"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. "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
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