When I first started researching the coffee industry in the Caribbean for a story, I had no idea what to expect. I was not familiar with the coffee scene on the islands and was not sure what kind of problems or successes I would find. After interviewing several people in the industry, I quickly realized that the coffee industry in the Caribbean is a fascinating and complex subject. The region has a long and complicated history, and coffee is an important part of that history for many of the islands. What became clear very quickly is that all islands differ so much from one another, both in terms of their coffee industry and the way they do business. To understand why this is, one must first understand the history of these islands, most of which have been colonized at some point by one or more European countries. Islands like Puerto Rico and Jamaica have been colonized by the Spanish, while Haiti and Martinique were once French colonies. These different colonial histories have had a big impact on the way each island produces and sells coffee. However, between more popular modern-day coffee origins like Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, it was Puerto Rico that really captivated my attention.
An Island of Many Names
Puerto Rico has been called many names: a colony, a Commonwealth, a territory, a Free Associated State. To this day, its coffee industry is a product of all these influences. Puerto Rico’s coffee industry began in 1736 with the introduction of coffee plants from nearby Martinique. At the time, the island was a Spanish colony, and coffee quickly became one of its main exports. The coffee plants thrived in the warm, humid climate and rich soil of Puerto Rico, and by the late 1877, the island had 843 registered coffee haciendas.
During the 1890s, Puerto Rico was the sixth-largest exporter of what was then considered high-grade coffee. Competing against larger coffee-producing countries like Brazil and Colombia, Puerto Rico’s coffee industry was quite successful. It expanded even further in the 19th century due to immigration from Haiti and improved production methods.
However, 1898 saw a decline in production due to the annexation of the island by the United States. Coffee prices plummeted due to overproduction and there was a shift in focus to sugar cane production.
From the moment coffee was introduced to the island, Puerto Rico’s coffee industry has been subject to outside forces beyond its control. Whether it was the Spanish, the Americans or global market fluctuations, the coffee industry has always had to adapt.
Beyond political and economic turmoil, Puerto Rico’s coffee industry has also been shaped by a very different kind of force: nature. The island is located in the tropics, and as such, it is subject to hurricanes. These storms can cause extensive damage to crops, as was the case with Hurricane Maria in 2017.
This particular hurricane stripped Puerto Rico of most of its farmland—approximately 13,000 farms—which accounts for roughly a quarter of the island’s total land. And that is the work of only one hurricane. It is no wonder that the country went from being the sixth-largest exporter of coffee in the 1890s to producing coffee only for the local market by the 21st century.
However, the local coffee community is not one for giving up easily. That much became clear after chatting to Eduardo Trabada and Gabriel Beauchamp, owners of Baraka Coffee Roasters. These two childhood friends started roasting coffee in 2014. At the time, they knew nothing about the craft and bought a roasting machine without any prior experience. However, they were determined to learn, and through trial and error, they slowly developed the skills needed to roast coffee.
Through my conversations with them I learnt a lot about what it’s like to do business on the island. By that point I started truly connecting the dots and seeing how the country’s history had shaped both their personal stories and the current state of the coffee industry in Puerto Rico.
Made in Puerto Rico…or not?
Gabriel and Eduardo pride themselves in being able to offer 100% Puerto Rican coffee to their customers. You would think that with such a long coffee-growing history, this would be an easy task. However, as Gabriel and Eduardo explained to me, it is actually quite difficult to find coffee that is 100% produced on the island.
“At the moment we only produce a very small fraction of what we consume locally and to remedy that, the government imports and resells commercial quality semi-roasted coffee that it buys at auctions in countries like Mexico, Dominican Republic, etc. in order to fill the huge deficit. They currently make millions of dollars annually selling this coffee mainly to big corporations that control much of the coffee product that’s available to consumers.” Gabriel explains.
Apparently, this coffee is then blended with domestic coffee and is then “rebranded” and sold as 100% Puerto Rican coffee. However, as Gabriel and Eduardo told me, this coffee is of a lower quality and does not support the local coffee industry. Interestingly enough, despite having a tropical climate, Puerto Rico also imports over 80% of its food but green coffee importing is prohibited.
The law that prohibits importing green coffee served as a protection measure for the local coffee industry when the farmers were producing large volumes of coffee for export. The only two ways of importing coffee to Puerto Rico is if it’s semi-roasted or fully roasted.
“It is possible for companies to bring in semi-roasted or fully roasted coffee on their own by getting special permits from the government and paying a tax of US $2.50 per pound. What’s mind boggling is that even with the added tax and hefty shipping costs, the imported coffee sometimes turns out cheaper than the local green coffee. Due to our high production costs as well as other challenges that we face, Puerto Rican coffee can be 2 to 4 times more expensive than other countries.” Eduardo comments.
A State of Dependency
Today, if you look up the status of Puerto Rico as a nation, you will find that it is an “unincorporated territory” of the United States. What this means is that Puerto Ricans do not have the same rights as other American citizens. For example, they cannot vote in presidential elections and they are not represented in Congress.
This lack of political power has had a profound impact on the economic development of the island. The fact that they have to import most of the food they consume is a direct result of this. The United States doesn’t encourage production growth on the island, because they prefer to protect their own producers and companies.
