Coffee farmers affected by labour shortage
A section of deplorable roads leading to Maveric Farms operated by Mavelyn Watson, a coffee farmer in the St Andrew hills.

Farmers of the famed Blue Mountain coffee have, among other infrastructural challenges, lamented what they believe to be the scarcity of workers needed to drive seasonal production.

Like several other industries locally, which have also been plagued by labour shortage, some coffee farmers have cited a mass exodus of their workers, which they say has worsened since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Ronald Rodney, a coffee farmer who operates the Radonor Estate situated in St Thomas near the peak of the world-renowned Blue Mountains, said that his numbers are now down to six, moving from over 30 workers in previous years.

“COVID has changed a lot of things. We have seen the loss of a number of our more seasoned workers as many of them moved on to engage in other ventures during the lockdown and slow periods. Since then, several of them have not returned. Those we have now are fairly new and sometimes they don’t even stay for too long as coffee harvesting requires long hours and a lot of people can’t manage, so what we have found is that the newer workers will sometimes come for a day when they need quick cash and then they do not return,” he said during an interview with the Jamaica Observer.

Coffee beans on a tree at a Blue Mountain farm

Reaping several boxes of the product from his eight hectares weekly, the seasoned farmer of 20 years further explained that, “Coffee is picked by the box and farmers are paying $2,000 per box. While we have some workers who can pick up to four boxes per day, others are not as agile and can probably reap just a box and a half per day, so this has become less attractive for many of them right now.”

Mavelyn Watson, a female coffee farmer who cultivates over three hectares of the crop at her registered Maveric Farms Ltd located in St Andrew, expressed a similar plight, noting a 50 per cent dip in her staff, which reduced from 30 to 15 people.

“First time I had a lot of workers during reaping seasons but not anymore. Most of the workers I now have, I have to import from other communities as I can hardly find anyone. I may have to continue in doing so as it’s hard to source people, but we have to get creative in order to have operations continue,” she indicated to Sunday Finance.

Despite the shortcomings, she believes the sector remains a viable one, which, based on her lifelong experience, also proves to be a good source of income for farmers and workers alike. Similar to her other counterparts, she, however, believes that outside of current labour issues, there were several other structural impediments hampering the growth and productivity of the coffee industry.

Citing deplorable road conditions, restrained access to lands and finance, high cost of inputs, particularly fertilisers and chemicals along with some unfavourable impacts from weather conditions among the other challenges with which they also contend, the farmers strongly believe that Government needs to provide more support to keep the industry going.

Head of the Jamaica Coffee Growers Association, Donald Salmon, further said that, while the sector remains resilient, there were obvious issues that needs to be addressed, towards this end he stressed the need for more public-private partnerships to ensure greater protection and security for particularly the smaller growers.

Underscoring the ongoing loss of personnel, he fears that, that industry, which is now down to some 5,000 farmers may, overtime, become unsustainable.

“Over the last 20 years we have lost about 10,000 farmers as they, too, have left the industry to take up other jobs,” he told the Sunday Finance.

This, in turn, he said, has also began to affect yearly yields. “The high mountain coffee during the 90s was about 300,000 boxes per year, this is now less than 10,000 boxes per year. The Blue Mountain, which at one stage was up to 500,000, is also now down to 250,000 boxes per year. The figures don’t lie and they show that the sector is losing out in productivity.”

“With the increase in inputs now trending above 100 per cent, this could further push the small farmers out, leaving the industry to be overtaken by international players of other large farmers operating locally,” he added.

Also a coffee farmer, Salmon, like the others, share the view that a move up the value chain could significantly help to drive growth in the industry. This, he believes, can be realised if more opportunities were created for farmers to not just plant and reap the crop but also engage in value-added activities through processing. Currently, farmers mainly produce and harvest coffee beans which they sell on average at $9,000 per box. The product is then exported, after which the luxurious blend and specialty-ranked commodity is later processed by mainly overseas companies.

A view of the Blue Mountains, home of the world-revered Jamaican coffee
Kellaray Miles

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