'This Was A Beautiful Place': Puerto Rico's Coffee Farms Devastated By Maria

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When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico almost three weeks ago, it caused much destruction across the island, including the small agricultural sector. By some estimates, 80 percent of crops were destroyed. NPR's Merrit Kennedy reports on one coffee company that is struggling with how to get back to work.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Cafe Hacienda San Pedro is a trendy coffee shop in San Juan with a long line of customers. People are chatting. A dog sits snoozing. Despite the hurricane's destruction, everything here seems very normal. But in a few months, it probably won't. Two and a half hours away in the mountains, through denuded trees and winding roads cleared by chainsaws, it's clear this coffee company has been devastated at its source.

ROBERTO ATIENZA: I think that maybe 90 percent of the plantation is - was destroyed by the hurricane.

KENNEDY: Roberto Atienza is the third generation of his family to grow coffee on this land. Harvest season was just beginning, and they barely picked any beans before Hurricane Maria blasted through. The ripple effects will continue. He expects the company, including the San Juan coffee shop, to run out of beans in December.

ROBERTO ATIENZA: In this moment, we have a good market of the coffee. We have everything, all the coffee chains, you know? But really we don't have coffee to continue.

KENNEDY: His daughter, Rebecca, owns the coffee shop. She walks through mangled hillsides and broken coffee plants. Orange and plantain trees are crumpled with fruit rotting on the ground.

REBECCA ATIENZA: This was a beautiful place with a lot of trees. And it's like a different place.

KENNEDY: She remembers first surveying the damage after the storm.

REBECCA ATIENZA: No words. Like, what are we going to do now? And we have so much to do, but we didn't know where to start.

KENNEDY: Agriculture was once central to Puerto Rico, but today it's currently less than 1 percent of the economy here. U.S. policy in the 1940s and '50s pushed manufacturing on the island over farming. But farmers like Roberto are trying to revitalize the industry. He converted this farm to a specialty coffee company, sun drying and roasting on site.

In the rural area of Jayuya, Hacienda San Pedro is one of the largest job providers. Roberto employs about a hundred people during peak harvest times. Now fewer than two dozen are working. There's not much coffee to harvest, and his workers have to rebuild their homes. Roberto picks red and pink beans from a tree damaged at the roots.

ROBERTO ATIENZA: This is OK, but really the percent of trees like this is very, very small.

KENNEDY: And many of the plants are completely stripped bare, like one hillside next to Tres Picachos, one of the tallest peaks on the island.

ROBERTO ATIENZA: From here to the top of the mountain, everything is like this. Those without leaves are coffee, yeah - no coffee, no beans, no nothing.

KENNEDY: Roberto expects it'll take at least six months to receive new coffee plants. They'll focus on areas in relatively good condition and estimate the damage to the entire plantation is more than half a million dollars.

ROBERTO ATIENZA: Because really we don't have income to put the coffee back on more.

KENNEDY: They're starting over. He expects the next good season will be in three years as long as another hurricane doesn't come through. Merrit Kennedy, NPR News, Jayuya, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUKE HOWARD'S "A SOFTER WORLD")

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