Puerto Rican coffee farmers bring hope after Hurricane Maria
Verónica Noriega isn’t a heavy coffee drinker, but that hasn’t stopped her from doing something she’s never done before: helping Puerto Rican coffee farmers harvest their first harvest since the Hurricane Maria destroyed 85% of the coffee crop four years ago.
Noriega, 25, was one of a dozen volunteers for the first time helping coffee producer Pedro Pons, whose farm, Hacienda Pons in the town of Lares, was completely wiped out after the deadly storm of 2017.
The initiative that Noriega joined was led by ConPRmetidos, an independent, youth-led non-profit group whose goal is to boost the economic development and long-term sustainability of the island archipelago.
The group had distributed 750,000 seedlings to family coffee farms such as Hacienda Pons, which are vital to the economy of small, mountainous towns in Puerto Rico.
Now the trees are producing their first harvest since they were planted on the farms following Maria’s.
“It really gave us a lot of hope to be able to pick ourselves up,” said Iris Janette Rodríguez, coffee producer from the town of Adjuntas and president of PROCAFÉ, a non-profit group created by ConPRmetidos to meet the needs of coffee plantations in Puerto Rico.
The challenge: a shortage of pickers
Rodríguez said it takes three to five years for a coffee tree to produce its first harvest. But coffee farmers like her face another challenge that puts their miracle harvest at risk: a shortage of pickers. Without enough people to pick the coffee beans, part of the harvest could be wasted.
“Coffee is harvested once a year, but the income generated by these crops drives the mountain economy. This income lasts for months,” Rodríguez, 56, said in Spanish. “We don’t want the investment we made in fertilizer, and our time to make sure these trees do, to be wasted.”
On Wednesday morning, Eric Torres and some of his coffee pickers were at his farm in the town of Adjuntas.
“The reality is that this is often not enough,” said Torres, 55, of available pickers. “That’s why I was so grateful to welcome these volunteers. A week earlier, Torres had hosted volunteers from the Puerto Rico metro area, who had never worked on a farm before.
“You need certain abilities to be able to pick coffee due to the topography you are exposed to,” he said. “They might not be on display in the countryside often, but they came here, had a blast and got to know the coffee industry.”
Making agriculture sustainable
Pons, 60, whose family has farmed for three decades, said he never misses weather reports on television. He becomes anxious even when a thunderstorm begins to form far from Puerto Rico.
“After what we’ve been through with Maria, to see another hurricane destroy everything we’ve worked so hard to grow… that would be devastating,” he said.
This is where volunteers like Noriega can make a timely difference while learning about the families who keep the coffee industry alive.
“They helped me save a coffee tree with produce so ripe that if they hadn’t picked it up as soon as possible it could have been lost,” Pons said.
“I needed to connect to the earth”
After spending far too much time working from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Noriega began to feel “this thing in me telling myself that I have to connect to the earth,” she said. “Getting closer to the land has made me think a lot about the issues of food insecurity and the importance of understanding what we eat. “
When Noriega volunteered at Hacienda Pons, she was tasked with picking coffee beans from small trees filled with ants due to their proximity to the ground.
“I thought I wasn’t going to get dirty because we were picking beans from a tree, so I left my gloves at home,” she said in Spanish. “Well, even though I didn’t get dirty, I was bitten by a bunch of ants. So I learned the hard way that it’s always important to wear gloves.
Despite beginners’ mistakes, Pons said it was “not rocket science” to choose coffee. They just have to make sure the bean is as close to the red as possible, “he said.” But it’s definitely hard work. “
This is a view shared by Noriega, who has helped recruit other volunteers through her work with the nonprofit organization. Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción, which promotes civic engagement.
“Carrying the basket while you go to pick the beans is not easy – I really think these workers are not being paid what they deserve,” she said, of the regular coffee pickers. “We were there for about two hours and wanted to die, because of our fatigue.
The challenges of reducing dependence on imports
When Maria devastated Puerto Rico, making it difficult to receive and distribute food, it exposed America’s vulnerability to natural disasters and a severe shortage of local food. Puerto Rico imports about 85 percent of all its food, producing only 15 percent of what is consumed.
This contributed to long-standing food insecurity problems that worsened almost a decade ago, when Puerto Rico embarked on the largest municipal bankruptcy proceeding in U.S. history. Subsequent natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and the pandemic have exacerbated the problem.
Rodríguez said food is mainly imported “because the labor and cost of production in Puerto Rico is very high, and we cannot compete with the costs from outside.”
Among the expenses that make coffee production costs so high are electricity and propane gas to roast the coffee beans, Pons said. In Puerto Rico, a gallon of propane gas could cost as much as $ 3 and fuel customers pay twice as much for electricity as US customers for unreliable service.
This is part of the reason why coffee growers like Pons and Torres sell most or all of their coffee harvest to companies who, unlike them, can afford to process the coffee and sell it to consumers. .
“We may not know when the electricity will be cut or when it will come back, but if there is one industry that can run it without electricity or the Internet, it is agriculture,” Rodríguez said.
Rodríguez expects her coffee harvest to be ready in October and said she looks forward to welcoming volunteers who could help her pick the coffee beans.
“There is also a need to educate Puerto Rican consumers on the benefits of consuming local produce,” Rodríguez said. “They’re fresher and safer because foreign countries don’t necessarily have the same restrictions on the use of chemicals or pesticides on their products, and help the local economy.”