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Puerto Rican engineer invents coffee collection system.

High wages, low prices and contraband coffee imports are all killing Puerto Rico's once-proud coffee industry, but Philippe P. Strich says he can help turn that industry around.

Strich, a 67-year-old engineer who immigrated to Puerto Rico in 1966 from his native France, has invented a system that separates top quality coffee beans from lesser ones, and a machine that collects the 15-30% of beans which fall to the ground in the course of a days work.

"With the intensive methods of growing coffee used these days, coffee trees are planted close to each other," explained the white-haired inventor and president of Suchem Inc. over an arroz-con-pollo lunch in Juana Diaz. "Each time the picker passes to pick ripe beans, he brushes against the trees and beans fall to the ground."

Strich's soon-to-be-patented Vibravac recovers beans from the ground while a separate device -the wet separator - classifies them. With the two machines, he said, it's not necessary to wait far into the season to strip all the beans in one passage, especially with varieties such as Paca and Catura which don't fall easily.

"The investment in one complete Strich system pays for itself in less than one crop, whether the farm production is from 300 up to 3,000 quintales hundredweights) per year," he explained. "In 600 hours of effective production, one Vibravac will supply the wet separator with enough coffee to amount to more than 300 quintales of coffee ready to go to the roaster."

While Strich would eventually like to market his inventions in Central America, he's starting out in Puerto Rico, where the cost of handpicking coffee amounts to 40% of its selling price.

According to Strich, Puerto Rican coffee is generally a blend of 60% first-grade coffee and 40% second-grade. The Arabica variety, which is the kind found here, has up to six flowerings a year, spreading the fruit maturing period over six months.

When collecting ripe coffee beans during the harvest, handpickers traditionally pass several times during the harvest, gathering the beans selectively, one by one. These beans, quickly depulped, washed and dried, constitute first-grade coffee, with all its flavor. Such gourmet coffee sells for $12 a pound locally, with at least two Puerto Rican companies now exporting to the Japanese market, where retail prices approach $20 a pound.

But toward the end of the harvest, all remaining beans - green and ripe - are completely picked from the trees and are dried without depulping. This constitutes second-grade coffee, which has more body but less flavor, and a somewhat bitter taste.

If more beans could be picked by hand, Puerto Rico would be able to export more gourmet-quality coffee. But with the federal minimum wage of $4.25 in effect in this U.S. Commonwealth, few Puerto Ricans are willing to toil long hours in the hot sun. Workers here get paid $3.50 per almud, which is equivalent to 28 pounds of beans. A worker picking selectively can pick one almud an hour, meaning he'll earn less than minimum wage.

For years, local coffee growers have been lobbying the Immigration & Naturalization Service to allow them to hire temporary workers from the nearby Dominican Republic - where farm wages average $2 a day - but U.S. and Puerto Rican officials worry that once the harvest is over, the Dominicans will stay.

That's where Strich comes in. He says use of the Vibravac and the wet separator will cut labor costs by a third to a half and allow more of the crop to be picked, reducing waste. "Our pickers, who were given the choice of handpicking paid by almud or using the Vibravac, did not want to go back to handpicking after they had tried the Vibravac."

The crew for one Vibravac varies from three to six workers, depending on the amount of coffee to be stripped from the trees. Such a crew can maintain a Vibravac at its full capacity of 12 almuds per hour. Each member of the crew is paid by hour 10% more than the fastest handpicker would make, and a minimum quota of bags to fill every day is established. This quota is based on 50% of the machine's continuous processing capacity.

Strich says that over a given harvesting season, raking the underbrush from the 20 square feet of a single coffee tree takes one-tenth the time of selectively handpicking one tree and obtaining the average seven pounds of coffee beans. It also takes half the time to strip the beans from a tree and let them fall to the ground, compared to selectively handpicking its ripe beans and putting them into a basket.

Besides collecting coffee beans, the Vibravac also returns mulched leaves and loose earth to the spot they were taken from, and at the same time rids the area of stones, branches, and weeds.

In Central America, where labor costs are considerably less, the incentive to use the Vibravac might be less. But, as Strich says, "even if your labor costs are 4% of the total and you reduce it to 2%, that's good enough."

The wet separator, which classifies the mature beans from green ones, is based on the principle that ripe beans are denser than unripe green beans. The beans are separated by means of a floatation device, in which the ripe and green beans sink, and the green beans, where grains are not yet formed, float.

Strich, who has 17 patents so far, was born in Burgundy, where his father was a vintner. He studied in a Paris engineering school and left France after World War II, ending up first in Canada, then Michigan. He worked for Allis-Chalmers, Procter & Gamble, and other large industrial concerns before ending up in Puerto Rico's sugar industry. Strich's first invention was a sugar centrifuge machine; he has also developed conveyor-belt systems for several large island manufacturers.

When it became obvious to him that local sugar production was in decline, Strich decided to switch to coffee. Seven years ago, he bought a 128-acre farm near Juana Diaz, and has spent all that time developing the Vibravac and the wet separator.

One advantage of the Vibravac is that it can be used not only on terrains of various slopes, but also to coffees of different varieties suitable to intensive cultivation. It weighs only 150 pounds and can be operated by one person wheeling it up and down between rows of trees.

"My trick was making a machine which is tied to an electric motor," he said, adding that it originally required the use of nets, but that owners of the few units sold stopped using them when the nets wore out and had to be replaced. Strich said he had an "obsession" with getting rid of the nets, which he finally did after investing $150,000 of his own money into research and development.

Strich says he will meet with his Chicago attorney next month to apply for a 17-year patent on the two devices. He says the Vibravac will cost $4,600 and the wet separators $10,000, but that the Puerto Rican government subsidizes new pieces of equipment, which can cut the purchase price in half.

"In the next five years, I can sell 200 machines, and this will be only a fifth of the need for this equipment in Puerto Rico," he said.

Strich acknowledged that over-production has helped drive world coffee prices down to record lows in the last few years, but that "even if you're producing too much, you can gradually reduce your acreage and do whatever you have left in the most efficient manner. Doing a sloppy job always costs you more in the long run."

Larry Luxner is a freelance journalist based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
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Title Annotation:Philippe P. Strich; Vibravac equipment
Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Words:1291
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