Coffee is one of the few local products that defines us Puerto Ricans as a people, that fills us with pride, and that brings us together as a community. Puerto Rican coffee has always been high quality; it used to be called the “coffee of popes and kings,” because in the 19th century the Vatican served only Puerto Rican coffee. Today, we drink it with breakfast, with a mid-morning snack, after lunch, for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, and sometimes even as a little shot after dinner. It’s our national aroma.
Our demand for coffee is so high that Puerto Rico actually imports approximately two-thirds of the coffee consumed on the island. This high demand guarantees the island’s coffee farmers will sell virtually 100 percent of their crop to either the public or private sector. Coffee is the only crop on the island with such security.
But after two back-to-back hurricanes, the Puerto Rican coffee industry may not recover.
Hurricane Irma passed by Puerto Rico’s north coast as a Category 5 hurricane with 185 mph winds on September 7. While it did not make landfall, it left millions without power and cost some $45 million in lost agricultural yields, according to the department of agriculture’s preliminary figures, as reported by the New York Times.
Then, on Wednesday, September 20, Hurricane Maria made landfall, cutting across the island as a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds and leaving the island’s 3.4 million residents without power. The Department of Agriculture estimates Maria took with her 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s crops, causing a projected — and staggering — $780 million in agricultural losses. The coffee crop was among the hardest hit.
The hurricanes hit right before harvesting, and right before the farmers would normally get their guaranteed full sale. In a few months, possibly weeks, the island will run out of local coffee.
In the days immediately following Hurricane Maria, Pablo Muñoz, the owner of Cuatro Sombras, a specialty coffee shop and farm, was desperate to reach his farm. The Cuatro Sombras farm (as well as other farms from which the company buys coffee) is located in Yauco, about 60 miles away and on the other side of the island from San Juan.
The island’s mountainous interior is home to many of Puerto Rico’s coffee farms. Landslides there took down roads and bridges, and made Muñoz’s first attempts at contact futile. With gas scarce, an island-wide curfew in place, and roads unsafe to travel, there was nothing left for him to do but wait. He reached out to another farm owner from Jayuya, and asked how much coffee had survived. His answer, he says, was as stark as the trees: “None. Even the bark from the trees is gone.”
In a matter of hours, Maria destroyed 90 percent of all coffee trees on the island, according to Muñoz’s estimates. The storm dealt the most devastating blow to small-scale specialty coffee farmers who lack the diversification and support of industrial operations. Of the roughly 4,600 coffee producers on the island, many are private, family-owned farms ranging in size from 1 to 100 acres and producing less than 1,000 pounds of coffee beans per year.
In other words, Puerto Rico’s coffee farmers will need help. Some farmers may have agricultural insurance. There are also support systems in place, like disaster-relief funds from the local government and from FEMA, but none of these agencies had made contact with the Cuatro Sombras farmers in the 15 days after Hurricane Maria made landfall. As of that time, the town’s only supermarket had run out of provisions, and many in the community remained completely cut off. They are not setting their hopes on outside aid — aid they know will be slow to come.
Muñoz made a second and successful attempt to reach Yauco on Saturday, September 30, with a trunkful of gas canisters, provisions, and sheer hope. The road was long and winding; Muñoz had to travel via alternate routes to avoid roads blocked by fallen boulders and trees. He described the once-verdant countryside as faded away to brown; the land looked like it had been wiped out by wildfires instead of winds.
“In their eyes, we were the first responders in that remote region,” Muñoz says. “Every hello was a hug in solidarity mixed with tears... followed by a moment of silence, like losing a loved one. That’s what it feels like to lose your crop.”
It’s hard to overstate these farmers’ losses. They saw years of work and sacrifice blown away in a matter of hours. “I’ll never forget the look on their faces,” Muñoz says.
I’ve known Muñoz for several years, and after the hurricane hit, we knew we needed to act fast. We launched a GoFundMe campaign with the goal of raising $100,000 and sending 100 percent of proceeds directly to the farmers. This direct aid can be used to buy food, seeds, and equipment, and can be put towards rebuilding.
Unfortunately, it will be extremely difficult for Puerto Rico’s independent coffee growers to rise up again after Hurricane Maria. Many of them are single families or elderly farmers who have no other source of income. Even in the best-case scenario, it would take at least four years to grow a new economically viable crop. Against all these odds, many will abandon their farms entirely, taking with them the future of Puerto Rico’s coffee industry.
When we told the farmers in Yauco about our fundraising efforts, we saw a bit of hope return to the community. They couldn’t believe perfect strangers were offering their money, in this time of so much need, so they could get back on their feet.
This initiative began as a way for us to directly help the six farmers who provide Cuatro Sombras with coffee and who have become our extended family. But with enough support, we can impact the entire coffee industry on the island. Our farmers need our help; they are the heart and soul of Puerto Rico.