Puerto Rico seeks to reheat its coffee industry

Main problem is finding workers to pick beans


ADJUNTAS, Puerto Rico - Long before Starbucks and even Sanka, the coffee produced in this cool mountain region was internationally beloved - so much that Puerto Rico, barely the size of Connecticut, was among the world's largest, proudest coffee exporters. The cafes of Vienna, Paris and Madrid served Puerto Rican coffee in the 19th century, as did European monarchs and even the Vatican.

But while short and sturdy coffee trees still flourish on parts of the island, it is hard to find Puerto Rican coffee anywhere now.

Puerto Rico does not even produce enough to meet its own demand, forcing the island to buy beans from other countries. Up to a quarter of the annual harvest goes to waste, mostly because of one problem: Nobody likes picking coffee beans, and there are far more appealing options for work these days.

Rural Puerto Ricans who might once have picked beans for a living have sought better opportunities in the mainland United States, where the Puerto Rican population roughly equals the 3.9 million people living on the island. And as Puerto Rico has changed to an industrial economy from an agricultural one, low-wage workers have come to prefer factory or construction jobs - available even in remote mountain towns - that pay more and demand less.

"I picked coffee one time," said Julio Torres, executive vice president of Grupo Jimenez, the island's leading coffee company. "I lasted six hours, and I never picked coffee again."

So bleak are the industry's prospects that last month Puerto Rico's new agriculture secretary, Jose Orlando Fabre, held a coffee summit with other Cabinet members and the mayors of 21 coffee-growing towns, mostly in the island's rugged interior. Fabre decided to try putting prisoners and the unemployed to work as pickers, and perhaps even importing pickers from other countries.

With the harvesting season beginning next month, Fabre said, the island's 10,000 coffee farms needed at least 5,000 new pickers, and more to increase exports, as he would prefer. Compared with the coffee industry in countries such as Brazil and Colombia, Puerto Rico's is but a blip; the island produces about 20 million pounds of coffee a year, compared with more than 3 billion pounds in Brazil, the world's largest producer.

Exports plummeted after Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898, partly because the United States was already buying coffee from Brazil and saw sugar, not coffee, as the island's most potentially lucrative crop. The coffee industry in Puerto Rico is subsidized and supported by the government, which sets prices and imposes a high tariff on imported beans to protect local farmers.

A series of brutal hurricanes curbed production, and from 1965 to 1990 exports stopped altogether. But as the specialty coffee market boomed in the past decade, a few farmers and businessmen here, including Torres, have tried to restore the renown of Puerto Rican coffee. They saw their opening after a hurricane battered the Blue Mountain region of Jamaica in 1990 and when Japan, where Jamaican coffee is coveted, came looking for Puerto Rican beans instead.

"We realized there were people willing to pay a premium for a good coffee," Torres said at his coffee-processing plant in Ponce. "Until then, we were keeping the best coffee in the world for ourselves, not for others."

For the most part, they still are. Puerto Rico exported only about 2 million pounds of coffee last year, according to its Department of Agriculture, a fraction of the nearly 60 million pounds shipped in the late 1800s.

Torres and others in the industry want to reverse this trend, but not all are supporting the prisoners-as-pickers plan. Torres said prisoners would be too lazy and unqualified for the job, which requires standing on steep inclines six to eight hours a day, plucking thousands of coffee berries as insects swarm and bite, and carrying them in heavy containers around the waist.

"It's easier for them to stay in their prison than collect the coffee," Torres said. "It's a skill you need to learn in your hands and your feet."

His idea is to recruit migrant farm workers from the southeastern United States, where most harvesting is finished by October, just in time for the peak of the Puerto Rican coffee harvest. Migrant workers also come from coffee-producing countries such as Mexico and Guatemala and could be experienced pickers. The question is whether the Puerto Rican government would pay to fly in workers and house them for the season.

Fabre said his plan would be more feasible than importing pickers from Central and South American countries, who would need visas and working papers. He said that he would seek meetings with agriculture secretaries of Southern states to discuss the idea but that meanwhile he would experiment with sending minimum-security prisoners to a few coffee farms this fall.

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