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Labor shortage limits Puerto Rican coffee potential.

Labor shortage limits Puerto Rican coffee potential

The picturesque mountain town of Lares, home to some 26,000 people, is famous throughout the rest of Puerto Rico, and for two good reasons.

First, it was here, in 1868, where Puerto Rico patriots waving a new revolutionary flag proclaimed their struggle against nearly four centuries of Spanish colonial rule. A monument in the center of town marks the birthplace of the modern Puerto Rican independence movement.

The Town's importance in agriculture is also well-known. Lares, one of the 78 municipalities around the island, grows 95 percent of Puerto Rico's oranges and bananas, and is the center of Puerto Rico's coffee industry. In fiscal 1989, coffee brought in revenues of $59.4 million, making it Puerto Rico's third most important agricultural sector after milk, with revenues of $196.3 million, and poultry, with $85.1 million.

As late as the 40's, Lares and surrounding regions produced what was considered to be the world's most sought-after gourmet coffee. It was common knowledge that the Vatican would traditionally import only Puerto Rican coffee for the Pope to drink.

Not Lately. These days, no coffee grower in Puerto Rico produces premium coffee beans. Total island production comes to just 325,000 hundredweight a year--not even enough to satisfy local demand, let alone the export market.

Currently, Puerto Rico has only 20,000 acres dedicated to coffee, mainly in Lares and other coffee-growing towns such as Adjuntas, Las Mareas, Maricao, Yauco, Mayaguez, Morovis and Jayuya. Whatever the island can't produce itself, it imports in ever-increasing numbers from the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and to a lesser extent, Colombia.

The island's newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture, Felipe Rodriguez, warns that local industry will continue to slide unless Puerto Rico regains the worldwide reputation its coffee once enjoyed.

"Local consumption of coffee is estimated at 375,000 hundredweight per year," Rodriguez said in an interview. "The potential for supplying this market is not going to increase, but we are exploring the gourmet market. We must work on improving the quality of our coffee."

Rodriguez points hopefully to a recent meeting he had with representatives of Tokyo-based Ueshima Coffee Co. That company, which supplies most of Japan's coffee market, is looking for an alternative to Jamaica's highly prized Blue Mountain coffee crop, 78 percent of which was destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert in September 1988. Rodriguez says Puerto Rico could soon fill the gourmet market traditionally supplied by Blue Mountain.

But out in the hills above Lares, veteran coffee farmers say the Secretary of Agriculture is dreaming.

Jose Irizarry, founder of the 300-member Lares Coffee Growers Association, says Puerto Rico will never become an exporter of gourmet beans until the coffee industry resolves its critical labor shortage.

"It's a fantasy," says Irizarry, whose grandparents began the family coffee business after immigrating to Puerto Rico from Spain's Basque region. "The solution is there, but the government doesn't want to confront it. They say there are sufficient people to pick the beans, but in reality there aren't."

Francisco Echeverria, a retired U.S. Air Force officer with 186 acres of coffee trees along rural Highway 415, argues that "coffee has a future if it can bring laborers from other places."

In his spare time, Echeverria, 72, restores 19th century coffee grinding machines and exhibits them in a make-shift museum near the house he grew up in. He clearly longs for the good old days.

"From 1912 to 1940, Puerto Rican coffee was the best in the world, because of the way it was picked from the tree and the way it was processed," he said. "We were exporting coffee to France, Spain and the Vatican. I used to have 22 laborers here every day ready to work. Today, I have three. My production keeps going down."

What's ironic about the coffee industry's labor shortage is that in Lares and in other towns of the island's interior, unemployment hovers around 30 percent--more than twice the jobless rate for Puerto Rico as a whole, and six times the unemployment rate on the U.S. mainland.

The problem, says Echeverria, is that Puerto Ricans have been spoiled by federal assistance programs for 35 years and today wouldn't hear of working for $2 an hour, the going rate for coffee pickers.

"There are a lot of people on this island, but they don't want to work because they get food stamps. Why work if they're feeding you?"

What Echeverria and other growers want to do is import pickers from the Dominican Republic, Haiti and other Caribbean countries where the minimum wage is $3 a day. If Mexicans can pick grapes in California and tomatoes in Pennsylvania, they say, Dominicans should be allowed to pick coffee in Puerto Rico.

Says Lares native and coffee grower Jesus Ostolaza Hernandez: The government could improve the industry by allowing (foreign) workers to pick beans. Because we don't have the manpower, we can't produce high-quality coffee. If we wait for the coffee to ripen, we'll lose it."

Ostolaza, who claims he lost $110,000 this season because of the labor shortage, says "we need 2,000 or 3,000 more workers from September to December" to produce better-quality coffee.

"In 1987, I had 250 to 300 coffee pickers," he said. "I'm now down to 125. The Department of Agriculture knows about our situation and understands it, but hasn't done anything."

Currently, some 250 laborers from the nearby Dominican Republic live in the Lares area, most of them participants in a federal program that permits alien farm-workers to reside in the U.S. if they've worked for at least 90 days prior to May 1986 and have documents to prove it.

But neither the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture now the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service looks kindly on the idea of bringing even more Dominicans into the crowded island. Already, some 100,000 Dominicans live in Puerto Rico, many of them illegal aliens escaping worsening economic conditions at home. The big fear is that once here, they'll probably stay, even if they've agreed beforehand not to.

Irizarry estimates it costs growers $58.50 to pick a hundredweight (referred to in Spanish as a quintal) of coffee, excluding non-picking expenses such as sacks, equipment, processing machinery and electricity. The prices the Commonwealth government pays growers vary from $160/cwt for African coffee beans to $170/cwt for mixed green and ripe, to $198/ct for the regular Class B mixture containing 90 percent Arabian and 10 percent African.

Fellow grower Neftali Soto says that besides the labor dilemma, local coffee producers have two other problems: Puerto Rico's crop can't be mechanized as it is in Brazil because of the island's hilly terrain, and the government's control over coffee prices in unilateral.

"Costs have risen faster than the price of coffee," said Soto, who has a 380-acre plantation and works weekdays as a Commonwealth court judge in nearby Arecibo. "The last increase was 4 1/2 years ago, from $176 then to $193 a hundredweight now. Normally, they pay $176-185 because they demand a quality that we can't obtain, because we don't have the workers to produce it."

Still, he said, "this industry must expand so that Puerto Rico can be an exporter of coffee. When we have high-quality coffee that permits us to penetrate the European market, the industry will be in a better situation. Until then, every season we'll have a crisis."

PHOTO : Echererria poses with one of the antique coffee grinders he lovingly restored.

PHOTO : Jose Irizarry in the middle of his coffee plantation.

Larry Luxner is a freelance writer/photographer based in San Juan, P.R.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Words:1277
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