Jamaican coffee farmers worried by slump in sales


Sun, Oct 19, 2008 - Page 11

Producers of Jamaica’s world-famous Blue Mountain coffee said thousands of gourmet beans were piling up after two of their largest buyers withdrew without explanation.

The government-owned Wallenford Coffee Company and privately run Coffee Traders stopped buying more than a week ago, said Derrick Simon, spokesman for Jamaica’s Coffee Growers Association.

“A lot of the buyers are withdrawing at this time,” Simon said on Friday. “It’s absolutely unprecedented.”

Agriculture Minister Christopher Tufton said Wallenford would resume buying this week, but declined to explain what he says is a temporary halt in purchases.

Coffee Traders, a Kingston-based company, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The withdrawals come amid a global financial crisis that has driven down prices of raw material exports and slashed income at exporting companies across Latin America, a commodity-rich region.

Norman Grant, president of Jamaica’s Agriculture Society, said Wallenford was facing “challenges,” but declined to provide specifics.

Grant also is manager of Mavis Bank Central Factory, a top local purchaser of Blue Mountain coffee that he said has not lowered purchasing in recent weeks.

“We have remained in the market,” he said. “We’re still buying and the product has not gone to waste.”

Jamaica exported about 15,000 tonnes of Blue Mountain coffee last year. Mavis Bank and Wallenford account for 45 percent of exports, of which 85 percent is shipped to Japan.

The UK and the US are the next biggest markets for the popular bean, which earns Jamaica US$30 million annually.

Christopher Gentles, executive director at the Coffee Industries Board, said farmers have nothing to fear.

“It’s certainly not a crisis,” he said. “Everything should be back to normal very soon.”

An estimated 7,000 farmers sell Blue Mountain coffee to eight companies, including Wallenford, one of the largest purchasers along with Mavis Bank.

Blue Mountain is one of the most expensive coffee beans worldwide, selling for roughly US$13.60 per kilogram.

Jamaica’s coffee industry is still recovering from Hurricane Ivan, which devastated coffee fields in the Blue Mountain region in 2004.