Building a Future for Coffee Production in Trinidad and Tobago

Global Context

Coffee is the world’s most widely traded tropical agricultural commodity. About 148 million 60 kg bags of coffee were produced in 2015/16 from about 70 countries. Consumption however, exceeded production during that period by about 2% drawing down on stocks in storage. 71.93 million bags of Arabica coffee were exported in the twelve months ending October 2016, exports of Arabica had a total of 71.93 million bags compared to 69.21 million bags last year. Robusta exports amounted to 40.46 million bags compared to 43.81 million bags last year.
(http://www.ico.org/monthly_coffee_trade_stats.asp)

Coffee Production in Trinidad and Tobago

Estimated 14,722 ha under production in 1973 with 84% under mixed cultivation; 16% pure stand. Yields from mixed cultivation farms in Caroni were about 80.2 kg/ha, with farms in Victoria (county) producing about to 858 kg/ha. Pure stand coffee yielded approximately 1,840 kg/ha.
Note: An average of 1,800 kg/ha Robusta is produced in Brazil, with excellent growers producing 3,000 kg/ha.

The Largest production in Trinidad and Tobago was recorded in 1968 as 73,000 bags; 1975 at 65,000 bags; and in 1977 as 60,000 bags. In the early part of the last decade production was at 15-16,000 bags per year. Data published by the Central Statistical Office is summarized in the graph below.

In terms of coffee bean production the figure was 1841.8 thousand kilograms in 1960, this tally peaked at 4329.5 thousand kilograms in 1968. By 2007 the figure fell to 249.5 thousand kilograms representing an 86.5% decline over the period 1960 to 2007.

Source: http://cso.planning.gov.tt/tt-today/images/Graphs/output-coffee-cocoa-19...

Current production is unknown. Many of the coffee estates have been abandoned or converted for other uses or crops. Labour shortages and the unwillingness of unemployed youth to do manual labour on private farms have also contributed to the significant decline in coffee and other agricultural production.

What do we know about coffee in Trinidad and Tobago?

Coffee was grown primarily as a companion crop. Historically, we were told that T&T had one of the best coffees in the world. Arabica and Liberica varieties were grown as experiments at the Botanic Gardens in Port of Spain in 1875-1878 before distribution to farmers in the St Ann’s Valley and Maraval Valley who were encouraged to start commercial production (Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Vol. 1888, No. 17, 1888). At that time, Trinidad was a crown colony of the British, after it was captured from the Spanish in 1797. (Note: Trinidad and Tobago only became a single crown colony under the British in 1889).

However, Angelo Bissessarsingh noted in his article published in the Sunday Guardian of 13th March 2016 “Trinidad coffee: highly aromatic and delectable”, that coffee beans were exported to Britain in 1838. It seems therefore, that coffee may have been introduced to the island either by the earlier Spanish colonists or the French plantation owners who settled in parts of the island.

More on Angelo’s article can be found at: http://www.guardian.co.tt/lifestyle/2016-03-13/trinidad-coffee-highly-ar...

Currently there are about 21 varieties of Robusta coffee and some Arabica that can be found in the country. The varieties on Robusta found on existing farms have not been characterized to establish precise identities or flavor profiles. Climate and soils are not a limiting factor for the growth of coffee, which can be found in mountainous areas, valleys and flat lands.

Over the past five years there has been an increase in the number of coffee houses, coffee brands and popularity of coffee consumption in Trinidad and Tobago. Someone recently observed that "there are more coffee shops in some parts of Trinidad, than rum shops now". There is also an increase in the number of small, private, roasting operations found across Trinidad, but most of them depend on imported coffee. Perhaps seven or so of these roasters exist at the time of writing.

What do we need to increase coffee production?

Coffee is not seen as a priority or strategic crop by the Ministry responsible for Agriculture or the Ministries responsible for National Planning and Development, and the Economy. Local demand and global trends with a commodity crop such as coffee need to be assessed to determine our strategic positioning to re-enter the world coffee markets, but there is an increasingly high local demand that is yet to be satisfied.

A policy for the development of a coffee industry…from livelihood to business is needed. This policy should also facilitate access to labour and training of such labour. Key actions will include: coffee market development; strengthening of the commercial and management capacity of producers; improving quality and the use of technology; and data collection (especially characterisation of the local varieties) and analysis.

Branding our coffee

Similar to fine flavour cocoa and its internationally high demand, we need to do a similar thing for our superior flavor varieties of coffee…differentiating T&T coffee from the rest of the pack.

A credible system must be put in place for a ‘guarantee of origin’, quality and characteristics of authenticity and to seek Protected Geographical Indication (to promote and protect the reputation of our quality coffee and to help farmers get a premium price).

But the key question remains…who is going to do it? I think that local farmers and roasters may be the people to lead the process initially and ‘drag’ the Ministries into a new period of awakening. Interestingly, in Trinidad in 1799, to increase agricultural production in the colony, the British government ordered that: “there may be formed on its territory 1,313 sugar, 945 coffee, 304 cocoa, and 158 cotton plantations of 100 squares or 320 English acres each.” (Statistical, Commercial and Political Description of Venezuela, Trinidad, Margarita and Tobago. G. & W.B. Whittaker, 1820. London).

Maybe we need such an edict now.