yaucono coffee-roasting and packing plant in Santurce, which also produces the specialty coffee brand Yauco Selecto, agreed. "We could export more [coffee] if we had more workers," Gómez said.

On June 15, Puerto Rico Agriculture Secretary José Orlando Fabre Laboy is scheduled to meet with local secretaries of Labor & Human Resources and Family Services, along with the Corrections administrator, the mayors of the 21 coffee-growing municipalities, and the University of Puerto Rico College of Agricultural Sciences dean to address the problem. "The idea is to coordinate efforts to develop a plan to rotate all available farm workers, so we [in the coffee industry] don’t lose even one coffee bean during harvest time," Fabre Laboy said.

The Corrections administrator would be included to discuss the possibility of allowing minimum-security prisoners to participate in a pilot project as coffee pickers. Last year, a brigade of 10 prisoners from La Pica prison in Jayuya and another 10-prisoner brigade from the Mayagüez prison were recruited to work on farms in the vicinity of the prisons. The Agriculture Department is currently working on a proposal for a pilot project to use prisoners in the coffee fields this harvest season, but couldn’t say how many prisoners would be recruited.

Irizarry said another difficulty is the fact local government is the largest buyer and seller of Puerto Rico coffee. Although the government’s subsidy allows Puerto Rico coffee to be competitive on the local market against imported brands, Irizarry said the subsidy and accompanying price control inhibit the entrepreneurial spirit that could otherwise boost the industry. "The very same actions the government takes to prevent the coffee industry from going under also hold it from taking off," Irizarry pointed out. Instead of taking such an active role in acquiring and selling the product, government should limit itself to assisting local entrepreneurs in meeting the needs of the market, Irizarry added.

During the 2004 coffee harvest, Puerto Rico produced 22.50 million pounds of coffee and exported 2.58 million pounds or 11% of the total harvested, according to Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture figures. Local government doesn’t keep track of how much gourmet coffee is produced or exported.

Luis Raúl Rodríguez, sales manager for Garrido & Co., which markets different coffees, including the premium coffee Alto Grande, said local coffee growers must be persuaded to pick their coffee beans ripe instead of green to increase Puerto Rico gourmet coffee exports. The lack of ripe coffee beans has reduced Alto Grande’s capacity to export, Rodríguez said.

Whereas in the past Alto Grande has exported to such countries as Italy, China, and Spain, the company now is confined to selling its coffee over the Internet, exporting 35,000 pounds last year. "The quality of the coffee bean depends on how it is cultivated," Rodríguez said. "We aren’t even able to satisfy the local [retail] market."

Another local premium coffee is El País, produced by Café Alturas de Yauco, whose owners plan to export between 200,000 and 300,000 pounds of coffee this harvest season, expected to conclude in November, company Manager Eduardo A. Quijano said. Café Alturas is a nonprofit organization established to deliver sales benefits directly to its 100 coffee-grower members, Quijano explained. He said the company expects to add 300 more coffee farmers in the near future.

Quijano revealed Café Alturas farmers plan to overcome the worker shortage by harvesting only premium quality beans. "If we only harvest ripe beans, then we can provide better working conditions [for farm workers]," he said.

Natural disasters have also hindered the local coffee industry. Coffee is grown high in the mountains, which makes farms particularly vulnerable to strong hurricane and tropical storm winds. Rodríguez noted coffee plantations are still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Georges, which ravaged the island in 1998. "Hurricane Georges practically flattened our [island’s] entire crop," Gómez said. It caused an estimated $100 million in crop and infrastructure damage to the coffee industry.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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