JAYUYA, Puerto Rico (DTN) -- The roads are narrow, winding and steep near the high point of Puerto Rico, Cerro de Punta -- roughly 4,300 feet above sea level -- but it's also where some of the world's most premium coffee is grown.
Hacienda Encantos, a 320-acre coffee farm in the mountains south of Jayuya, is part of the roasting company that grows coffee for the iconic Puerto Rican coffee, Yaucono, and the roaster's premium brand, Alta Grande.
The hacienda on Tuesday hosted Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for a roundtable with farmers and food processors to hear about some of the issues facing farmers from around the island. USDA also touted three climate-smart grants totaling $28 million awarded to projects to help Puerto Rican farmers deal with hurricane recovery and climate resiliency under the Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities.
Sitting around nursery plants in the hacienda, Vilsack asked, "Any chance I can get a cup of coffee here?"
Culturally, coffee production has a deep tradition in Puerto Rico, and islanders like to share the story about the Vatican and Pope importing only Puerto Rican coffee for nearly 200 years. (Other Central and South American countries make similar claims.) Yet coffee production on the island is often at peril from hurricanes. For every coffee tree destroyed in a storm, it also typically takes four to five years to replace that production.
HURRICANE IMPACT ON TREES
The 2017 Ag Census showed 2,292 coffee farms on Puerto Rico with just under 13,000 acres of production. When Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017, it was estimated that as much as 90% of the coffee trees -- about 11.8 million -- were destroyed.
"This (2022) was the first year after Maria that we had a crop, then we got hit by Fiona," said Carmen Rullan, a coffee farmer and Farm Service Agency (FSA) committee member on the island. Hurricane Fiona hit the island last September.
While not nearly as damaging to the island's infrastructure as Maria, the sheer volume of rain that fell with Fiona damaged as much as 80% of the coffee trees.
Rullan also noted a lot of the island's farmers are not aware of USDA programs and their enrollment deadlines or qualifications. Some of that stems from language barriers.
USDA EXPANDS PROGRAMS
USDA just this week expanded its second phase of the Emergency Relief Program (ERP) for 2020 and 2021 crops. USDA also opened enrollment for the Pandemic Assistance Relief Program (PARP) to address gaps in earlier pandemic programs. The ERP Phase 2 and PARP application period is open from Jan. 23 through June 2. USDA also adjusted the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) to better reach veterans, beginning farmers and farmers who are socially disadvantaged.
Ramon Gonzalez Beiro, Puerto Rico's Agriculture secretary, said hurricanes are causing more damage, but farmers on the island are adept at adjusting to cycles of more frequent storms.
"That's part of the business, and that's part of being in Puerto Rico, being a Caribbean Island. You're just in the hurricane alley," Beiro said. "Maria was so huge that destroyed everything. So, we're coming back. Fiona wasn't that bad, you know? So, we're still on our feet."
Economically, those who work with smaller coffee farms on the island are trying to develop more niche marketing strategies. With that, smaller farmers in Puerto Rico have started opening their own coffee shops and marketing more brands of local coffee.
"We have been trying to help producers move away from commercial production to more quality specialty coffees," said Jose Ramos Lopez, an Extension agent from the University of Puerto Rico. "They can sell the specialty coffee for more money."
Beiro has advocated for farmers to start using the H-2A ag-labor program to bring in coffee workers from Costa Rica, Guatemala and other Central American countries with strong coffee production. The H-2A visa program was just opened up to Puerto Rico in 2021.
"It's not only coffee. Ten years ago, we would have a problem with the coffee plantations, but now we have problems with other areas of the economy as well, such as construction and food businesses," Beiro said. "The working conditions are tough in the mountains, which are steep. It's not like anybody can come and harvest coffee or plant coffee trees. It's the biggest challenge we have in the coffee industry."
German Negron-Gonzalez, general manager for Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters LLC, said H-2A has helped the larger farmers but it's more difficult for small-to-medium-sized farmers to get into the program because of all of the various requirements for housing, transportation and the paperwork involved.
PROGRAM RULES AFFECT LABOR
Another problem with labor, Negron-Gonzalez said, is the island's food-aid program for lower-income people, the Nutrition Assistance Program. Under the NAP rules a family can lose benefits if they make more than $619 a month in income.
The rules of the program make people less willing to take seasonal employment on a farm, he said.
"So it's very important for us to get our aid programs modernized," Negron-Gonzalez said.
One of the major challenges on an island with a high level of poverty -- more than 40% overall -- is to figure out ways to keep farmers and businesses and make it both profitable and sustainable for them.
USDA is championing the strategy that marketing climate-smart products will enhance the value of commodities to consumers. "If you can say you've got climate-smart friendly coffee beans and coffee product, that makes it a little easier to sell in a competitive market," Vilsack said. "And you might get a higher value for it."
Ideally, the farms will be able to show they can reduce emissions, as well as sequester carbon in the soil with their tree production. That would then open up the coffee farms, and their products, to carbon credit programs.
"So, now climate-smart isn't just about the climate, as important as all of that is, but it's also about creating additional revenue streams and opportunities for producers," Vilsack told coffee farmers.
Among the three projects that received USDA climate-smart grants, one will incentivize livestock farmers to develop more pasture and forage, and then quantify the carbon in the soil. Another will expand the use of agricultural waste for biochar for smallholder coffee, cocoa and plantain farmers to use as fertilizers.
Doug O'Brien, president and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International (NCBA CLUSA), is working with farm cooperatives on the island to partner with coffee farmers with a goal to work with as many as 2,000 of them.
Beyond coffee, these producers also often grow plantains, avocados or other fruits and vegetables. The cooperative project would plant as many as 2.6 million new coffee trees, as well as 400,000 other trees for shade and conservation practices.
"The coffee farmers in the mountains are kind of the foundation of the rural economy," O'Brien said. "They are also diversified. So, they grow coffee, typically also citrus and maybe plantains as well."
Daniel Morales, an agronomist for Hacienda Encantos, said language barriers are often a challenge because most smallholder farmers speak Spanish, but a lot of USDA information and educational material on climate change is in English. Education for climate-smart projects will require bringing in other farmers from around the island to see the kind of adaptation strategies they can develop.
"Most Puerto Rican farmers need to see things to emulate," Morales said. "We will not have a future for coffee in Puerto Rico if we don't do it in a climate-smart way."
For other coverage AFBF in Puerto Rico, see:
-- "Farm Bureau Wants Better Disaster Aid and Crop Insurance in Farm Bill,"
-- "Vilsack Sees No Need to Compromise With Mexico on Biotech Corn,"
-- "AFBF's Duvall Highlights Need for Farm Bill and Concerns Over WOTUS, Trade," https://www.dtnpf.com/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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