Sat | Jan 16, 2021

Farmers demand more for coffee

Published:Friday | January 10, 2020 | 12:00 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer
Euton Rodney (left) and his brother, Everton, both farmers of Penlyne Castle in the Blue Mountains, measure harvest coffee cherries from their farm.
Ena Brown, a female coffee farmer in Penlyne Castle.
Shane Brown laments the low market price of coffee cherries which, he says, is driving him out of business.
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Price. It was a common thread in conversations a Gleaner news team had with coffee farmers and pickers in Penlyne Castle, St Thomas, on Tuesday.

The farmers are lamenting that they are not receiving a profitable return on their investment in the crop. A coffee tree takes about three years to mature and requires the farmer to keep the soil covered, remove weeds, prune the coffee trees correctly, apply fertiliser, and protect the crop from insects and disease.

Farmers are currently being offered an average of $4,000 per box of coffee, down from $12,000 in 2017.

In August 2019, it was reported that high mountain coffee production fell by 50 per cent during the season that closed in July 2019.

Ninety-year-old Roy Edwards has been farming coffee for 80 years, first helping out his parents and then venturing on his own.

“Mi nuh si di coffee a work out ‘cause dem cut down di whole a di price. Yuh barely can hand to mouth ... . Some a di time mi cyah even pay mi doctor bill,” said Edwards, whose farm is attended to by his children.

Coffee is among the variety of crops planted by 65-year-old Ena Brown. Farming allowed her to send her children to school and assist with the building of her house.

But business has been burned not only by price, but the ravages of nature.

“It [coffee leaf rust] always come in the area and kill out the coffee. The coffee cheap, suh yuh cyah even buy pesticide,” Brown said with a chuckle.

When she loses trees to the fungus, replanting has to take place.

“Yuh buy [coffee] sucker some a di time or yuh help yuhself – pot yuh coffee and get yuh own sucker ‘cause sometimes yuh have some good coffee in the line, suh yuh keep potting those fi keep up di growth,” Brown explained.

Brown said that unlike others, she did not receive any of the fertiliser that was distributed by the Government to coffee farmers. “Maybe I’m not so lucky,” she said.

She explained that some pickers are demanding to be paid $2,000 per box, but she cannot satisfy their demand as “the coffee is at a low, low price”.

At 9:30 a.m., Everton Rodney had just returned from his farm with two boxes of coffee cherries. His day started at 6 a.m. and the cherries he picked were to be sold at the depot in the afternoon.

Rodney is of the view that Blue Mountain coffee is still in demand as it remains one of the most sought-after brands in the world.

It did not take very long for him to detail the woes in the business, for which he has a three-and-a-half-acre plot.

“This coffee ting is like a slavery wi still inna. Is like a dem a tell wi how much wi fi work and how much dem fi pay wi fi wi coffee. One time, a did $14,000 a box fi coffee, and one drop go to $4,000, and wi nuh know wah a cause that,” he lamented.

Global production of coffee last year stood at $158.93 million bags, with Jamaica’s contribution a drop in the bucket. The island produced approximately 30,000 bags, with exports valuing US$12.5 million, a nearly 50 per cent decline from US$24 million five years ago and US$15 million in 2018.

Jamaica Coffee Exporters Association President Norman Grant said that this season, the crop began selling for $3,000 per box.

“The price is now at $5,000 a box, so as the demand for JBM tightens, I see where there is going to be a recovery of the Blue Mountain [Coffee] industry over the next three to five years,” he said.

ENCOURAGED NOT TO LEAVE

Grant is encouraging coffee farmers not to exit the coffee industry, noting that efforts are being made to help them increase productivity from 30 to 60 boxes per acre.

Overall production has declined by about five per cent over the last two years, moving from 212,000 boxes to 200,000 boxes.

But that plea for patience is of little comfort to Everton Rodney’s brother, Euton.

“As much as the US dollar goes up sometimes, the price of the coffee don’t move,” Euton Rodney said.

“They can do more for us, and we begging dem to even move the price to $8,000 and keep the production up,” he added, revealing that he diversified to include the cultivation of bananas and pine trees for Christmas.

Rodney has cut the number of people he hires by 80 per cent simply because it is not sustainable and now puts in more hours in order to pay out less.

“This year, it’s probably the worst for me,” said 39-year-old farmer, Shane Brown.

“Price! When mi look pan what me spend in this farm based on the price, sometimes mi feel like give up this thing,” Brown said.

He sided with Rodney about the need for the price per box to be increased. For Brown, his days are more hectic, and he is putting in twice the work to keep afloat.

“Dis ting is one of the biggest gamble right now pan Earth,” said Brown, who comes from a family of generations of coffee farmers.

“The worst part about it is we plant wi tings and we can’t market wi tings as we have a like. Dem nah gi wi a licence. Look pan di amount a coffee me have! Me shoulda have my licence,” he said, pointing to a section of his 22-acre farm ripe with coffee.

Lacking the capital required to properly fertilise their farms, they have substituted with chicken manure. They explained that it would require them to sell two boxes of coffee to purchase a bag of fertiliser.

The farmers explained that when a box of coffee is taken to the depot for sale, the floating process used to separate the cherries by quality often reduces a box to three-quarters or half. This, they said, is one of the major reasons they are demanding more money for the high-quality coffee they produce.

Floating also means that in the end, they are paid less for the box of coffee, but they still have to pay pickers the full cost for harvesting a box of coffee.

Global production of coffee last year stood at $158.93 million bags, with Jamaica’s contribution a drop in the bucket. The island produced approximately 30,000 bags with exports valuing US$12.5 million, down from US$24 million five years ago and US$15 million in 2018.

judana.murphy@gleanerjm.com