The Wonderful Adventure of Growing Coffee in the First World
by Jaime Fortuņo, Yauco Selecto Estate Coffee
So, you wake up every morning and stop on your way to work for a cup of your favorite coffee. Lately, you are a bit confused because your friendly barista has a selection of coffees bigger than the wine list that you get at that fancy restaurant that your spouse so adores. Guatemalan Antigua? Ethiopian Harrar? Yauco Selecto-Puerto Rico? Many times you get a chance to look at the different bags as they store the yet to be roasted green coffee beans. Each origin features a very distinctive logo with place of origin and many times farmer's marks differentiating one from the other. This morning, as you battle between sleep and preparing for that 9 a.m. meeting, we are going to take you on a journey that is both far and near. Take of your jacket, put on the boots and get ready to enter the world of growing coffee in the First World.
Our coffee's name is Yauco Selecto aow-'ko se-lek-toe). We grow it in the Southwestern Mountains of the Caribbean side of Puerto Rico. For the past five years we have been producing a limited quantity of our coffee for the international specialty coffee market. Ours is the kind of project where production costs dictate our marketing strategy. By growing our coffee in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory since 1898, we operate with labor and production costs in line with the "Developed" (or First) world. In simple terms, if we were in the shoe business, it would be as if we were manufacturing in Manhattan while Nike and Reebok were crafting their sneakers with the help of $3 a day laborers in Malaysia. Why do we do it? What is it like? Patience please, allow us to take you around for a bit and you will understand.
As you get ready to visit our coffee reality, you may start to think about what you know about coffee. Coffee growing brings forth images of small villages with unpaved roads and Juan Valdes clones. Hollywood has them running around in perfectly pressed white cotton outfits that do not wrinkle or get stained despite the hard labor involved with coffee growing. The truth is a lot more romantic and diverse. From India to Kenya and from Mexico to Peru, all tropical nations cultivate coffee. Each country's r!egions will offer a very distinctive taste to the market. The way coffee is grown is also very particular to each area. The culture that centuries of harvesting has created in each region is rich in tradition and rituals.
From an economic perspective, coffee is the greatest employment generator worldwide, particularly in the Third World countries of the Tropics. On average, workers in the coffee industry have poor economic conditions. The fluctuations in coffee prices combined with the overall socioeconomic situation of most growing countries, dictate that this labor intensive, high risk, agricultural industry is dominated by a "commodity product" mentality. This means producing with the lowest possible labor costs, varying degrees of environmental awareness, and in many cases, centralized controls that seek to please the interests of First World buyers. In these efforts, distinguishing an origin by quality and taste takes second place to the requirements of matching a particular price. Clearly, a producer like Yauco Selecto can not operate in an environment where price is the #1 factor. Likewise, our growing practices have very strict guidelines set by the USDA and the EPA that have a positive yet expensive effect on our environment.
Ten years ago, the Yauco Selecto export project would have been laughable at best. There was very little market interest in anything but a low priced coffee. Our farmer-owners sold
exclusively in Puerto Rico's market. The Government of Puerto Rico had long ago established cost protections to the industry so that local consumption sustained the jobs of our 250 year old coffee industry. But then, the specialty market evolved. Small artisan roasters popped up all across the U.S. and quickly grabbed a 30% share of the coffee market. Many of these roasters emphasized the distinctive characteristics of particular coffee producing regions, and in our case, of estates producing coffee with a branded name and a consistency to match it. Finally, coffee was receiving the recognition that wine had been granted. Beyond the certain roasting expertise and commitment to freshness that micro roasters offered, was their ability to establish relationships with quality specialty coffee growers who offered a distinctive taste recognizable by the most neophyte coffee consumer. In a reversal of fortune, what was once an industry controlled by economic forces of the First World, was opening the door to the Third World's coffee experts. A strong partnership was born between roaster and grower, regardless of origin, language or geographical location.
In 1990, three master growers, Puerto Rico's leading coffee processor, and we (former investment banker and mental health administrator), decided to forge ahead with our Yauco Selecto project. At the time, the international commodity green coffee price was hovering at around 60 cents a pound. We ran our numbers, studied the reality of $60 a day labor costs for our workers vs. $3 a day in other countries (no complaints here, we want them to have a higher standard of living), and decided that if the specialty market was going to buy our coffee we had to offer our green (not roasted) beans at $5 a pound to make a living. To this date, I remember the one light of hope shed in that meeting "If the roasters pay $9 a pound for Jamaica Blue Mountain (1994 JBM price is $18/lb), maybe there is room for us...".
