SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Coffee production in Puerto Rico has fallen by half in recent years, according to harvest statistics released Thursday, as the island struggles to find workers to pick the beans despite widespread unemployment.
An estimated 80,000 pounds (36,000 kilograms) of coffee was collected during the 2010-11 harvest, the Puerto Rico Coffee Buyers & Growers Association said. That's down from 90,000 pounds (40,800 kilograms) in 2009-10 — and from 178,000 pounds (80,700 kilograms) in 2006-07.
The industry earned $23 million this past harvest, compared with $35 million the previous one. In all, coffee producers left some $25 million on the table as hundreds of thousands of plants went unpicked, association president Abel Enriquez said.
"It is worrisome," Enriquez said. "Our industry is declining at a dizzying pace."
Once a prominent producer of coffee prized around the world for its high quality, Puerto Rico needs as many as 14,000 workers to fully harvest the mountainside plantations in the island's central and western regions.
But officials were able to find only about half that many last year, Agriculture Secretary Javier Rivera said — even though unemployment is nearly 17 percent in the U.S. Caribbean territory, higher than in any U.S. state.
Officials say many people prefer to work jobs such as construction that pay better than the $5 to $7 coffee pickers earn for every 28 pounds (13 kilograms) of beans they gather, or about $60 a day. Or they simply would rather stay home and collect unemployment instead of toiling under the hot sun, officials say.
"We're getting used to anticipating that monthly check," Enriquez said.
Hoping to encourage agricultural activity, Puerto Rican lawmakers passed a law last year that lets people receiving unemployment aid to earn farm wages without losing their benefits.
The measure has had little effect so far on the coffee industry, however.
Eduardo Torres, a coffee picker in his 50s who began working at age 9 in the central town of Jayuya, said he taught his daughter and two sons the trade, but the daughter quit after she got married and one of his sons left to work at a Chinese restaurant.
Torres acknowledged it's a tough, low-paid job — no way to get rich.
"I manage to make enough," he said.
The government tried recruiting about 300 inmates to work the coffee fields in exchange for wages and having 10 days shaved off their sentences per month of labor. But farmers are often wary of hiring convicted criminals, and many inmates are not skilled at the work.
Officials have also tried drafting troubled teens as pickers, though it's not clear how extensive or successful that program has been. Meanwhile, the government is encouraging school field trips to the plantations in hopes that children will not associate the work with illegal immigrants, Rivera said.
Enriquez said many unemployed islanders would be willing to work the coffee fields, but they live far away and don't have anywhere to live in Puerto Rico's 21 coffee-producing municipalities. He proposed the government help build temporary housing by converting abandoned schools, jails and other buildings.
Roberto Atienza, who for 35 years has owned the 120-acre (50-hectare) farm where Torres works, said foreign labor is likely the only solution.
"This is a disgrace to our industry," Atienza said. "Those who come to work on a farm nowadays, it is truly something rare."
The island's Department of Labor has repeatedly rejected the idea of importing coffee workers.
Coffee production was hit particularly hard last year by floods from a tropical storm that caused more than $1.5 million in crop damage.
Coffee growing has been declining for years, however, as farmers abandon their crops due to rising labor and production costs.
Coffee was grown on roughly 4,000 farms in 2009, compared with 9,000 in 2002, said William Mattei of the Association of Puerto Rican Agronomists. Less than an estimated 40,000 acres were farmed in the past year, compared with nearly 50,000 acres in 2007, he said.
"These are alarming statistics," Mattei said.
Puerto Rico was among the world's leading coffee exporters in the 19th century, but it now must import coffee from Mexico and the Dominican Republic to meet local consumption, about eight pounds per capita per year.
In 2009, the island imported 32 million pounds (14.5 million kilograms) while shipping 1.3 million pounds (600,000 kilograms) overseas, mainly to Spain, Japan and Greece.