Jamaica’s shades of blue

Despite a world-renowned coffee and support from various local and global coffee organisations, the small island of Jamaica struggles to stay afloat.

Travelling 8000 kilometers from the Sahara Desert, a massive dust cloud moved across the Atlantic Ocean toward the United States. Before reaching the East Coast at the end of June, it passed over the Caribbean Islands, including Jamaica. The dust cloud coated buildings, cars, and trees, and stung the eyes.

As the island’s only certified organic coffee farmer, Dorienne Rowan-Cambell wondered how the dust would affect the delicate coffee blossoms on her two-hectare coffee plantation in the infamous Blue Mountains, which were shrouded in a light brown haze. As the second Vice President of the Jamaica Coffee Growers Association (JCGA), she wondered how it would affect the nearly 5000 smallholder coffee farmers her organisation supports.

Although the record-setting dust cloud was a real threat to the country and local coffee growers in late June, it eventually passed. It was only a relatively small challenge among many bigger ones, it seems, that Jamaica’s coffee industry is currently facing. From the global industry challenges, like climate change and historically low coffee prices, to Jamaica’s local challenges, like its prohibitive colonial system and drought, coffee farmers have a mountain of odds stacked against them.

Archaic structure stifles
Depending on who you ask and their placement in the value change, though, the relevance or gravity of those challenges varies widely. Exporters and even large producers, for example, may see no issues with the local industry’s current operational structure. Meanwhile, the team at the JCGA says the “colonial” system is the industry’s biggest challenge.

“These colonial regulations are weighted in favour of large producers,” says JCGA President Donald Salmon, while being extremely restrictive to small farmers, who produce more than 80 per cent of Jamaica’s coffee.

Because of Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee’s strong reputation and high price on the global market, local regulators understandably set meticulous standards for growing, harvesting, and processing Jamaican coffee. But in a world where coffee growers are having to think outside the box to stay afloat amid historically low green coffee prices, these regulations end up restricting small farmers from value-add activities.

Blue Mountain farmers who once leased their land from the government are now under a sublease from a private entity, reducing them to sharecroppers. This arrangement means shorter leases and limits on farming practices. For instance, farmers are prohibited from intercropping to expand and diversify their incomes or planting shade trees for climate change mitigation.

“It’s also illegal for farmers to process their own coffee without getting a license from the government,” says Andrea Johnson, President of Jamaican Women in Coffee (JAWIC), which became the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) Jamaican chapter in spring 2019.

According to the Jamaica Agricultural Commodities Regulatory Authority (JACRA), any person or organisation that wants to sell processed or roasted coffee must obtain a Coffee Dealers License. The main prerequisite for this type of license is farm or production capacity of at least 6000 boxes of coffee cherries per crop year.

“It’s near impossible for [most] farmers to attain this license because they are not producing the quantities required,” adds Johnson. “Most of our women are producing fewer than 30 boxes a year on less than one hectare of land. [So the only option is] to work with one of the 13 processors that are licensed to process the cherry to green bean.”

Despite Jamaica’s strict standards and resulting high-quality reputation, Johnson sees quality being sacrificed across the local industry due to the colonial structure. As one of five current initiatives, JAWIC conducted a field survey that, among other things, indicated quality control is one of the biggest hurdles Jamaican coffee faces.

“Poor coffee quality is a symptom of the larger systemic issues – the restrictions put in place by the government and the bottleneck of processors that are not committed to quality or paying farmers a fair price for their product,” she explains. “Farmers are then unable to afford the requisite agricultural inputs to produce a quality, high-yielding crop. It’s the worst kind of trickle down economics.”

In addition to hampering quality, restrictive regulation ends up exacerbating current low coffee prices. Not unlike in other producing countries, producer Rowan-Campbell says farmers are being pushed out of the industry because they can’t survive on current prices.

“For only US$17 a box, you have no money to buy inputs, you have no money to invest,” she says. “When farmers hear that they’ll only get US$17 per box, a lot are saying: ‘Forget it, I’m not putting anything on my farm’ and walking away. ‘I can’t live on that.’”

Local organisations step up
In an effort to help small farmers stay afloat, JCGA is working to connect its farmers with the export market. Because JCGA’s member farmers collectively produce far more than 6000 boxes annually, “we have obtained a license to export green beans and roasted coffee,” Salmon says. “So we have been able to help groups organise into clusters and start to process and roast their coffee to sell under JCGA.”

While this will open up opportunities for “our members to crawl up the value chain,” Salmon says, JCGA and the farmers still lack necessary funding to invest in the value-added activities, particularly in processing facilities.

Simultaneously, JAWIC is working on a joint project with IWCA and the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), as part of its Quality Control initiative. This fall they are launching Higher Ground, a four-year, six-phase project to help local female coffee producers elevate their quality through education and access to training facilities. Especially with the threats of climate change and the current COVID-19 pandemic, Higher Ground aims to provide JAWIC members with tools and training for modern, sustainable farming and processing techniques to adapt to “rapidly changing, ‘new normal’ market conditions.”

