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Last updated 21 February 2006

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Home > News > Miscellaneous Document > Posted by Webmaster on 21 February 2006

JOHN L. SHERWOOD of Blue Mountain Coffee (Europe) Ltd reports on hurricane damage to the Jamaican crop

The sounds of reggae and gospel music mingle and drift across the valleys. Slowly the clouds drift apart to reveal the highest peak – the Blue Mountain itself. The mountains are spectacular and vertiginous, the narrow roads snake around the mountains clinging to the sides and you need a good head for heights to traverse them! Stunning views open up around every corner but, if you are driving yourself, you dare not look at them because of the antics of oncoming vehicles – driving is not of the best in Jamaica!

 

I am in Jamaica to assess the prospects for the new crop and secure supplies for the coming year on behalf of Blue Mountain Coffee (Europe) Ltd.

 

To achieve this means journeying deep into the most mountainous region of the island where the hurricane damage is plain to see.

 

In September 2004, Jamaica was hit by Hurricane Ivan, causing severe damage to the coffee crop and the island’s infrastructure. This was followed by a period of unseasonably dry weather, causing further stress to the crop.

 

The net result was a loss of about 60% of our well-loved Blue Mountain coffee.

 

A difficult year

In July this year (2005) Hurricanes Dennis and Emily passed close by and, although there was little wind damage, torrential rain caused severe damage to processing mills and the road system throughout the mountains.

 

The Blue Mountain Coffee Co-Operative at Moy Hall, one of the processors, sustained about US $1.5 million worth of damage! This mill, situated in Cedar Valley, was inundated with mud, water, trees and rocks when the course of the river changed dramatically.

 

Mavis Bank Coffee Factory, a well known name in the Blue Mountain business, lost a storeroom and office together with quantities of prepared coffee when flood water swept through their mill.

 

The main road through the Blue Mountains was cut in three places by landslides and numerous minor roads were completely washed away. Thus the transport of coffee from the farms to the pulperies and dry mills was severely disrupted, and coffee was spoiled.

 

As a result of complaints over recent years about the quality of Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, the Coffee Industry Board (CIB) have taken the necessary measures to ensure that only coffee of the correct colour and cup receives certification to be exported in barrels. Thus, because the coffee was stressed by climatic conditions, much of it was downgraded to “Stocklot” and packed in bags.

 

These factors have resulted in an extremely difficult year for all of us, since there simply was not sufficient coffee to satisfy the needs of the market.

 

The licensing of additional mills as exporters has increased the competition for cherries in this time of shortage, and hence the farm gate price has increased significantly.

 

In the past, the farmers were paid in two or three tranches for the cherries they delivered. These payments were timed to coincide with the need to fertilise the trees and so ensured the farmer had money available at the right time.

 

In order to compete in the cherry marketplace, some millers are now paying 100% of the money in one amount upon delivery of the cherries. This practice has a doubly detrimental effect. Firstly it encourages theft (known as ‘praedial larceny’ in Jamaica!) since, in the past, if a thief sold a quantity of cherries he would only receive the first tranche of money and was unlikely to return for future payments. Now the reward is much greater, so theft has increased and farmers are having to invest considerable amounts on security.

 

Secondly, the majority of farmers are unlikely to budget properly when they receive a large amount of money – more likely they will blow the money on a car or some other acquisition, or simply party it away! This leaves no funds for fertilizer or wages for the workers. The net result is that the crops will diminish due to lack of good husbandry, and the whole industry will suffer.

 

It will be up to the CIB to put regulations in place to overcome these problems, since it would seem the millers are not prepared to voluntarily change their ways.

 

The mountains and the coffee crop

These are truly ‘blue’ mountains due to the misty haze that is constantly shrouding them. The cloud and blue haze is one of the reasons for the Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee’s quality. Because of it, shade trees are not necessary here, and the coffee ripens slowly and fully develops its taste characteristics.

 

Looking across a valley, it is easy to spot the coffee estates dotted on the opposite mountainside. Some are one acre, some two, and some twenty, but mainly this is an area of small growers – about 6000 of them in a strictly designated site of the eastern part of the island above 1,500 feet. There are three main peaks in the area: St. John’s, St. Catherine’s and, of course, the Blue Mountain.