There are many U.S. policies in place that obstruct the island’s ability to become self-sufficient. One such policy is the Jones Act, which requires that all goods shipped between U.S. ports must be carried on U.S. flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
As a result, the cost of shipping goods to Puerto Rico is significantly higher. According to a 2012 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, moving a container from the U.S. East Coast to Puerto Rico costs US $3,063, while the same shipment to Kingston, Jamaica, costs US $1,607.
What’s more, a container of semi-roasted or fully roasted coffee from a producing country can’t come directly from that country to Puerto Rico, it has to go via the U.S. first. The same goes for other goods like fertilizer and farming equipment, which drives up the costs even more for the farmers.
At a Standstill
Between hurricanes, the political instability and the obstacles to economic development, many farmers have chosen to leave the coffee industry. The deeply rooted issue however, is that many of these farmers receive very little support for their hard work.
The 2011 documentary “Semitostado” by Alex Wolfe shines a light on the working conditions of coffee farmers in Puerto Rico. The film crew accompanied coffee farmers for a few months as la broca, the coffee berry borer beetle, was devastating crops all over the island.
This was the first time the farmers had to face this enemy that works its way in the coffee berry and eats the coffee bean. Throughout the documentary it becomes clear that there is next to no help from governmental institutions or the private sector. The farmers can’t sell their coffee or are forced to sell it at very low prices.
Many find different jobs and don’t know if they will be able to farm coffee again. Eventually, the solution comes from the farmers themselves, who figure out a way to kill the beetle with insecticidal fungus. Challenges like this are bound to happen when dealing with agricultural products, however what’s lacking is the support network to help farmers through these difficult times.
It is not easy to overcome all these obstacles and barriers. What it does is that it keeps the coffee industry in Puerto Rico from progressing. Farmers and processors lack the knowledge and infrastructure to compete in the global market. Plus their coffee is too expensive in comparison to other coffee producing countries.
High labor costs, a shortage of workers, and high operational costs drive up the prices. Additionally, the island is prone to hurricanes, which can damage crops and disrupt production. As a result, Puerto Rican coffees are some of the most expensive in the world.
So, at the end of the day you have a very expensive coffee but the quality of the coffee doesn’t match the price. The coffee industry in Puerto Rico is at a standstill. The question is, how can it progress?
Building a Community Through Art
All these obstacles cannot be faced simultaneously. Some of them are even outside of the control of the Puerto Rican coffee farmers. Nonetheless, as they say, you have to start somewhere. Taking the first step towards positive change is always the hardest, but it is worth it.
Eduardo and Gabriel are proud of Puerto Rico’s coffee heritage and culture. They want to see the coffee industry in Puerto Rico prosper and are working hard to make that happen. They are committed to elevating the Puerto Rican coffee industry by addressing issues that go beyond their day to day roasting business, because they can see the bigger picture.
They tell me that the biggest issue farmers are currently faced with is finding coffee pickers during harvest season, which sometimes leads to 50% of their crop going to waste. “As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is subject to federal laws, such as the minimum wage. Coffee pickers are paid by ‘almud’ which is basically a container with 28 pounds of cherries. The government establishes that each almud should be paid at US $4.50 but everybody ignores that and pays more since nobody would do that kind of hard labor for US $4.50 an almud.
Even with US $8+ they can barely find people to work the farm, and the coffee pickers tend to be older men and women. On average, it takes a picker anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour to pick 28 pounds of cherries. One of the farmers we work with pays them US $8 per almud of ripe coffee so that comes up to about minimum wage, but we have heard of farmers paying much more than that in an attempt to lure workers to the farms.” says Gabriel.
To help farmers with this labor shortage issue, Eduardo and Gabriel came up with a program called Re:Colecta which teams up with local artists to create art which they sell and then use 100% of the profits to give coffee pickers cash prizes at the end of the harvest.
“There are three cash prices for the three workers that pick the most ripe coffee during the harvest season at a particular farm. The first prize is US $500, the second is US $250 and the third is US $125, plus each winner gets a certificate and a framed copy of the art piece created to raise the funds. To celebrate their achievement we host a party at the end of the harvest with music, food and drinks. We hope that we can incentivize them to come back next year, and to tell others to join them. We wish to make Re:Colecta a non-profit so that we can access more funds and impact more farms every year.” Eduardo explains.
This project is the definition of the bigger picture. It not only helps farmers with the labor shortage issue, but also helps to keep coffee culture alive. It is a way of preserving the heritage and promoting the agricultural economy of Puerto Rico.
Re:Colecta is a great example of how people are working to make a difference in the Puerto Rican coffee industry, but they cannot do it alone. Building a community that is committed to Puerto Rican coffee is essential for the future of the industry.
Puerto Rico’s coffee industry is a story of resilience in the face of adversity. The island has been able to adapt to changing conditions and continue producing coffee, albeit on a smaller scale. None of this would be possible without the hard work and dedication of the farmers, many of whom have devoted their lives to keeping the Puerto Rican coffee industry alive.
Now, Eduardo and Gabriel tell me that there is a new generation of coffee farmers that is starting to experiment with different processing methods and varietals. The fact that young people like Eduardo and Gabriel, but also a new generation of farmers are working to improve the Puerto Rican coffee industry gives me hope. It is going to take time and a lot of effort, but I believe that they will succeed. Coffee is an essential part of Puerto Rican culture and it is time for the industry to reflect that.