Sat | Nov 17, 2018

Ronald Thwaites | Reviving coffee

Published:Monday | August 6, 2018 | 12:00 AM

We know by now that a vibrant, productive agricultural sector is the foundation of sustained and, hopefully, equitable economic growth. We know, too, that since we cannot compete with high volume, relatively cheap agricultural commodities, our fortune has to come from producing more of what we and our visitors consume and concentrating on those exquisite niche products which enhance the national brand and attract the custom of discerning palates worldwide.

Enter the coffee industry and particularly Blue Mountain coffee, our champagne. Since around 1950, through the vision of men like Keble Munn, Willie Henry, David Evans, John Pickersgill and generations of peasant and estate farmers on the hard-to-cultivate hillsides of St Andrew, Portland and St Thomas, a world-renowned industry has been developed, earning foreign exchange and providing a livelihood for multiple thousands.

Coffee cultivation has been the mainstay of peasant culture in these parishes: a source of independence, employment and social cohesion. This is of huge national significance.

Capitalising on the mystique which the Japanese post-war elite developed for specialty food and beverage, they forged partnerships with Ueshima, Toshoku, Yutaka and Rin-Rin, among others, to the point that in the Far East, Blue Mountain coffee, along with Bob Marley and latterly Usain Bolt, became the identifying names for the Jamaican nation. The same has been true among coffee savants worldwide.

Years ago when some Jamaican coffee farmers visited the far larger coffee sector in Costa Rica, also known for its quality product, to learn how to improve our industry, their only suggestion on hearing of our trade was to suggest that we gift-wrapped each bean, so envious were they of the Blue Mountain reputation.

It is those cherry berries and the beans in them that are now rotting on the coffee bushes all over Jamaica's eastern spinal column. It is likely that this crop will be of small volume and low quality, given the collapse of the price per box to a quarter of what it was two years ago. The cost to reap that box is about one grand, a third of the total price offered. It just cannot work.

With the exception of the highly efficient and completely integrated Jamaica Standard Products, the coffee industry outside of the Blue Mountains has already collapsed. Imports abound where coffee cooperatives used to prevail, and huge investments like the processing plants, especially the largest at Tarentum in Clarendon, are wasting.

 

CATASTROPHIC DOWNTURN

 

The Government holdings in coffee have been divested to Hon Lee-Chin's company and growers are told that the Japanese market is oversupplied and contracting, leading to the catastrophic downturn. Until recently, and still in some areas, buyers are not taking cherry at any price and farmers are being forced to throw up their fields. Growers know neither the extent of market decline, the proportion of the current final price accruing to them nor the prospects for the future. They are being treated with contempt.

If the situation is not relieved within the next three months, the industry will likely be set back for a generation and the global repute of Jamaican coffee lost, probably for good. This need not happen.

Right now, the tourism industry is deceiving visitors who think they are being served Blue Mountain coffee when, at best, they are getting a weak blend of a little local coffee mixed with non-descript foreign beans. What if the Linkages Committee could arrange for the superb local brew to be offered in all our visitor establishments? And how much would it add to a holiday package cost if even half of our anticipated five million visitors were provided with a package of Jamaican coffee? And what an irony it is for us to be welcoming Starbucks, with its thousands of bistros worldwide, when our up-to-now world-renowned variety cannot sell.

Many mistakes have been made in the coffee industry over the years, but the sector is far too important to be abandoned. Giving the growers a few bags of fertiliser will not cut it. The Government must arrange to buy the crop for a price which will allow the growers to hold up their heads, process and store it, while JAMPRO leads an aggressive marketing campaign here and abroad. No one knows if this has even been attempted since the price collapse. All this while hucksters abroad continue to thrive by offering fake Jamaican coffee.

If ever there was a time for the Jamaica Agricultural Society to wake up and defend the farmers' interests in coffee, it is right now. I am personally aware of the genuine concern of ministers Vaz, Bartlett and Shaw regarding these issues, so the cry is for collaboration rather than blame-sharing.

But the time for decisive action is now.

- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.