AGRICULTURE

Cuban coffee crop decimated by Hurricane Sandy

HAVANA — Reuters

People walk on a street littered with debris after Hurricane Sandy hit Santiago de Cuba Oct. 26, 2012. Cuba’s coffee crop was decimated by the killer storm, with 20 to 30 per cent of the crop on the ground, processing centres damaged, and renovated plantations wrecked. (DESMOND BOYLAN/REUTERS)

Hurricane Sandy decimated the Cuban coffee crop and delivered a major setback to renovation of old plantations when it ripped through the eastern part of the country late last week, according to scattered media reports.

The storm left between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of the crop on the ground, damaged processing centres and roads and felled thousands of trees upon plantations as it pummelled the Sierra Maestra Mountains, where 92 per cent of the crop is grown.

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The coffee harvest runs from September through January, but peaks in October and November.

Coffee production was already expected to weigh in at some 5,300 tonnes of semi-processed beans, compared with 7,100 tonnes in the previous season and an initial plan of 8,500 tonnes.

Reuters now estimates output will be below 4,000 tonnes, the lowest in more than a century.

The official Granma newspaper reported on Monday that Guantanamo province, the country’s second producer after Santiago de Cuba, “lost 174,475 cans of beans” and “47 processing centres were damaged”.

Cuba often reports coffee output in cans, with 525 cans equal to a tonne.

Still-to-be-quantified losses were also reported in the eastern provinces of Granma and Holguin, the country’s third and fourth producers.

The devastation was far worse in Santiago, which took the brunt of the storm and where losses were still being tallied.

“Songo-La Maya is an agricultural municipality … The initial figures for coffee, its main crop, indicate a loss of 84,000 cans, while 4,500 hectares of plantations and another 650 in development are damaged due to the trees that fell on them,” the province’s newspaper, Sierra Maestra, reported on Sunday.

There are eight coffee-producing municipalities in Santiago de Cuba.

The National Information Agency, reporting from the Cruce de los Banos municipality on Saturday, said: “Initial estimates by municipal authorities indicate more than 300 hectares of coffee plantations damaged by falling trees and dozens of tonnes of mature beans felled and washed away.”

How much of the remaining and now quickly ripening coffee beans could be picked and processed, given the destruction Sandy left behind, was unclear.

Communist-run Cuba’s 35,000 growers, in exchange for low-interest government credits and subsidized supplies, must sell all of their coffee to the state.

The country’s plantations, which at the time of the 1959 revolution produced 60,000 tonnes of coffee, have steadily declined ever since.

Cuban President Raul Castro, as part of his efforts to improve food production and cut imports, has pointed to coffee as a crop ripe for increased attention and growth.

Cuba imported 18,000 tonnes of semi-processed beans from Vietnam in 2010 at a cost of $38-million (U.S.), and slightly less in 2011, though no figures for that year are available.

The state has leased abandoned plantations over the last few years to hundreds of individuals to grow coffee and has nearly tripled the price it pays farmers for their beans.

Millions of dollars have been poured into replanting most of the country’s 74,000 hectares (183,000 acres) of plantations, which have been neglected for decades, and improving processing facilities.

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