The Future of Blue Mountain Coffee

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

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Gary Watson loves coffee. Not in the way that most of us profess our love for the stuff — his livelihood depends on it.

Watson works for the Jamaica Agricultural Commodities Regulatory Authority (JACRA) as a regional advisory officer. In his capacity, he advises coffee farmers from the major Blue Mountain-producing parishes of St Andrew, Portland and St Thomas. JACRA is the regulatory body for the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries. It was established “for the development, regulation, and standardisation of the agricultural commodities (coffee, cocoa, coconut and spices) industry”.

Thursday Food first met Watson at the opening of Starbucks Liguanea. There, he gave a brief presentation about a trip (underwritten by Caribbean Coffee Baristas Limited) that he and 12 local coffee farmers took to Costa Rica to visit the coffee chain's Hacienda Alsacia. Starbucks Jamaica operates as Caribbean Coffee Baristas Limited. Adam Stewart, deputy chairman, Sandals Resorts International, and Ian Dear, chief executive officer, Margaritaville Caribbean Group, are at the helm of the company.

Coffee Baristas Limited Director of Treasury and Compliance Joey Epstein helped spearhead the trip to Costa Rica. Speaking to Thursday Food Epstein said: “The main reason for sending the group to Costa Rica is due to the fact that our shareholders (Stewart and Dear) are nationalists and want Starbucks to open doors so that Jamaican coffee can have a wider global reach.”

According to the International Coffee Organisation, “coffee is the second most traded commodity after oil with consumption reporting to be about half-a-trillion cups per year”. Blue Mountain coffee is a premium product and due to its price point — approximately US$20 per pound compared to commodity coffee (the stuff we drink with wild abandon), which sells between US$1 and US$2 per pound — it's difficult to be in the volume business. However, according to Epstein, Starbucks has committed to having a blend comprised of Jamaican coffee being poured in the majority of its worldwide stores by 2019.

To establish a one-acre coffee farm costs approximately J$1.1 million and it will take a coffee farmer around two years before he/she can start earning from the crop. The crop will only yield 40% of its potential at that time and it will take five years to fully yield. It's an expensive venture, especially when you factor in hurricanes, pest, disease, fluctuating world prices and the need for a lot of nutrients. According to Watson, Jamaican farmers are planting “650 coffee plants per acre when we [JACRA] recommend 872”. Even though they plant a different strain of coffee, Starbucks Hacienda Alsacia has 2,000 plants per acre.

This and other revelations were an “eye opener” for the local farmers. “They saw the most efficient coffee-farming practices that will allow them to maintain quality, reduce illness and enhance productivity,” said Watson. Partnering with Starbucks will allow local farmers to cut out brokers and have a direct link to a buyer. “The middle man always wants to maintain the bottom line,” said Watson, and this oftentimes does not benefit the small country farmer.

At present, there are approximately 3,600 registered farmers farming some 8,000 acres of coffee in the Blue Mountains. “Eighty-five per cent of coffee is produced by small farmers so if you have inefficiencies and poor production it affects the entire trade,” said Watson. He's glad that his farmers had the opportunity to visit Costa Rica. “Starbucks will help coffee farmers by giving them seeds without the farmers having to sell coffee to Starbucks,” he revealed. However, Watson has advised his farmers that despite the seeds being “high-yield and resistant to coffee rust”, if widely planted they will, over time, “change the overall taste profile of Blue Mountain coffee”. But that's the role of JACRA — to ensure that these beans are worthy of being planted and that the Blue Mountain taste profile is maintained.

According to Epstein, the Blue Mountain farmers who went to Costa Rica are looking to “double their yield based on the training they received”. Starbucks already sells Blue Mountain coffee, but only as a part of its Reserve portfolio. Starbucks Reserve, which includes Kenyan Karinga, Vietnamese Da Lat and Guatemalan El Gigante, is some of the “world's rarest, most sought-after small-lot beans”.

In 2004 the Blue Mountains produced its highest coffee yield ever and the industry has yet to see that level of production again. Between 2004 and 2012 there were five hurricanes. There was also a massive coffee must outbreak in 2012. The international demand decreased as coffee brokers couldn't sell beans at the higher prices that would allow farmers to break even. And as a result, many farmers abandoned their coffee farms and renovated them to produce cash crops like yam, banana, carrot and plantain.

In its heyday, the Blue Mountains produced 500,000 boxes of coffee and now farmers are just hitting the 230,000 mark. It's been a rough 14 years for farmers since that bumper crop of 2004. At present, according to Watson, there are many farmers who “are making money off of coffee; living off of it even when the price goes down or there's a drought”. This success is due to farmers keeping their equipment up-to-date, regularly cutting back trees and being vigilant in maintaining plant density. It is also crucial for farmers to possess a deep understanding of plant phenology — the study of changes in the timing of seasonal events such as budburst, and variations in climate and habitat.

The good old days are not in the past. Watson is convinced that by farmers paying close attention to the market, monitoring consumer reactions, and implementing best farming practices, Blue Mountain coffee will return to peak production.

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