I am not going to take you through the painstaking details of the massive work involved in establishing a "wine equivalent" branding for coffee. I would rather refer to them as "wonderful memories". Curiously enough, one of the first memories is of a visit during the first month of production by one of the world's leading coffee importers. I can now compare that experience to taking your medical board exams during Freshman Week in college. Surprisingly enough, this older French gentleman believed in us more than perhaps we believed in ourselves at the time. The price? Well, his first comment was that we were all crazy. By the end of the week, and after several opportunities to cup our Yauco Selecto, he placed a big order which not only surprised us, but carried us through the first year. We learned one thing from his visit: our coffee had a unique taste. No marketing program, recognizable spokesperson or gimmick would have the power of this statement. The race turned from a blind search for roasters to an organized effort to contact artisan roasters who would recognize that taste that our French visitor had described as creamy, sweet, with great body and an arresting aftertaste.
If there is one advantage to being a First World coffee producer is the availability of flight connections from Puerto Rico to the world. Since 1990, we have traveled the globe promoting our coffee. Interestingly enough, on a recent Italian visit, we met with a group of roasters who had never met farmers face to face. For them coffee did not have a face behind the bag markings. The thought of seeing an actual coffee plantation or engaging with people who deal with the agriculture side of the industry, was totally foreign. Their reaction was extremely positive.
No matter where we travel or who do we meet, we are always asked about our growing conditions. Thankfully, the growth of specialty coffee roasters has brought with it an increased awareness about the people and the environment where the coffees are grown. Many times, a particular cause (migratory bird friendly, organic, revenue sharing, etc.) is used in promoting a particular coffee. A recent episode of 'FRASIER", the hit NBC comedy has Kelsey Grammer buying a cup of coffee. The barista runs down a list of different origins to which "Frasier" responds with a negative political or environmental issue. Finally he settles for a Hawaiian Kona because he can't think of an issue against it. Yauco Selecto's position has been clear from the beginning. As a First World coffee producer we abide by the following:
1) Our coffee is grown under strict environmental guidelines set forth by federal agencies as well as our very own practices. We strive to offer a product with a natural production, where water quality is preserved, and with serious consideration for our surrounding ecosystem.
2) Our labor force receives the highest pay available in the coffee industry. We compete for workers with Eli Lilly and IBM. The health and well being of each worker is a priority. Children go to school, not to work in the farms.
3) Ownership of Yauco Selecto remains close to the farm. The majority owners of our effort are the actual farmers.
As you escape to our farms for a short visit, you will see the green of trees with the intensity that is only found in the tropic. Past the modern highway, the Hilton hotel, and the McDonald's on the base of the mountain, you find a town where people live longer than under any other jurisdiction of the United States. College graduates have taken the place of migrant workers and, despite the trappings of modern society, people forge a balance between a laid back and hospitable culture and a strong American work ethic. Up the hill, a windy road takes you the seven miles that it will take to get to the top of the mountain. The trip from San Juan has taken you 2 hours and slightly over 100 miles of super highway. These short 7 miles will take an hour and will bring in contact with a world that is far removed from that which you left behind.
Arriving at the farm, Roberto Atienza, a Yauco Selecto farmer-owner, will welcome you and will offer a tour of the farm. The pride in growing a coffee that is now sold prominently in 15 countries around the world is evident. No arrogance, simply the satisfaction of seeing a dream develop. The power of silence at the top of the,mountain will belittle the hustle and bustle of the city that you just left behind. As you walk around the old arabica coffee trees, you discover a very red soil. This clay based mountain nurtures the trees and gives the coffee that particular taste. We will not let you go back to your 9 a.m. meeting without spending some time at the processing plant. There you will perhaps spend the night next to the drying drums, waiting for the precise moment to remove the Yauco Selecto beans. No one said that romance and hard work were unrelated.
Quickly, as you leave us to return to your daily activities, we hope to have left a simple message: Yauco Selecto and our fellow coffee growers in Hawaii, Martinique and Guadeloupe bring you a top quality cup of coffee, despite competing at a strong cost disadvantage. Our efforts are based on offering a unique coffee taste at a price that we can operate for the long run. Your support of our effort is key to sustainable coffee growing in the First World. Next time you visit your specialty coffee retailer you will know a lot more about our segment of the market. Perhaps. this will be the day that you give one of us a try. Have a good day.
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