 

Jamaica grows coffee in other parts of the island but only coffee from within this area – comprised of the parishes of St. Andrew, St. Thomas, Portland and St. Mary – is genuine Blue Mountain. The more westerly end of the island is home to High Mountain Supreme and Prime Washed Coffees.

 

The main variety grown is Typica, with some Caturra and a few numbered varieties. The yields are not generally high, around 50/60 kilos per acre, and the sides of the mountains are incredibly steep, so tending the trees and harvesting – known as reaping – is difficult.

 

Gordon Langford, a partner in Blue Mountain Coffee (Europe) Ltd., has a small estate called Resource, which together with Whitfield Hall and Sherwood Forest, form RSW Estates. I took the long and arduous journey to Resource, up tracks that no self-respecting mountain goat would traverse, to be told, “Oh that was the easy way; we can’t get to the Estate house because both tracks have disappeared down the mountainside!”

 

The trees looked healthy in the main, with good fruit and good new growth for the next crop. However, there were some areas where trees were still defoliated as a result of the hurricanes, and the fruit on these was underdeveloped and, at the end of the branches, was not ripening but turning black.

 

We moved on to Sherwood over even worse boulderstrewn tracks and across swollen rivers – thank goodness for Range Rovers! The processing for the three estates is done here and can best be described as ‘artisan’: with rather old equipment, much of it homemade, but operated with great expertise and with huge pride taken in the final product. Because it is something of a cottage industry and because it is at a relatively high elevation, the resulting coffee is of a very high standard.

 

Clifton Mount, below St. Catherine’s Peak and belonging to the Sharp family, is on the opposite mountainside to RSW, and the roads there were very much better – just as well, since we travelled in a Suzuki and I am not so sure it had the capability of a Range Rover.

 

The trees were not as full of cherry as Resource, but the lower slopes were producing more than those at a higher elevation. This was probably due to the winds causing more defoliation at the higher levels; however the trees had good growth coming for next year. The Sharps have recently acquired some more land, which they have newly planted, on the side of St. Catherine’s Peak, and we should see that cropping in a couple of years’ time.

 

The estate house is in a fabulous position with a magnificent view down a deep valley stretching into the distance.

 

They have their own pulpery on the estate but the milling will be done at a new facility in Kingston known as Blue Mountain Coffee Processors, in which they are substantial shareholders.

 

This mill is quite impressive, with a huge barbecue drying area where the parchment is sun dried prior to being finished in mechanical dryers. They have two each of 10 tonnes’, 6 tonnes’ and 4 tonnes’ capacity, and they are fired by timber, of which there is a plentiful supply as a result of the hurricanes.

 

The dried parchment is stored in wooden silos – of which there are 12 each with about 30 tonnes’ capacity – for around eight weeks while it matures, or rests.

 

Thereafter the coffee will be hulled, screened, graded and colour sorted prior to careful hand sorting. They have facility for 100 hand sorters, seated at individually partitioned black top tables in a well-lit hall.

 

Their coffee will be exported under either the Blue Mountain Coffee Processors label or their premium Clifton Mount label.

 

My next visit was to the Wallenford Coffee Company. This used to be known as Wallenford Estate and was the Commercial Division of the Coffee Industry Board – the other part of the CIB being the Regulatory Division.

 

These entities are now unrelated, and Wallenford Coffee Company is no longer connected to the CIB.

 

David Martin, the CEO, took me to visit the Wallenford pulpery and Wallenford Estate. Changes are taking place at the pulpery in that they are building areas for drying, resting and hand sorting at this fairly high elevation. This, I believe, will improve the colour and cup quality of their coffee, since their huge dry mill at Tarrantum is in a rather hot and humid part of the island near the south coast.

 

An ‘interesting’ drive took us to the estate, or farm, which is set in an idyllic position and is in the process of being re-developed since it had been somewhat neglected of late. Additional land is being acquired and thousands of new coffee trees are being planted to fill the gaps on the original farm and to cover the new land.

