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Hurricane Hugo disrupts Puerto Rico coffee crop.

Hurricane Hugo disrupts Puerto Rico coffee crop

On September 19, 1988, Jamaica's prized Blue Mountain coffee crop was destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert, and Japanese investors were soon looking toward Puerto Rico as an alternate source for gourmet coffee beans.

Now, Puerto Rico's own coffee industry is in shambles--following the onslaught of Hurricane Hugo, almost a year to the day after Gilbert ripped apart Jamaica. (Interestingly, mangoes and tomatoes --the island's major export-oriented cops--were spared the brunt of the storm.)

According to the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture, damage to the island's coffee and plaintain crops was most severe. The plaintain sector lost $30 million based on farmers' wholesale prices, followed by ornamental plants, at $26 million; coffee, at $15.5 million; poultry, at $12 million, and starcy vegetables, $10 million.

More than 1.5 million chickens and 500,000 egg-laying hens died in the storm, which also killed three people, knocked out water and electricity for more than a week in San Juan, and left tens of thousands of people homeless.

On September 17, Hugo's eye passed over northeastern Puerto Rico, leaving widespread destruction in that area but never touching the island's coffee-growing region, which is centered in the town of Lares.

Nevertheless, the storm's 140-mph winds were enough to blow the coffee beans off the trees. According to the report, between 80 percent and 90 percent of Puerto Rico's plaintain crop was lost, as were 80,000 hundredweight of coffee--about a quarter of total expected production this season.

Jose Irizarry, founder and president of the 300-member Lares Coffee Growers Association, contests the government's figures and claims the damage in his industry alone will exceed $50 million. With a labor shortage hurting producers even before Hugo's unwelcome visit, Irizarry and other coffee growers couldn't find enough workers to rescue the beans before they rotted on the ground.

"There wasn't sufficient labor before. Now it's worse," he said in an interview. "The government is doing practically nothing for us. There's some insurance for coffee, but that only covers between 30 percent and 40 percent of the loss, and there's a 15 percent deductible. We're not receiving help from either the federal or the local government."

The Commonwealth's Agriculture Credit Corp., however, said it has established a special program to provide affected farmers with bridge loans at five percent interest.

Felipe Rodriguez, Puerto Rico's newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture, was in meetings for days following the hurricane and could not be reached for comment.

In recent years, Puerto Rico has dedicated some 20,000 acres to coffee, mainly in Lares and other coffee-growing towns such as Adjuntas, Las Mareas, Maricao, Yauco, Mayaguez, Morovis and Jayuya.

The cost to growers of picking a hundredweight of coffee comes to around $58.50, excluding non-picking expenses such as sacks, equipment, processing machinery and electricity. The Commonwealth government pays growers anywhere from $160/cwt for Robusta coffee beans to $170/cwt for mixed green and ripes, to $198/cwt for the Class B mixture containing 90 percent Arabica and 10 percent Robusta beans.

Currently, Puerto Rican coffee consumption stands at about 400,000 hundredweight, of which 340,000 hundredweight is supplied locally. As a result, the island has had to import, in ever-increasing numbers, coffee from the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and, to a lesser extent, Colombia.

Irizarry said that because of hurricane-related damages, Puerto Rico would now have to import even more from those coffee-producing nations to make up for the shortfall in domestic production.

Ironically, last June, officials of Tokyo-based Ueshima Coffee Co. visited Puerto Rico in search of alternatives to Jamaica's highly-prized Blue Mountain coffee crop, 78 percent of which had been destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert. At the time, Rodriguez hinted that local farmers could soon fill the gourmet market traditionally supplied by Blue Mountain by working hard to improve the quality of Puerto Rican coffee.

PHOTO : Puerto Rico Secretary of Agriculture, F. Rodriguier inspects the damage.

PHOTO : Puerto Rico will have to import coffee now

Larry Luxner is a freelance journalist based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
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Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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