Puerto Rico: In the eye of the storm

For outsiders, “coffee” and “Puerto Rico” aren’t synonymous in the way that “coffee” undefined

and “Colombia” or “Ethiopia” are. In fact, it’s not widely known outside Puerto Rico that the island even produces coffee. Any coffee production associated with the United States is generally linked to the infamous Kona coffee of Hawaii.

The reality is that the US also produces coffee in Puerto Rico, its southern-most territory at the top of the coffee belt in the Caribbean. In fact, it was the fourth-largest producer in the Americas and the sixth-largest exporter in the world at the end of the 19th century.

Coffee was first introduced in 1736 when Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony. In the 19th century, coffee became the first agriculture product of Puerto Rico, hitting its peak as demand and prices of the commodity on the global market climbed. At the end of the century, however, coffee production started contracting as the US took over the island in 1898 and shifted its focus to sugar cane, and when a hurricane devastated coffee plantations in 1899. In more recent decades, production has continued declining as “Operation Bootstrap” aimed to industrialise the country in the 1950s, and as generations have abandoned the industry to move stateside.

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Puerto Rico was home to 5678 coffee farmers in 2007 and 4478 in 2012. Organisations currently working in the industry estimate that there are anywhere between 2300 and 3000 today.

In addition to declining production, Puerto Rico’s massive local consumption is the other factor contributing to its lack of reputation on a global scale. Unlike most other coffee-producing countries, Puerto Rico consumes significantly more coffee than it produces. In fact, domestic production only satisfies about one-third of local consumption, the remainder imported largely from the Dominion Republic and Mexico.

Some of the more popular local brands on the island are Yaucono, Café Crema and Café Rico, all owned today by local industry giant Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters. At one point in time, Puerto Rico had a direct line to the Vatican because it was the Pope’s preferred coffee, says Charlotte Gossett Navarro, Senior Director of Puerto Rico Operations at non-profit the Hispanic Federation.

“That story gets passed along through generations. I have no evidence for it, but it’s indicative of how strongly we feel about our coffee,” Gossett Navarro says.

So for locals or Puerto Ricans abroad, “coffee” and “Puerto Rico” are most definitely synonymous.

Gossett Navarro has fond childhood memories of travelling to Puerto Rico to visit family.

“We’d come back [to the States] smelling like coffee because my mom insisted we fill our bags with Puerto Rican coffee to ensure we had enough to last until the next trip,” she tells Global Coffee Report. “Like many Puerto Ricans, my mom believed the best coffee came from Puerto Rico.”

But without recent work by a vast coalition of donors, farmers, and other key stakeholders, the cherished industry could easily have been wiped out in 2017 after being hit with back-to-back hurricanes.

On 6 September 2017, category 5 Hurricane Irma travelled along Puerto Rico’s northern coast, devastating more than US$45 million in agriculture. Just two weeks later, category 5 Hurricane Maria made landfall, representing the strongest and costliest storm to hit Puerto Rico since 1928, according to the USDA. It wiped out 80 per cent of the island’s crops, including coffee, causing a loss of US$780 million in agriculture yields, according to preliminary estimates. These losses were on top of an already flailing economy – just four months earlier, Puerto Rico filed bankruptcy after nearly 10 years of economic recession.

Maria also destroyed key infrastructure, caused months of blackouts and claimed about 3000 lives as a result of delayed medical care.

“The wet mill [looked] as if a giant had stepped on it,” explains Jaime Fortuño, who grows and exports coffee near the southeastern town of Yauco with his cousin. “Many trees were gone, and the trees that remained had no leaves and some had no bark. It looked like a bomb had exploded.”

Fortuño’s great grandmother was the first coffee grower in his family. Although his father opted to follow a different career path, Fortuño returned from college to start a coffee export business – an ambitious venture considering the aforementioned lack of global awareness. Through 1998, his joint venture with two other families grew very successful, exporting their Puerto Rican coffee at high volumes and high prices.

That year, however, Hurricane Georges hit, representing the largest and most costly hurricane to cross the island – until Maria. Fortuño and his partners lost nearly everything. So not unlike other fellow Puerto Ricans, he left the island for the mainland to support his family in a more secure industry.

Today, Fortuño is back in the industry and plans to stay, despite Maria’s greater impact than Georges. He returned in 2014 to launch Café Zumbador with his cousin. They’ve endured the economic recession and the two 2017 hurricanes. This time around, Fortuño is in a better position to rebuild and doing so is more important to him than ever to support the industry and his family’s livelihood.

“We have dried our tears and we are now focused,” he tells GCR. “To be able to tell my great grandmother Carmen that we did not abandon what we had is something that has driven us.”

