Special to the Sun-Sentinel
CAP-ROUGE, Haiti -- After growing coffee on a green Caribbean mountainside for 60 years, Ilorgy Avril believes he has finally learned how to grow the perfect bean. Others may call it experience, but Avril attributes a large part of his success to a U.S.-backed development project that has helped local planters meet the standards of finicky gourmet coffee drinkers in the United States. ''This is good coffee. It tastes better than what we used to grow. It has a lighter flavor,'' Avril says.
The struggle to market Haitian coffee is crucial for a nation seeking to recover economically and reverse widespread deforestation. And thanks to quality improvements and the development project's new marketing plan, Haitian coffee has shown up on the U.S. market in time to battle for a spot on the shelves while a nationwide java craze still rages.
In South Florida, the coffee -- called Haitian Bleu -- is available in 14 Barnie's Coffee & Tea Company stores. Coffee sellers were skeptical at first because Haiti had not produced a gourmet-quality coffee brand in their memory, but they have warmed up to Haitian Bleu in the three years since it began percolating in the United States.
''When we first started purchasing it, we didn't know how it would sell. Then it took off,'' says Scott Young, who managed the Barnie's store in Plantation before moving to a store that is opening Thursday at Cypress Creek Road and North Andrews Avenue. ''We have carried it a little over a year, and it's just a delicious coffee.''
While waiting for new shipments from the coffee harvest that just ended, the Haitian coffee was hard to come by. Young says the Plantation store had none in stock from January to April. The same has been true at other stores.
''It's been a tremendous, tremendous seller for us,'' says Pamela Starr, senior marketing manager at the Barnie's corporate office in Orlando. ''We have run out every time we have been able to put it into our stores.''
Haitian coffee shares the best pedigree a cup of Joe could want -- it's the same type of coffee plant and grown in the same region as the wildly successful Jamaican Blue Mountain bean. In fact, that's the coffee Barnie's employees mention as most similar when curious customers ask how Haitian Bleu tastes.
The flavor, they tell customers, is rich, and somewhat sweet. Store manager Young describes Haitian Bleu as ''not overly strong, with a lot more flavor than a Colombian coffee. It's not as acidic.''
And Haitian Bleu sells for $9.99 a pound at Barnie's. Jamaican Blue Mountain is by far the store's most expensive bean, at $49.99 per pound.
Despite Haiti's potential as a coffee exporter -- as a French colony in the late 18th century it was the world's leading producer -- Haitian coffee exports have declined in quantity and quality during the past half-century.
The main reason has been a lack of investment in processing facilities needed to crank out beans good enough to sell in specialty stores, says Gary Talboy, Haitian Bleu's international marketing manager.
At Haiti's Coffee Planting Project, run with U.S. Agency for International Development money, the plan is to change that downward slide by introducing better coffee processing, and by ensuring growers a good price by cutting out local middlemen and selling directly to the United States.
From 1990 to 1996, the project spent $5.8 million to help 20,000 farmers belonging to 24 local cooperatives. The project united them into a single federation, which acquired an export license in order to sell the coffee directly to customers abroad. That cut out brokers in Haiti, which increased the farmers' potential share of profits from their coffee, project managers say.
The project helped farmers plant 4,350 acres of coffee. This effort, along with planting new trees on existing plantations, required 5.7 million coffee seedlings, along with nearly a quarter-million plantain plants and 30,500 citrus trees. Because coffee needs moist soil, coffee farmers plant other trees around the coffee to provide shade.
Agriculture agents working for the project helped farmers boost production by improving techniques, too. They shared information about properly spacing coffee trees, replacing old trees that have passed their peak years, and other ways to produce more beans on the same land. To launch the project's second phase, marketing in the United States, the cooperatives also needed new facilities for processing the coffee, a necessary step in meeting the demands of specialty coffee shops.
The agricultural institute helped the farmers set up 23 processing plants to wash the beans, sort out only the ripe beans, and then sun-dry them on clean, cement drying beds. The coffee is then sold to U.S. companies, which ship it to their own roasting plants and then market it.
Growers in Haiti normally harvest all their coffee cherries at once, mixing the ripe with the green and drying all together wherever there is space. That usually means spreading them out in the dirt. Then they pan-roast what they will drink or sell locally themselves, and put the rest in bags destined for sale to an exporter or a middleman.
Outside farmer Avril's coffee-growers cooperative in Cap-Rouge, the farmers are eager to talk about how their business has changed since they began working with the Coffee Planting Project.
''Before, we just planted coffee without knowing whether we were doing things right,'' says David Jolicoeur, 61, a neighbor of Avril and treasurer of the cooperative. ''Now, with the coffee planting project, we see how profitable this can be. That encourages people to plant more coffee, and to do it more carefully.''
The difference shows in the coffee cup, Talboy says. Haitian coffee processed the old way has inconsistent flavor, sometimes too musty, sour or bitter, he says, and that's not so with the washed coffee beans.
''It's night and day,'' he says. ''The average coffee consumer will not think this is coffee that comes from the same place as coffee produced the traditional way.''
The traditional funneling of the beans through two layers of brokers drains off profits, and thereby decreases the farmers' incentive to invest the labor and money required to produce top-quality beans, project managers say. Finding a way to increase the farmers' profits was seen as the key to getting and keeping more coffee trees planted in the Haitian mountains.
The prosperity of the Haitian countryside depends heavily on the harvests of the coffee planters, because their crop is one of the few reliable sources of cash income for farmers in the poorest country in the Americas.
Environmentalists in Haiti view the future of the country's coffee growers as a key factor in the effort to end the devastating trend of deforestation.
There is a direct link between the amount of land in Haiti that remains immune from deforestation and the amount of Haitian coffee that ends up in mugs in the United States and in espresso cups in Italy.
Coffee trees need protection from other trees to keep the soil they grow in moist. Coffee plantations account for more than half of the 3 to 5 percent of Haiti's land still covered year-round by trees. Whenever a harvest is bad or the price low, more farmers have to chop down trees to plant food crops and to make charcoal they can sell for quick cash, farmers say.
During the tumultuous 1991-1994 military dictatorship, many farmers in the Cap-Rouge area and other coffee-growing parts of Haiti had to clear their trees to survive.
''Everybody knows trees are something you need to protect,'' farmer Jolicoeur says outside his cooperative's community store. ''You need trees to protect the land, and to bring the rains. But when people can't make any money from coffee, they have to cut their trees and plant other crops. Otherwise, where are they going to get food for their children?''
Avril says he can understand the pressures that force some Haitian farmers to chop down their coffee trees. He just hopes he never has to make that choice. ''I have been planting coffee since I was a boy,'' Avril says. ''If I lost my trees, I don't know what I would do.''
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