'This Was A Beautiful Place': Puerto Rico's Coffee Farms Devastated By Maria | KERA News

'This Was A Beautiful Place': Puerto Rico's Coffee Farms Devastated By Maria

Oct 10, 2017
Originally published on October 10, 2017 7:27 pm

Café Hacienda San Pedro, a trendy coffee shop in San Juan, is buzzing. A long line snakes through it. People are chatting; dogs sit snoozing. Everything looks normal.

But in a few months, it probably won't.

After a 2 1/2-hour drive into the mountains, through denuded trees and winding roads cleared by chainsaws, it's clear that this coffee company has been devastated at its source.

When Hurricane Maria hit nearly three weeks ago, it wiped out more than three-quarters of the island's small agricultural sector overnight, by some estimates.

"I think that maybe 90 percent of the plantation was destroyed by the hurricane," says Roberto Atienza, the third generation of his family to grow coffee on this land in central Puerto Rico. He has turned it into a specialty coffee company, with hand-picked beans that are dried in the sun.

Harvest season came late this year, he says. They had picked just 2 percent of the beans before Hurricane Maria blasted through. The ripple effects will continue — he expects the company, including the San Juan coffee shop, to run out of beans in December.

"In this moment we have a good market of the coffee, we have everything, all the coffee chains, but really we don't have coffee to continue," Atienza adds. He talks about shutting down the website. Exports, a major part of the business, no longer seem feasible.

His daughter Rebecca Atienza owns the coffee shop, and she says they are trying to work out contingency plans, such as asking for waivers to sell coffee from outside Puerto Rico and working reduced hours.

She walks through mangled hillsides and broken coffee plants. Orange and plantain trees are crumpled, with fruit rotting on the ground.

"This was a beautiful place with a lot of trees," she says. "It's like a different place."

A video from Hacienda San Pedro shows a bountiful jungle before the storm came through:

Rebecca remembers first surveying the damage after the hurricane. "No words. Like — what are we going to do now? And we have so much to do, but we didn't know where to start."

They started with cleaning the family home, which was flooded by a river flowing through the property. Then, Rebecca says, they began the long, slow work of clearing the plantation of downed trees and branches.

Agriculture is traditionally important to Puerto Rico but is currently less than 1 percent of the economy. U.S. policy in the 1940s and '50s pushed manufacturing on the island over farming.

In the mountainous, rural area of Jayuya, Hacienda San Pedro is one of the largest job providers. Roberto says it employs about 100 people during peak harvest times. Now fewer than two dozen are working.

The area was hit hard by the storm, and employees are dealing with rebuilding their homes. There also simply isn't much coffee that can be harvested.

Roberto examines beans growing on a tree damaged at the roots. "This is OK, this is OK," he says, pointing to a few mature beans that are pink and red. But, he adds, "really the percent of trees like this is very, very small."

The coffee that remains on trees is not of the quality that this artisanal grower usually sells. And many of the plants are completely stripped bare, as on one hillside next to Tres Picachos, one of the tallest peaks on the island.

"From here to the top of the mountain, everything looks like this," says Roberto, pointing to rows of what used to be full-fledged trees, reduced to spindly branches. "Those without leaves are coffee. No coffee, no bean, no nothing in some places."

The Atienzas say that getting their plantation back to full capacity is likely to take years.

Roberto expects that it will take at least six months to receive new coffee plants from the Department of Agriculture that they can replant, because the nurseries supplying them were also devastated by the storm.

Finances are also going to slow the replanting process. The plantation has insurance, but Roberto says it won't cover all of the damage. He will focus his immediate efforts on areas in relatively good condition, then move on to the rest of the plantation when he can afford it.

Roberto has a dollar figure for how much the damage will cost: "I think that the damage on coffee and crops and everything is more than $500,000."

He expects the next good season will be in three years — as long as another hurricane doesn't hit.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico almost three weeks ago, it caused much destruction across the island, including the small agricultural sector. By some estimates, 80 percent of crops were destroyed. NPR's Merrit Kennedy reports on one coffee company that is struggling with how to get back to work.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Cafe Hacienda San Pedro is a trendy coffee shop in San Juan with a long line of customers. People are chatting. A dog sits snoozing. Despite the hurricane's destruction, everything here seems very normal. But in a few months, it probably won't. Two and a half hours away in the mountains, through denuded trees and winding roads cleared by chainsaws, it's clear this coffee company has been devastated at its source.

ROBERTO ATIENZA: I think that maybe 90 percent of the plantation is - was destroyed by the hurricane.

KENNEDY: Roberto Atienza is the third generation of his family to grow coffee on this land. Harvest season was just beginning, and they barely picked any beans before Hurricane Maria blasted through. The ripple effects will continue. He expects the company, including the San Juan coffee shop, to run out of beans in December.

ROBERTO ATIENZA: In this moment, we have a good market of the coffee. We have everything, all the coffee chains, you know? But really we don't have coffee to continue.

KENNEDY: His daughter, Rebecca, owns the coffee shop. She walks through mangled hillsides and broken coffee plants. Orange and plantain trees are crumpled with fruit rotting on the ground.

REBECCA ATIENZA: This was a beautiful place with a lot of trees. And it's like a different place.

KENNEDY: She remembers first surveying the damage after the storm.

REBECCA ATIENZA: No words. Like, what are we going to do now? And we have so much to do, but we didn't know where to start.

KENNEDY: Agriculture was once central to Puerto Rico, but today it's currently less than 1 percent of the economy here. U.S. policy in the 1940s and '50s pushed manufacturing on the island over farming. But farmers like Roberto are trying to revitalize the industry. He converted this farm to a specialty coffee company, sun drying and roasting on site.

In the rural area of Jayuya, Hacienda San Pedro is one of the largest job providers. Roberto employs about a hundred people during peak harvest times. Now fewer than two dozen are working. There's not much coffee to harvest, and his workers have to rebuild their homes. Roberto picks red and pink beans from a tree damaged at the roots.

ROBERTO ATIENZA: This is OK, but really the percent of trees like this is very, very small.

KENNEDY: And many of the plants are completely stripped bare, like one hillside next to Tres Picachos, one of the tallest peaks on the island.

ROBERTO ATIENZA: From here to the top of the mountain, everything is like this. Those without leaves are coffee, yeah - no coffee, no beans, no nothing.

KENNEDY: Roberto expects it'll take at least six months to receive new coffee plants. They'll focus on areas in relatively good condition and estimate the damage to the entire plantation is more than half a million dollars.

ROBERTO ATIENZA: Because really we don't have income to put the coffee back on more.

KENNEDY: They're starting over. He expects the next good season will be in three years as long as another hurricane doesn't come through. Merrit Kennedy, NPR News, Jayuya, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUKE HOWARD'S "A SOFTER WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.