BRANDON HILL — A few years ago in this mist-shrouded mountain town, steep slopes were quilted with some of the world's most valuable coffee trees. Farmers scrambled to increase acreage and pickers painstakingly filled wooden boxes with ripened berries at harvest time.
Today, much of the terrain is overgrown with underbrush and bamboo as a declining luxury market in Japan and a voracious beetle drive thousands of frustrated small farmers away from tiny plots of leased highlands.
Times are hard for the growers of Jamaica's legendary coffee, especially those on isolated, low-tech farms such as the ones in Brandon Hill, a one-road enclave with no traffic lights.
“We used to make a living but now we're working hungry,'' said Colin McLaren, standing in his sloping farm of flowering coffee trees in the wild eastern mountains where his father grew the gourmet Arabica beans before him. “It's tough and getting tougher.”
Jamaica produces what connoisseurs rank as one of the world's finest coffees, mostly grown on patches of a few acres between 2,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level. The moist, cool climate of the Blue Mountains lengthens the growing period from five to about 10 months, allowing sugars to develop in the beans that grow inside the berries. Many coffee lovers say the rich brew has a smooth, nutty flavor and a deep, intriguing aftertaste.
The roasted beans often sell for about $40 a pound in the United States, up to four times the price of other gourmet coffees. In Japan, the main market for Blue Mountain coffee, the beans fetch as much as $34 for a 3.5-ounce package.
But consumers are buying less because of the global economic slump. And that has brought declines in purchases by coffee dealers, as well as big drops in the prices paid to Jamaica's growers. Like farmers everywhere, they get only a small fraction of the retail price after middlemen, processors, shippers, retailers and others take their slices of the pie.
Meanwhile, the cost of producing coffee has soared for Jamaicans as inflation has driven prices for fertilizer, insecticide and wages higher over the last decade and powerful storms damaged their trees. Between 2005 and 2009, the cost of tending an acre of coffee almost doubled, jumping from $3,400 to $7,070.
The nation's Coffee Industry Board says farmers received an average of $50.57 for every 60-pound box of Blue Mountain coffee cherries they produced during the 2006-2007 season. Last year, they got $28.91.
Over the same period, the price of coffee elsewhere roughly doubled, according to the World Coffee Organization, as consumer demand has risen for mostly inexpensive commodity beans.
Demand for the island's coffee has plunged in Japan, where coffee lovers have long paid top dollar for Jamaican beans. Japan used to buy nearly 90 percent of Jamaica's crop and helped the island develop its brand. Now Japanese importers buy around 60 percent at depreciated prices and have stopped advance payments for green coffee, shifting the costs to Jamaican exporters.
Toyohide Nishino, executive director of the All Japan Coffee Association, said his country's love affair with Blue Mountain coffee has dulled because even discriminating Japanese consumers are looking for cheaper products at a time of economic stagnation.
This year, Jamaica is projected to produce just 140,000 60-pound boxes of branded Blue Mountain coffee, far below the record crop of 529,704 boxes in 2003. Even in 2004, when the coffee business was ravaged by Category 4 Hurricane Ivan, it managed to produce 236,405 boxes of Blue Mountain coffee.
As some farmers gave up in the lush Blue Mountains that tower over eastern Jamaica, their untended fields exacerbated a problem for those who remained by creating a breeding ground for the coffee berry borer, an invasive pest originally from Central Africa that is a headache for coffee growers around the world.
Officials say some Jamaican farmers could lose as much as half of their coffee crop this year due to the borer, an opportunistic bug smaller than a sesame seed that flourishes in abandoned fields and then spreads to working farms, further diminishing supply.
Derrick Simon, president of the All Island Jamaica Coffee Growers' Association, argues that the industry is in trouble largely because it foolishly relied on Japan almost exclusively for years and failed to diversify its markets.
McCook agrees that Jamaica needs to push into new markets. “I don't believe we should be looking back with much regret but we should have been looking forward in a better way. You could say we have been slow to react and look forward and make adjustments.”
Jamaica has been trying to expand the market for Blue Mountain coffee in Europe and the U.S., where adventurous coffee lovers can order it online from several sellers. The Coffee Industry Board also is looking for a toehold in China, where analysts predict coffee consumption will grow.
ON THE NET
Coffee Industry Board: ciboj.org/cib
Photo: Stock Photo