Planting coffee trees to reclaim the economic backbone of mountain towns

About 20 million coffee trees, some of them 20 years old, were destroyed by Hurricane María, wiping away the economic backbone of the mountain towns of Puerto Rico.

The devastation affected 85 percent of the coffee trees in cultivation, a sector that was painstakingly reclaiming Puerto Rico’s glorious history when it produced the coffee of choice served in the Vatican.

ConPRmetidos, a non-profit that tackles the root causes to socio-economic challenges in Puerto Rico,seizedthe opportunity to restore the coffee sector.  “Coffee is so much a part of our culture that we had to do something,” said Isabel Rullán, the organization’s Executive Director. She had learned of the near obliteration of the coffee sector and believed that if something was not done soon the economy of a whole region could collapse. After all, ConPRmetidos’ mission is to create a stable, productive, and self-sufficient Puerto Rico. “Yet, coffee was not one of our areas of expertise,” said Isabel.

Unidos por Puerto Rico was willing to consider ConPRmetidos’ grant proposal but asked for more information on the specific needs of the coffee farmers. Isabel explained her organization had to dive deep into the sector. ConPRmetidos partnered with Iris Jannette Rodríguez Hernández, chair of the coffee sector of the Puerto Rico Farm Bureau.  Iris Jannette came from a long line of coffee farmers but had not become a farmer herself until 2014 when she returned to her home in the highlands of Adjuntas to care for her parents. The hurricane had wiped away her investmentin the farm, she had lost her trees. In addition, her area would lack electric power for more than eight months after Hurricane María.

“We did not know where to turn, so when ConPRmetidos told us what they wanted to do, we regained our hope,” said Iris Jannette.  As difficult as it would be to recover the coffee farms, it could be done.  Coffee crops are essential for the area because they yield higher prices.  During the year, coffee farms in Puerto Rico, which tend to be small, are diversified to sustain the farmer with income from other crops.

As their collaboration began, it became obvious that coffee trees represented the greatest need.  To recover, six million trees per year need to be planted for three years. Isabel said she didn’t know where to find the trees until she contacted two nurseries, Joseph Giulani and Siembra Finca Carmen LLC. So, ConPRmetidos submitted a proposal to Unidos for $500,000 that would fund the purchase and distribution of 750,000 trees to 500 coffee farmers. Fertilizer and lime would also be included to prepare the soil properly for the planting.

Yet, Iris Jannette also argued there was a need for greater organization and education for the farmers. Productivity was low in Puerto Rico, where one cuerdaacre yields 350 pounds of coffee while in El Salvador, a top coffee producer in Central America, yields 1,000 pounds of coffee per cuerda (1 cuerda = 0.97 acre).

The coffee farmers lacked good data on their production, and many had not kept up to date on best practices. The last manual with best practices published by the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture was from 1998. Isabel explained they leveraged Unidos’ funds with ConPRmetidos own funds to help create PROCAFÉ, a nonprofit organization, pay the salary of staff, commissioned a manual of best practices for coffee growing in Puerto Rico and organized workshops for 100 farmers at a time to share best practices. It was designed as a comprehensive effort to jumpstart the sector. Iris Jannette took on the responsibility of presiding the newly minted organization.

Iris Jannette made clear that farmers participating in the initiative must complete the workshop and prepare the soil properly with fertilizer and lime before trees are distributed to them. The first group of 100 farmers have completed this task and the trees have been distributed to them. The distribution of the trees will take five months, 100 farmers per month.  It takes seven months for the coffee seed to germinate and grow into a 2- foot tree before it can be transplanted, then it takes three years for the tree to begin to yield fruit and five years to peak.

The coffee grower said that PROCAFÉis also working on how to help farmers diversify their crops to optimize income opportunities while their coffee trees reach maturity.  As limited as coffee production is, coffee holds great importance in Puerto Rico’s culture, Iris Jannette said she is encouraged by the recent entry of younger, more educated growers.

For more information on the organizations, visit conprmetidos.org and unidosporpuertorico.com.  To reach Iris Jannette for more information on PROCAFÉ, you may write to procafepr@yahoo.com

icrossingAdminPlanting coffee trees to reclaim the economic backbone of mountain towns