The project includes building a Coffee Training Institute, cupping lab, and fully equipped processing and roasting facilities. The latter will require a Coffee Dealers License. So similar to JCGA, JAWIC plans to use its 75 members’ collective power to meet the 6000-box criteria. “These facilities will ensure that community members have a central hub available for knowledge-sharing and producing consistent quality coffee in a sustainable manner,” reads the project blueprint.

The educational component will come from CQI, which will help design targeted education and training programs. In the third phase of the project, CQI will facilitate Q grader and Q processing certification classes.

Further up the value chain, other organisations are working to support the Jamaican coffee industry, especially amid falling demand and sales in the wake of COVID-19.

According to Jamaica Coffee Exporters Association (JCEA) President Norman Grant, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the local industry. Because Jamaica’s coffee industry is highly dependent on its exports – the majority of which go to Japan – reduced spending among buying economies and stalled global trade have ravaged the industry.

In a May news release, Grant cited a more than 90 per cent reduction in roasted coffee sales, as a result of the shutdown in hospitality and tourism sectors. The decline in sales has led to a build-up of inventory of nonexportable High Mountain and Blue Mountain Coffee among processors.

Additionally, there are no new export orders for green coffee “as major markets also face economic downturn,” Grant stated, “which will negatively influence demand for the 2020-2021 crop year”.

In response, JCEA lobbied the government to support a nearly US$200 million subsidy, as well as encouraged reduced imported volumes in order to help move the nonexportable inventory, which is estimated at 30 per cent.

Earlier in the year, the Ministry of Finance & Planning implemented a 50 per cent reduction in coffee export taxes as part of a stimulus package to boost greater agro-industry and value-added agricultural exports.

Recent government support
Even before the pandemic, the Jamaican Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture & Fisheries (MICAF) was working to stimulate the industry. At a press conference to launch Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee Day in early January 2019, it announced several long-term ideas to strengthen the local coffee industry. They included establishing a Coffee Training Institute at JACRA, as well as a nursery policy to regulate cultivated varieties.

The following month, MICAF announced, via its promotional arm Jampro, the establishment of the Blue Mountain Coffee Nursery, which would benefit 200 coffee farmers in the St. Andrew region through distribution of 50,000 coffee seedlings. The nursery was established in partnership with JACRA and Ueshima Coffee Company (UCC), and funded by the Japanese Embassy for US$11 million. (JACRA and UCC did not respond to requests for comment.)

Japan-based UCC has played a significant role in the Jamaican coffee industry since 1981, when founder Tadao Ueshima bought Craighton Estate. The estate includes more than 24 hectares of coffee, including two single-origin brands and the Caribbean’s first Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee.

Also among the ideas at the January 2019 press conference, MICAF proposed efforts to reduce infringements on Jamaica Blue Mountain and High Mountain Coffee trademarks, which have become increasingly widespread. Following on the proposal, JACRA began taking steps to rein in counterfeit coffee sales. Officials at JACRA believe this illegal trade is costing Jamaica millions of dollars and compromising the reputation of authentic Blue Mountain and High Mountain Coffees.

In concert, Jamaica applied for geographical indication (GI) for Blue Mountain Coffee from the World Intellectual Property Organisation. By mapping the regions and elevations that correspond with authentic Blue Mountain Coffee, the GI registration could help stave off counterfeit activities and protect the integrity of the infamous brand.

Part of earning GI designation is having a product with characteristics and qualities that are specific to a particular origin. While the Typica strain of Arabica grown in Jamaica is not specific to the island, the Blue Mountain and High Mountain Coffees are, and are heavily branded as such. Altitude and shade combine to produce their distinct flavours.

To be certified as Jamaica Blue Mountain, the coffee must be cultivated at altitudes between about 750 and 1700 metres. The climate on these mountains produces ample moisture, when not in a drought, and fertile soil. After about 10 months, from bloom to harvest, much of the coffee is handpicked due to the steep slopes.

Together, these conditions produce a coffee that is balanced, sweet, and full-bodied without being acidic. They also produce a coffee that is a strong candidate for GI designation.

Outlook unknown
While many of these initiatives were underway when the pandemic hit, some were temporarily pushed to the backburner. “COVID has really shut down a lot of the work we were doing,” admits Rowan-Campbell. And not unlike most other global economies and industries, it is unknown whether Jamaica’s coffee industry will bounce back, even if these initiatives resume.

This is especially concerning for a country where coffee production has been declining for the past decade, due to the many challenges discussed. The 2018-19 harvest was down more than 14 per cent from 2010 and 51 per cent from 2000, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO). Though ICO numbers haven’t been finalised for the 2019-20 harvest, production and export volumes for 2020-21 are expected to be impacted by the current drought and COVID-19.

“Because coffee farming has not been financially sustainable for some time, it makes it difficult to bounce back from any sort of disaster,” Johnson says.

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