BRANDON HILL, Jamaica — A few years ago in this mist-shrouded mountain town, steep slopes were quilted with some of the world's most valuable coffee trees. Farmers scrambled to increase acreage, and pickers painstakingly filled wooden boxes with ripened berries at harvest time.
Today, much of the terrain is overgrown with underbrush and bamboo as a declining luxury market in Japan and a voracious beetle drive thousands of frustrated small farmers away from tiny plots of leased highlands.
Times are hard for the growers of Jamaica's legendary coffee, especially those on isolated, low-tech farms such as the ones in Brandon Hill, a one-road enclave with no traffic lights.
"We used to make a living, but now we're working hungry," said Colin McLaren. "It's tough and getting tougher."
Jamaica produces what connoisseurs rank as one of the world's finest coffees, mostly grown on patches of a few acres between 2,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level. The moist, cool climate of the Blue Mountains lengthens the growing period from five to about 10 months, allowing sugars to develop in the beans that grow inside the berries. Many coffee lovers say the rich brew has a smooth, nutty flavor and a deep, intriguing aftertaste.
The roasted beans often sell for about $40 a pound in the United States, up to four times the price of other gourmet coffees. In Japan, the main market for Blue Mountain coffee, the beans fetch as much as $34 for a 3.5-ounce package.
But consumers are buying less because of the global economic slump. And that has brought declines in purchases by coffee dealers, as well as big drops in the prices paid to Jamaica's growers. Like farmers everywhere, they get only a small fraction of the retail price after middlemen, processors, shippers, retailers and others take their slices of the pie.
Meanwhile, the cost of producing coffee has soared for Jamaicans as inflation has driven prices for fertilizer, insecticide and wages higher over the past decade and powerful storms have damaged their trees.
McLaren said the problem has gotten so bad that he would accept being paid in fertilizer instead of cash just so that he can keep his coffee farm healthy and maintain his investment.
"That's what it's come to now," he said, looking over his mountainside farm from a ledge. "Fertilizer here costs more than a box of our coffee."
Demand for the island's coffee has plunged in Japan, where coffee lovers have long paid top dollar for Jamaican beans. Toyohide Nishino, executive director of the All Japan Coffee Association, said his country's love affair with Blue Mountain coffee has dulled because even discriminating Japanese consumers are looking for cheaper products at a time of economic stagnation.
"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 boxes of branded Blue Mountain coffee, far below the record crop of 529,704 boxes in 2003.
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 could cost Jamaican farmers as much as half of their coffee crop this year.