That strong connection between Puerto Rico and its coffee is the driving factor for many in the industry who stayed behind to rebuild. And it’s the only way towards recovery for the entire country, Gossett Navarro says. “Coffee is a critical piece of our culture and enterprise. So when we think about a full recovery of Puerto Rico, we can’t do it without the coffee sector.”

Shortly after the hurricanes, word travelled to Starbucks headquarters where Director of Social Impact and Public Policy Kelly Goodejohn organised a trip to the island to take stock of the local industry. Over the following months, Starbucks and a group comprising local and foreign organisations formed what they would start calling the “Task Force” that would launch two massive initiatives to rebuild the industry.

Because 80 per cent of the trees had been wiped out, the most significant and immediate need was seeds and replanting. Task Force member World Coffee Research (WCR) estimated that about 20 million plants would be needed for farm renovations and that they could probably get there in three years.

The Starbucks Foundation, with a supplementary grant from the Fonalledas Foundation, put up the funds for the first initiative that focused on WCR’s work with the coffee seeds and plants. Because previously existing nurseries and seed lots had also been destroyed in the storm, they looked to imports. There also wasn’t enough genetically pure raw material left to propagate Puerto Rico’s two main rust-resistant varieties of high-quality Arabica, Limani and Fronton, on a mass scale.

Those two varieties are unique to Puerto Rico, however, so the Task Force identified the Marsellesa variety as the most similar, while also being high quality, resistant to coffee leaf rust, and climate tolerant. Starbucks also volunteered to send over two million seeds, but because Puerto Rico is a US territory, there are strict, albeit necessary, regulations in place regarding importing foreign plant material in order to prevent introducing new pests or diseases.

The Puerto Rican Department of Agriculture, which is also a Task Force member, selected four farms to quarantine and house the seeds while they germinated, with the costs incurred by those farmers, explains WCR’s local project manager Viviana Medina. The seedlings are expected to be ready for distribution mid-year.

“This is an opportunity to reset the seeds in particular to make sure the farmers are starting with a successful foundation of high-quality seeds,” Gossett Navarro points out. “But there is a fear in Puerto Rico of losing our local varieties, so we want to ensure that doesn’t happen. The seeds, the variety, the flavour – all of that is important to maintain, while supporting quality coffee production.”

The other initiative underway involves significant work that will happen after seedlings are distributed, so TechnoServe joined as a Task Force member to implement the technical training portion.

“There’s a big-picture component to our work,” explains TechnoServe’s Puerto Rico Coffee Manager Hector Saez-Nunez. “We train farmers on best practices so they can then apply those in the field and we train them on business skills so they can also manage their books better.” The Hispanic Federation, Nespresso, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Colibri Foundation are largely funding this portion of work.

Aside from its mission of supporting Latino families and institutions throughout the United States, the Hispanic Federation joined the efforts and Task Force when Founding President Luis Miranda, father of Broadway star and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda, learned of the blow the industry took from Maria.

Among other local organisations invested in rebuilding the industry, Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters and the University of Puerto Rico are also key members of the Task Force and supporters of the initiatives. With three major coffee companies on board, Medina sees that alone as an achievement in the enormous task at hand.

“We had competitors and different members of the industry all sitting at the same table for the first time,” she tells GCR. “That is one of the most significant parts of this whole story – getting these people at one table where they’re all putting aside their differences in the name of the industry and this revitalisation effort, trying to come up with a solution for the benefit of the Puerto Rican coffee industry.”

On a greater scale, many of these individuals see the aftermath of Maria as a clean slate to rebuild a more efficient, updated industry that puts a higher focus on quality to help farmers bring in higher earnings. Because Puerto Rico is subject to US labour regulations and standards, higher costs of production are reflected in the coffee’s generally higher prices, regardless of quality.

Although the Task Force’s primary goal is focused on building a sustainable industry that can supports farmers’ livelihoods and local consumption, a by-product of the clean slate and these initiatives could by stronger positioning in export and specialty markets.

“The focus over recent years has been more local because it’s easier, but that’s not a big enough market to sustain the industry without an export component,” emphasises Fortuño, whose business has long been export focused. “The only way Puerto Rican coffee production is going to be viable [in the future] is to focus on export to high-quality markets, which will bring the prices that allow us to do this work and remain [in] these mountains.”

What’s more, greater participation in export and specialty markets will be big steps toward getting Puerto Rico’s coffee onto the world stage. While the 9000-square-kilometre archipelago may never achieve Colombia or Ethiopia notoriety, Starbucks’ Goodejohn sees a future where “Puerto Rico” and “coffee” are, indeed, synonymous: “If Puerto Rico farmers get new trees and learn better farming methods, their quality will go through the roof. The whole world will want to buy their coffee.”

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