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GCR–Puerto Rico targets new markets

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Puerto Rico targets new markets

From the September 2015 issue.
One of the world’s first coffee-producing nations, Puerto Rico has survived more trouble than most. Now growers are finding new ways to make sure the industry can thrive.
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.

Puerto Rico’s Coffee Industry Targets New Markets

One of the first coffee producing nations in the world, the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico has been growing coffee for close to 300 years and the coffee industry here has survived more trouble than most. From government support toward investment into new coffee farms, to coffee tourism and the use of denomination of origin seals for the key growing regions, the island’s growers are finding new ways to make sure the beans once served as the preferred choise by U.S. presidents will not only survive, but also see output expanded in coming years.

BY MAJA WALLENGREN

Visitors to Puerto Rico’s Yauco coffee region will on any given day be spell bound by the stunning beauty of the deep blue rugged monutains stretched out across the southwestern part of this Caribbean island. Long considered one of the regions growing some of the best beans in Puerto Rico, Yauco bears testimony to an interesting fact in coffee which often goes unnoticed in the market; Even small islands are home to high and strictly high altitude regions like in Yauco and Jayuya Valley where coffee is grown at altitudes up to between 1100 and 1200 meters. The altitude, coupled with the positive impact of the multiple micro climates found on such islands, create ideal and unique conditions for growing top quality beans. So does tradition and few coffee countries can trace production back as long as Puerto Rico.

“We have had 280 years of coffee history in Puerto Rico since coffee was first brought here in 1736,” said Pedro Trilla of the Coffea Espresso and Brew Bar in the capital of San Juan. “My grand parents had coffee in their garden and my great gand parents had a farm and so many Puerto Ricans have coffee in their blood and families,” Trilla said.

Introduced to Puerto Rico from Martinique, where the first coffee production in the Americas was started in 1720, coffee would quickly become one of the most important products for the island’s economy. By 1870 Puerto Rico had become one of largest exporters in the world with as much as 60 million pounds in annual output and coffee earnings accounting for close to 80 percent 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 and both production and exports rapidly started to decline.

“Up until just 40 years ago all those who during the summer worked in the sugar cane in the low lands would come up to the mountains and pick coffee once the sugar harvest was over, but that cycle breaks when the assembly manufacturing industry starts arriving in Puerto Rico in the 1960s and people stop coming up to the mountains,” said Alfredo Rodriguez, an economist and owner of Hacienda Adelphia, who sells the Offeecay coffee brand in the local market.

Labor shortage is nothing new in coffee, where farmers have to deal with competition both from other crops as well as from alternative industries like construction and manufacturing based in urban areas. But growing coffee under laws requiring farms to pay workers according to U.S. union-set minimum wages take coffee production in Puerto Rico into a league of its own, only shared by a select few other origins elsewhere in the world such as Hawaii and Australia.

“Puerto Rico faces an unemployment rate of about 15% and in the coffee regions it’s even higher yet half of our coffee crop hasn’t been harvested in recent years because of a shortage of laborers,” said Myrna Comas, Agriculture Minister in Puerto Rico. Up until a few years ago, she said, the Puerto Rican coffee industry was on the road toward extinction, primarily because of the cost of production which with U.S. minimum wages between $6.5 and $7.5 per hour for pickers and other workers makes Puerto Rican coffee one 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 with 8.4 million pounds. Today the island has around 4,100 registered producers, less than half of the number just a decade ago when over 11,000 farmers were registered as growing coffee.

Yet the coffee industry here 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.

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 the coffee farms attractive to people, said Comas, who actively has been promoting the revival of the coffee industry in 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 and 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 earlier this year in a series of official statements on the coffee development initiatives.

Puerto Rico, she said, 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 added. And from there the industry is set for further expansion.

The target is ambitious, but Comas believes it’s both possible and realistic, thanks to the island’s many hard work people who want to stay in coffee because they feel coffee is part of their roots and cultural heritage.

Under an official new government initiative a total of 6,300 hectares of new coffee have been identified to cultivate with new coffee farms in areas with chronic high unemployment rates up to 17 percent. Already 2,700 hectares of this land has been cultivated since the project was launched in regions including Jayuya, Yauco, Utuado, Adjutas, Lares and Ponce.

An estimated 80 percent of the agricultural goods consumed in the domestic market are imported or brought in from mainland United States, and the Puerto Rico Planning Board estimates that if local agriculture were developed to its full potential, as much as 90% of those imports could be replaced with locally produced goods. This would not only create a boost worth $7 billion a year in food retail earnings that would boost the island’s economy but also create 85,000 new jobs.

Government-subsidized investments into agriculture has also attracted new much needed cash injections into the industry, and 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. And 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,” Comas said.

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 global market that continues to grow due to the increased knowledge of what such a 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 authenticy of the history and quality of Puerto Rican coffee from these regions and 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,” said Rodriguez.

Home to a rich volcanic soil and perfectly balanced climate, it’s not for nothing that Puerto Rico for centuries has held fame as being the perfect place to grow good coffee. With the official denomination of origin seal for “Yauco Select” and “Yayuya Valley” officially launched in 2012, the specialty industry is also starting to re-discover the quality of the famed beans from the tiny Caribbean island nation, industry officials said.

“Puerto Rican coffees are amazing and really have their own character and uniqueness that other coffees don’t. I like the flavors, body and mouthfeel and the Puerto Rican coffees could be huge in the market of specialty coffee which many roasters have overlooked before,” said U.S.-based Barrista 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.

And while many growers have given up on coffee in the last 10 years, those still around are dedicated to stay, and a growing group of new growers 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,” said Lucemy Velazquez, today 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 tourists coming for coffee tours since two years ago,” said Velazquez.

At the bottom of hope for Puerto Rico’s coffee industry to come through the latest challenges in better shape and be prepared for an even more competitive future 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, said Offeecay’s Alfredo Rodriguez.

“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. 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, and we are starting to see a rise in the amount of coffee being produced as specialty grade here in Puerto Rico,” he said.
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