Two years after Hurricane Maria hit, Iris Jeannette still cries when she sees how much of her coffee farm was destroyed. “To see all of the work, effort and money that you put just gone in a couple of hours, it was tough,” she said, adding that she lost over 20,000 trees and more than $100,000 in labor and investments.
Hurricane Maria destroyed 85% of coffee farm harvests, said Carlos Flores Ortega, Puerto Rico’s secretary of agriculture. Forty percent of trees were destroyed, and only 60% were recoverable. It was expected to be one of the best harvests the country has had in the last 10 years, he said.
Coffee farms were hit the hardest and take longer than other crops to recover. In October 2018, the Hispanic Federation launched a five-year coffee initiative with playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s family to help revitalize the coffee sector on the island. The founding partners are Nespresso, The Rockefeller Foundation, Starbucks Foundation, TechnoServe and World Coffee Research. While this initiative sounds promising, Jeannette, who is also the president of PROCAFE, the coffee farmers association in Puerto Rico, said farmers can’t solely depend on it for a quick recovery. They need help now, she said.
The Hispanic Federation created a coffee task force with stakeholders including the National Coffee Association, representatives of the private sector in Puerto Rico and nonprofit organizations. The group meets once a month to figure out how to move the coffee industry forward, said Charlotte Gossett Navarro, senior director of the Puerto Rico operation of the Hispanic Federation.
“At first we were really excited because this is a good initiative,” Jeannette said. But during the coffee task force meetings, Jeannette said she felt like farmer’s needs weren’t being heard.
“How are they making decisions without even knowing what my real needs are?” Jeannette said. “I attended [the meetings] and nothing has progressed.”
Starbucks donated two million coffee seeds as part of the initiative, and the department of agriculture is in charge of distributing them. The seeds will be ready to distribute between August and September of 2019, Ortega said.
But that worries Jeannette because she said things are always uncertain with the government.
“A lot of help has arrived [to the island] but it has gone to studies, plans, administration and the help doesn’t get to those who really need it. The money and support goes to those who don’t really need it,” Jeannette said.
“We’ve realized that we, as coffee farmers, have to do the work ourselves,” Jeannette said.
Jeannette took the work into her own hands. PROCAFE worked with ConPRmetidos, an independent nonprofit organization working toward economic development and long-term sustainability, to create a free manual with proven techniques on how to improve quality and maximize their income.
It’s been a historic moment for recovery with the amount of help for farmers, said Carmen Alamo, a professor of agriculture economics at the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez campus.
Coffee was Puerto Rico’s chief export in the late 19th century, writes author Jorge Duany in “Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know.” In 1896, about 77% of Puerto Rico’s exports were coffee. Exporting became expensive when the island was included in the U.S. tariff system, and by 1930, it represented less than 1%.
Today, the island consumes more coffee than it produces and imports coffee annually, Ortega said.
Before Hurricane Maria struck, Puerto Rico was producing 150 quintals [a unit of weight equal to 100 pounds] of coffee, Ortega said. Now, they’re trying to recover the 85% worth of crops that Hurricane Maria damaged.
Besides trees and seeds, Alamo said farmers need better coffee production practices.
TechnoServe, an international nonprofit organization working to build better farms, will help the coffee initiative by teaching farmers environment-friendly practices, Navarro said.
Ortega, secretary of agriculture, said that farmers need 9 to 10 million trees to plant for the next three years. But he said they only have the capacity to grow 3 million during the same time period. Anything more than that is too expensive for farmers, he said.
Jeannette disagrees. She said farmers need 18 million trees to recover what they had before Hurricane Maria, and that they have plenty of capacity. Farmers want to plant more trees to recover quickly and increase their production, she said.
One coffee tree takes three years to produce. So far, the government has distributed 500,000 trees to farmers throughout the island, Ortega said. The other 1.5 million trees will be distributed from August to September, he said.
While the coffee industry is trying to recover, Jeannette continues to fight for farmer’s needs — and her own. Just four days after Hurricane Maria struck, she was able to walk through her farm. Now, she has planted new trees and is hopeful for the industry’s future.
“The island depends on agriculture. We have to continue,” she said.