 

They intend to produce a premium brand Wallenford Estate coffee and are also thinking of having a guesthouse on the farm to encourage ecotourism.

 

On another day, David took me to their Albany pulpery, which is on the north side of the island in Portland district. This involved a drive from one side of the island (and the Blue Mountains) to the other. Even the main road, which snakes through the mountains, was still damaged in places due to heavy rain and landslides.

 

The flatlands on the north side are home to the banana plantations supported by the European Union. When I was last there, in January 2005, there was hardly a banana tree left standing, thanks to the ravages of Hurricane Ivan. Bananas obviously recover more quickly than coffee, since the whole area was once more covered in banana trees and the crop looked good.

 

When we reached Buff Bay, it was time to climb into the mountains again and we made slow progress up some very challenging tracks in torrential rain. David was feeling the cold and put the car heater on – to me it was just like home! Albany is, I think, something of a showpiece, partly because of its setting and partly because it is well maintained in attractive grounds.

 

There was some coffee coming in, but rather less than on the other side of the mountains. This situation will, no doubt, regularise as the season progresses.

 

We made our way back to the coast on an even more challenging track, which really showed off the ability of the Range Rover, and arrived in brilliant sunshine for a late lunch.

 

My next visit was to the Blue Mountain Coffee Cooperative Society at Moy Hall, which, as stated earlier, had suffered severe damage due to flooding. However, I was shocked at the devastation throughout Cedar Valley, and it is a miracle no one was killed.

 

The Cooperative is comprised of a group of small farmers from the area and I have been very impressed by the quality of the coffee they are able to produce. Many of their wives are employed at the sorting tables, and I am sure this has something to do with it!

 

I congratulate everyone at Moy Hall on the fantastic job they have done in getting the mill back into production. However, while I was there a bulldozer was still clearing a mass of debris from around the main office and the contents of the building, mixed with mud and rocks, were being shovelled out. The general manager’s office and garage next to this building had been completely washed away.

 

O’Neil Blake, the General Manager, informed me that they had received considerable funds from the European Union for new equipment such as hullers and dryers. For once, EU money is being well spent on a worthy cause in my opinion!

 

They will continue to pulp at Moy Hall; however they have acquired a facility in a less vulnerable location where they will do the dry milling from the next crop.

 

Hosting the BBC

I was asked to extend my trip to assist with, and be interviewed by a BBC World Service team who were visiting Jamaica as part of a programme on the economies of Caribbean islands.

 

Gordon Langford and I took them to Gordon’s estate, where they witnessed and recorded comments from the pickers at the weekly ‘pay bill’ ceremony. This is when the pickers come to collect their wages, and our BBC friends were amused at the local characters who invariably claimed their money was wrong!

 

We then took them to visit Mavis Bank Coffee Factory, where Howard Findlator, the Marketing Manager, conducted us on a tour of the facility. They too have recovered well from the flooding, although there was still a gap where their storeroom was washed away and there was an overturned lorry in the river.

 

They were quite busy processing, so we were able to take the BBC through the whole process, including seeing and interviewing hand sorters. We even conducted a tasting with them, which was duly recorded with much clinking of cups and slurping of coffee!

 

The BBC team were fascinated by what they had seen and learned about coffee – like most people, they had no idea how much was involved. So much so, that they have decided it was such an interesting product and such a good programme, they wanted to broadcast it as their Christmas Special.

 

Prospects

My reason for being in Jamaica you will recall, was to assess the prospects for the 2005/2006 crop. I see things as follows: The weather has improved and harvesting has begun, and in some places the crop looks good, in others, not so good. The general expectation is for about a 40% improvement in the crop, which, while better, is nowhere near back to normal. That will probably take another two years and is dependent on there being no more inclement weather.

 

As a result of this, there is tremendous competition among the miller exporters to obtain cherries from the farmers. This has forced the price up internally, and we will suffer as a result of these price increases.

 

Nonetheless, I am confident that for 2006 we shall be able to satisfy most of our clients’ requirements.

 

What remains in doubt at the moment is exactly when we can expect deliveries and how much we will receive. However, we are hopeful of receiving some supplies during January, but at this early stage, this may have to be rationed.

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