Market Reports

Puerto Rico targets new markets

Visitors to Puerto Rico’s Yauco coffee region will, on any given day, be spellbound by the stunning beauty of the deep blue, rugged mountains stretched out across the southwestern part of the Caribbean island. Long considered one of best bean growing regions in Puerto Rico, Yauco bears testimony to an interesting fact about coffee which often goes unnoticed in the market – even small islands can be home to high altitude regions. In Yauco and Jayuya Valley, for instance, coffee is grown at altitudes between 1100 and 1200 metres. The altitude, coupled with the positive impact of the multiple micro climates found on such islands, creates ideal and unique conditions for growing top quality beans. As does tradition, and few coffee countries can trace production back as far as Puerto Rico. “We have 280 years of coffee history in Puerto Rico since coffee was first brought here in 1736,” says Pedro Trilla of the Coffea Espresso and Brew Bar in the capital of San Juan. “My grandparents had coffee in their garden and my great-grandparents had a farm. So many Puerto Ricans have coffee in their blood and families,” Trilla says. Introduced to Puerto Rico from Martinique, where the first coffee production in the Americas started in 1720, coffee quickly became one of the most important products for the island’s economy. By 1870, Puerto Rico had become one of largest exporters in the world. As much as 60 million pounds in annual output and coffee earnings accounted for close to 80 per cent of export revenues. This lasted for about half a century until the late 1920s when a series of hurricanes left the coffee industry in ruins. Both production and exports rapidly started to decline. “Up until just 40 years ago all those who worked in the sugar cane in the low lands during the summer would come up to the mountains and pick coffee once the sugar harvest was over,” says Alfredo Rodriguez, an Economist and Owner of Hacienda Adelphia, who sells the Offeecay coffee brand in the local market. “But, that cycle broke when the assembly manufacturing industry started arriving in Puerto Rico in the 1960s and people stopped coming up to the mountains.” Labour shortage is nothing new in coffee. But, growing coffee under laws requiring farms to pay workers according to the US union-set minimum wages take coffee production in Puerto Rico into a league of its own. “Puerto Rico faces an unemployment rate of about 15 per cent, and in the coffee regions it’s even higher,” says Myrna Comas, Puerto Rican Agriculture Minister. “Half of our coffee crop hasn’t been harvested in recent years because of a shortage of labourers.” Until a few years ago, the Puerto Rican coffee industry was on the road to extinction, she says, primarily because of the cost of production. With pickers and other workers earning the US minimum wage of between US$6.5 and $7.5 per hour, Puerto Rican coffee is some of the most expensively produced in the world. Coffee production in the last 2013-14 crop year was the lowest recorded in Puerto Rico’s history at 8.4 million pounds. Today, the island has around 4,100 registered producers, less than half of the 11,000 farmers a decade ago. The coffee industry in Puerto Rico is showing encouraging signs of both growth and the kind of development that could ensure a sustainable future for the island’s growers, along with the revival of the industry. Comas says that at the source of the survival strategy is a focus on agricultural policies that help reduce the unemployment figures in coffee growing municipalities, and make working in coffee farms attractive. Comas has also actively been promoting the revival of the coffee industry in the local press across the island. “The coffee industry has an important socio-economic impact in 21 different municipalities in the mountain regions across the interior of the island. We want to retake the opportunity that the impact of more production can provide on jobs and earnings with a top quality coffee product,” she said in official statements on the coffee development initiatives earlier this year. Puerto Rico, she says, has everything it takes to make the Caribbean island a significant coffee producer that, once more, will conquer the dinner tables of presidents and royalty across the world. Total production has the potential to at least double, just by ensuring that the coffee actually growing on trees is being picked, she adds. From there, the industry is set for further expansion. The target is ambitious, but Comas says it’s both possible and realistic, thanks to the island’s hard working people who want to stay in coffee because they feel that it is part of their roots and cultural heritage. Under an official new government initiative a total of 6300 hectares of new coffee have been identified to cultivate. These new coffee farms are in areas with chronic unemployment rates up to 17 per cent. Already, 2700 hectares of this land has been cultivated since the project was launched in Jayuya, Yauco, Utuado, Adjutas, Lares and Ponce. An estimated 80 per cent of the agricultural goods consumed in the domestic market are imported or brought in from mainland US. The Puerto Rico Planning Board estimates that if local agriculture were developed to its full potential, as much as 90 per cent of those imports could be replaced with locally produced goods. This would not only create a boost worth US$7 billion a year in food retail earnings that would boost the island’s economy, but it would also create 85,000 new jobs. Government-subsidised investments into agriculture have also attracted new much needed cash injections into the industry. In recent years, interest has been growing for participation in the seals of denomination of origin. “We are working on different projects for coffee growers to provide their product with the denomination of origin because everybody around the globe talks about Puerto Rican coffee, but people don’t know where and how to get it,” says Comas. “We are taking our coffee growers to international trade fairs, where the product is exposed and where they have been able to establish international market networks.” The use of protected seals, such as denomination or designation of origin, geographical indication or origin appellation, is part of a rapidly expanding multi-billion dollar global market that continues to grow. This is due to the increased knowledge of what such legal protection does to help improve the development, promotion and marketing of producers with a quality product that meet the criteria. “It’s a great development for our industry because the seal goes to testify the authenticity of the history and quality of Puerto Rican coffee from these regions,” says Rodriguez. “There are already more regions here that are now working on the progress and paperwork to have their regions added to the list of protected regions.” Home to a rich volcanic soil and perfectly balanced climate, it’s not for nothing that Puerto Rico, for centuries, has been famed as being the perfect place to grow good coffee. With the official denomination of origin seal for “Yauco Select” and “Yayuya Valley” preparing for their official launch, the specialty industry is also starting to re-discover the quality of the famed beans from the tiny Caribbean island nation. “Puerto Rican coffees are amazing and really have their own character and uniqueness that other coffees don’t,” says US-based Barista Mikhail Sebastian, who spent most of last year living on different coffee farms in Puerto Rico to learn about the cupping qualities of the beans. “I like the flavours, body and mouth-feel, and the Puerto Rican coffees could be huge in the market of specialty coffee which many roasters have overlooked before.” While many growers have given up on coffee in the last ten years, those still around are dedicated to staying, and a growing group are now starting to join them. “I had been working in the pharmaceutical industry for 32 years and one day I woke up and told my husband that I thought we should buy a coffee farm,” says Lucemy Velazquez who is now both a producer and Q-grader who runs her Café Lucero farm and brand. “My husband and everybody else thought I was crazy, but even if this has been quite an adventure and very challenging, here I am with the farm. And, we have had tourists coming for coffee tours since two years ago.” For Puerto Rico’s coffee industry to come through the latest challenges in better shape, it needs to be prepared for an even more competitive future, explains Offeecay’s Alfredo Rodriguez. This is the core tradition for not only knowledge of how to grow quality coffee, but the fact that most of the Puerto Rican coffee is produced with genetically old Arabica varieties known for producing top cup quality, such as typicas and bourbons. “Yauco, Maricao and Indieras are all among the oldest coffee regions in Puerto Rico, and all the farms in the region are older farms from families with a long tradition in coffee,” he says. “Today, we see a growing number of producers who are very aware of the importance of not only good quality beans but of producing consistently high quality coffee. We are starting to see a rise in the amount of coffee being produced as specialty grade here in Puerto Rico.” GCR

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