|Abel Enríquez Vélez
Local coffee production has dropped by half in the last five years as the sector considered a jewel of Puerto Rican agriculture has battled against natural disasters and a lack of people interested in taking on the arduous task of picking beans.
During a news conference on Thursday, members of the Puerto Rico Association of Coffee Buyers and Processors said half of the 2010-2011 crop was lost, equivalent to a $25 million blow to the economy.
The collection was estimated at 150,000 bushels, but only 80,000 bushels were harvested, Association President Abel Enríquez Vélez said.
The persistent rains during August, September and October — which caused nearly $2 million damages to farms across a handful of Puerto Rican towns — and the lack of labor were among the main factors mentioned for the poor harvest.
“The coffee industry is one of the few native industries that we have left that is internationally recognized,” Enriquez said.
Puerto Rico’s coffee industry has been among the island’s top agricultural segments, along with dairy production. Puerto Rican coffee is known throughout the world, and was once the Vatican’s java of choice.
But according to numbers the Association provided, the 80,000 bushels harvested last year are less than half of the 178,000 bushels collected in the 2006-2007 season, when the industry pumped $51.1 million into the economy. Farmlands dedicated to coffee crops have also shrunk in the same period, going from an estimated 48,500 acres harvested in 2006-2006 to some 40,000 at present.
But despite the negative growth, Enríquez explained that the coffee industry spans some 21 towns along Puerto Rico’s central-mountainous region, and is a source of employment for 15,000 heads of households. Coffee, the farmers said, is the only agricultural product that generates revenue and profits for the Agriculture Department.
During the news conference, the coffee farmers put forth a series of requests to the Agriculture Department that they claim will help the industry, including:
- Asking the agency to once again prepare coffee beans to encourage new crops and help farmers increase production levels. The Department is not producing seeds, something they said will will have an adverse impact on crops. Providing seeds would promote and encourage the planting and cultivation of close to 30,000 acres of coffee, to produce 350,000 bushels in the next four years.
- Aside from offering a $90 voucher per bushel of coffee produced, the agency should provide 2 tons of lime sulfate — used to kill fungus in crops — per acre of coffee at no cost to the farmer.
- The agency should enable and run a shelter to house coffee pickers in each coffee farming town with the help of each municipality for the 2011-2012 harvest.
- The agency should once again offer incentives for robust coffee through a $45 voucher per bushel produced.
- Amending the agency’s farm insurance code to cover rain-related losses such as the ones that struck the sector last year.
- Develop and implement an inter-agency educational program directed toward motivating workers who are fit to participate in the coffee harvest.
For years, the Agriculture Department has attempted to come up with ways to get people to work the coffee fields. However, long hours under the sun and low wages are obvious turn-offs to get people to the fields, especially when staying at home collecting unemployment benefits is easier. Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate hovers at about 16 percent.
The option of importing workers from neighboring islands has also raised the ire of farmers and concerns by immigration officials. Most recently, Agriculture struck an agreement with the Corrections Administration to transport inmates to the fields in exchange for credits toward their sentences, but farmers also expressed their concerns over hiring convicts.
“The mountain region’s product of excellence is called coffee and there is enough labor in Puerto Rico available to pick it. The government needs to be more proactive in addressing this situation, but I believe that together we can do more,” said Enríquez. “If we don’t take urgent action, our island will not have coffee.”
To make up for the gap between supply and demand, the Agriculture Department has increased the annual amount of coffee imports. For the 2010-2011 harvest, the agency is expected to import some 270,000 bushels.