Puerto Rico gov’t looks to prop ailing coffee sector

Written by  //  October 3, 2013  //  Agriculture  //  No comments

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Gov. Alejandro García-Padilla inspect coffee beans during a visit to Utuado on Wednesday.

Gov. Alejandro García-Padilla inspect coffee beans during a visit to Utuado on Wednesday.

Puerto Rico’s Gov. Alejandro García-Padilla announced Wednesday his administration’s plans to strengthen the island’s ailing coffee industry, vowing to help harvest an additional 15,000 acres of new crops and generating 6,000 new jobs over the next two years.

This initiative that starts in January aims to push increase the land dedicated to harvesting coffee in Puerto Rico to more than 50,000 acres, the chief executive said during a visit to Utuado, one of the island’s biggest java-producing towns.

For this project, the government will earmark $4.2 million in incentive pay to landowners and farmers. To ensure the success of the harvest, the Agriculture Department will provide necessary technical assistance.

In addition, García-Padilla announced a total of $670,000 in grants for 60 coffee farmers that will be available through a production subsidy program. This assignment will stabilize the market and stimulate coffee production, he said.

So far, the government has signed agreements with 25 nurseries which in February will begin sowing coffee seeds to blanket the 15,000 acres in phases, working jointly with private owners who have agreed to put up their lands to develop the sector.

The first beans will be picked in three years, which would potentially increase production by 30 percent, he said.

Puerto Rico’s coffee industry — once a mainstay of the island’s economy along with tobacco and sugar production and the favored brew of the Vatican — has been navigating through years of difficulties that have caused serious losses in production, including a lack of willing labor and tough economic conditions.

High costs, low incentives
Earlier this week, Adjuntas farmer Juan Pons — secretary of the Puerto Rico Coffee Buyers Association — told Univisión that the decrease in coffee production was related to a policy put in place by the Gov. Luis Fortuño administration to prune trees, along with high production costs and a lack of incentives available to rehabilitate crops in small farms.

He also attributed the sector’s troubles to the government’s refusal to review established coffee prices, which should be assessed every five years. It has been a decade since that process was last carried out, he said.

“That’s why now, as cost increases have piled up, we’re caught in an emergency situation. However, I believe that we should be focusing on the coffee producers and middlemen,” Pons told Univisión’s “Rubén & Co.” show.

In the same interview, William Mattei, head of the Puerto Rico Farm Bureau’s coffee sector, confirmed there are barely 4,000 farms harvesting coffee at present, representing a more than 50 percent reduction from the 8,000 to 10,000 farms dedicated to producing the aromatic bean during the industry’s peak.

He said while there are enough people available to pick beans during harvest, the problem is that they do not reside in the coffee region, so they would have to be transported to the farms and provided with appropriate working conditions.

Agriculture is reportedly aware of the sector’s problems and has assigned a team to come up with viable solutions, agency Secretary Myrna Comas said.

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