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Puerto Rico is coffee-rich but worker-poor

Island growers are poised to benefit from demand for gourmet beans but plagued by labor shortage.

September 30, 2007|Jeannette Rivera-Lyles | Orlando Sentinel

jayuya, puerto rico -- For 100 years, the Atienzas have grown coffee on an intensely green mountainside among the island's highest peaks.

Their 340-acre plantation is one of the last strongholds in an industry that a century ago earned Puerto Rico a reputation, from Paris to Vatican City, for growing some of the best coffee in the world.

But industrialization, along with social and political change, decimated the plantations and forced the few remaining growers into a perennial struggle for survival.

Some, like the Atienzas, stubbornly hung on. It may now pay off.

Fueled by coffeehouse culture and the trend toward gourmet beans, Puerto Rican coffee is experiencing a renaissance. The gourmet blends will join the popular Yaucono, Rico or Crema brands already available in most local groceries.

The majority are exported in bulk, sold to distributors that resell to high-end clients. And efforts are underway to make gourmet blends available at retail stores. When that happens, central Florida will likely be one of the first markets on the mainland because of its large Latino population.

But as growers prepare for another harvest this fall, the rebirth is overshadowed by a looming crisis: a labor shortage so severe that a significant portion of the crop goes unpicked.

Coffee growers hope one solution may be to bring farmworkers from Florida and other states to their fields.

With the majestic Tres Picachos mountain range as a backdrop, Roberto Atienza inspected rows of coffee bushes at his Hacienda San Pedro on a recent morning. They brimmed with clusters of light-green, yellow and orange fruit nicely ripening. Still, Atienza is reluctant to set his expectations for this crop too high.

He lost 5,000 pounds of coffee beans -- and $100,000 in profits -- last year because of the worker shortage.

In the last five years, growers across the island have lost 30% to 40% of their crops -- and tens of millions of dollars -- according to estimates from the Puerto Rico House of Representatives' agriculture committee.

"It is very hard to find people," said Atienza, 51, a grandson of the hacienda's first owner. "My average coffee picker is between 50 and 60 years old. In 10 more years, there will probably be no pickers left."

To bring in the 60 to 80 workers he needs for the harvest, Atienza must offer perks. He provides door-to-door transportation and, on Fridays, serves workers a communal meal complete with music -- then raffles off TVs and microwaves.

Workers who stay through the end of the harvest receive a bonus check.

"We have to provide incentives, or else no one would come," Atienza said.

The labor problem on the island, say industry insiders, is no different from the one U.S. farmers face: It is increasingly hard to sway workers into backbreaking labor in an economy where they could earn the same $5 to $6 an hour slinging burgers in an air-conditioned cafe.

Coffee farmers would like to deal with the situation the same way their U.S. counterparts do.

"We have to import workers from other countries," said Javier Rivera Aquino, president of the agriculture committee of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives. "There are mechanisms already in place that would allow us to create short-term guest-worker programs for harvest time."

But the Puerto Rican government, which has tried to alleviate the crisis with prison labor, is not keen on the idea of importing workers.

"We have plenty of people right here that could do the job," said Jose Orlando Fabre, Puerto Rico's secretary of agriculture. "The towns in the coffee-growing region have some of the highest unemployment rates in the island, up to 25% for some. How do we justify bringing in foreign help?"

Another option, some say, would be to bring in farmworkers from the mainland who are first-generation Americans. Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, no additional paperwork would be necessary.

"A lot of these people are out of work in the late fall and in the winter months," said Arturo Rivera, a grower and president of the Puerto Rico association of specialty coffee. "That's when we could use them most."

Depending on the plantation's altitude and weather, coffee beans are ready for harvest from late July through November. Once the harvest begins, it lasts two to three months.

It is not much more than a shed with a tin roof, but Hacienda San Pedro's rustic processing plant is at the very heart of its survival.

It is here that Atienza completes the cycle of producing specialty coffee, a marketing term for 100% Arabica beans grown at 2,000 feet or more above sea level and picked at their ripest.

After the harvest, Atienza and his workers remove the pulp from the fruits to expose the seeds, then wash, dry and roast them.

During the drying phase, Atienza sleeps on a cot next to the same machine his grandfather used to periodically check the beans and make sure they are drying properly.

The result is a cup of coffee with a chocolaty finish that is best without sugar.

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