Verónica Noriega is not a big coffee drinker, but that did not stop her from doing something she had never done before – helping coffee farmers in Puerto Rico choose their first harvest since Hurricane Maria destroyed 85 percent of coffee crops four years ago.
Noriega, 25, was among a dozen first-time volunteers who helped coffee grower Pedro Pons, whose farm, Hacienda Pons in the town of Lares, had been completely wiped out after the deadly storm of 2017.
The initiative, which Noriega joined, spearheaded ConPRmetidos, a youth-led independent non-profit group whose goal is to spur economic development and long-term sustainability in the archipelago.
The group had distributed 750,000 seedlings to family-owned coffee farms such as Hacienda Pons, which is vital to the economy of Puerto Rico’s small mountainous towns.
Now the trees are producing their first harvest since planting in farms in the wake of Maria.
“It really gave us great hope that we could come back again,” said Iris Janette Rodríguez, a coffee grower in the town of Adjuntas and president of PROCAFE, a nonprofit group set up by ConPRmetidos to meet the needs of coffee use in Puerto Rico.
The challenge: lack of pickers
Rodríguez said it takes three to five years for a coffee tree to produce its first crop. But coffee farmers like her face another challenge that jeopardizes their miracle harvest – lack of pickers. Without enough people to pick coffee beans, part of the harvest can be wasted.
“Coffee is harvested once a year, but the income these crops generate is what drives the mountain economy. This earnings last for several months,” said Rodríguez, 56, in Spanish. “We do not want the investment we have made in fertilizer and our time to ensure that these trees are lost.”
Wednesday morning, Eric Torres and some of his coffee pickers were out in his yard in the town of Adjuntas.
“The reality is that it is often not enough,” Torres, 55, said of the available pickers. “That’s why I was so grateful to welcome these volunteers.” A week earlier, Torres had welcomed volunteers from Puerto Rico’s metropolitan area who had never worked on a farm before.
“You need certain abilities to be able to pick coffee because of the topography you are exposed to,” he said. “They may not be exposed to the landscape often, but they came here, had fun and learned about the coffee industry.”
Make agriculture sustainable again
Pons, 60, whose family has been growing crops for three decades, said he never misses the weather reports on television. He becomes anxious even when a storm begins to form far from Puerto Rico.
“After that, we went through with Maria, to get another hurricane to destroy everything we’ve worked so hard to grow … it would be devastating,” he said.
This is where volunteers like Noriega can make a timely difference while learning about the families that keep the coffee industry alive.
“They helped me save a coffee tree with such mature products that if they did not pick it up as soon as possible, it could have been lost,” Pons said.
“I needed to connect with the earth”
After spending way too much time working from home because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Noriega began to feel “this thing inside me that told me I needed to connect with the earth,” she said. “Getting closer to the ground has made me think a lot about questions about food insecurity and how important it is to understand what it is we are eating.”
When Noriega volunteered for Hacienda Pons, she was tasked with picking coffee beans from small trees full of ants because of how close they were to the ground.
“I thought I would not get dirty because we were picking beans from a tree, so I left my gloves at home,” she said in Spanish. “Well, while I was not dirty, I was bitten by a bunch of ants. So I learned the hard way, it’s always important to wear gloves. ”
Despite the rookie mistakes, Pons said it is “not rocket science” to choose coffee. They just need to make sure the prayer is as close to red as possible, “he said. But it is certainly hard work. “
It is a view shared by Noriega, who helped recruit other volunteers through her job at the nonprofit organization Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción, which promotes civic engagement.
“It’s not easy to carry the basket while choosing the beans – I really think these employees are not getting paid what they deserve,” she said, talking about the regular coffee pickers. “We were there for two hours and we wanted to die no matter how tired we were.”
The challenges of curbing a dependence on imports
When Maria destroyed Puerto Rico, making it difficult to receive and distribute food, it revealed the vulnerability of US territory to natural disasters and severe shortages of homemade food. Puerto Rico imports about 85 percent of all its food and produces only 15 percent of what is consumed.
This has contributed to many years of food security issues that worsened nearly ten years ago when Puerto Rico initiated the largest municipal bankruptcy proceeding in U.S. history. Subsequent natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and pandemics exacerbated the problem.
Rodríguez said food is mainly imported “because the labor and production costs in Puerto Rico are very high and we can not compete with the costs from outside.”
Among the costs that make coffee production costs so high are electricity and propane gas for roasting coffee beans, Pons said. In Puerto Rico, a gallon of propane gas can cost up to $ 3, and electricity customers pay twice as much for electricity as U.S. customers for unreliable service.
This is part of the reason why coffee growers like Pons and Torres sell most or all of their coffee harvest to companies that, unlike them, have the means to process the coffee and sell it to consumers.
“We may not know when the power will go out or when it will return, but if there is one industry that can make it work without power and without the internet, it is agriculture,” Rodríguez said.
Rodríguez expects her coffee harvest to be ready sometime in October and said she looks forward to welcoming volunteers who can help her pick the coffee beans.
“It is also necessary to educate Puerto Rican consumers about the benefits of consuming local products,” Rodríguez said. “They are fresher and safer, as foreign countries do not necessarily have the same restrictions on the use of chemicals or pesticides on their products and help the local economy.”
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