BRANDON HILL, Jamaica (AP) — 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 Jamaica's 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 (610 to 1,525 meters) 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 100-gram (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.
An increasing number of exasperated Jamaican farmers say they can't even eke out a bare living growing the specialty crop.
The nation's Coffee Industry Board says Jamaican farmers received an average of $50.57 for every 60-pound (27-kilogram) 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.
McLaren said the problem has gotten so bad that he would accept being paid in fertilizer instead of cash just so he can keep his coffee farm healthy and maintain his investment.
"That's what it's come to now," he said, looking over his mountainside farm from a ledge. "Fertilizer here costs more than a box of our coffee."
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.
"Consumers really have to watch their budgets, and Blue Mountain coffee is an expensive brand," Nishino said. "So instead of Blue Mountain, coffee from Colombia and Brazil is more popular these days."
This year, Jamaica is projected to produce just 140,000 60-pound (27-kilogram) boxes of branded Blue Mountain coffee, far below the record crop of 529,704 boxes in 2003. Even in 2004, when Jamaica's 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.
Industry leaders are distributing about 50,000 sticky traps containing a dab of pheromone that lures the tiny beetles inside, and they're trying to educate farmers about how to get rid of the pests by hand. The government, meanwhile, is distributing small aid payments to help with fertilizer purchases.
Gusland McCook, advisory officer with Jamaica's Coffee Industry Board, said the island has to get the borer population down or else its "going to be catastrophic." And the fall in prices for Blue Mountain beans makes that tougher.
"A true, faithful coffee farmer can deal with the borer, (and) with more storms. But if the big man makes it so he can't make a living, well, that's another story," said Danavan Edwards, a 29-year-old farmer with a plot near McLaren's land.
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.
Prices have edged back up, although they're still far below what growers used to get. Mavis Bank Coffee Factory Ltd., a major Jamaican processor and exporter, just promised growers a final price of $35.75 for each box they produce.
Not all Jamaican growers face the same hardships. Farmers with a do-it-yourself approach at higher, cooler elevations find they don't need to spray often for the damaging beetle, which is far more common at lower altitudes.
David Twyman of the Old Tavern Coffee Estate brand cultivates and roasts coffee at his family's 150-acre property and relies largely on mail order customers in the U.S., Canada and Taiwan who come back year after year.
"We've found that once we get people to try our coffee, they will be back," Twyman said at his lush farm perched high in the mountains perch where he gives tours and steaming cups of black coffee to tourists and other visitors. "Our customers want a more personal connection."
Associated Press writer Eric Talmadge in Tokyo contributed to this report.
Coffee Industry Board: http://www.ciboj.org/cib
Old Tavern Coffee Estate: http://www.exportjamaica.org/oldtavern/ourcoffee.htm