Community Collections Grants Recipients: Puerto Rican Coffee Traditions with Russell Oliver

Filmmaker Russell Oliver interviewing Remy Rodriguez in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico

Filmmaker Russell Oliver interviews Remy Rodriguez. Fincas La Sombra. Guayanilla, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Russell Oliver.

This blog series features the 2022 recipients of the AFC’s Community Collections Grants program, highlighting their cultural documentation projects over the course of this first, grant-period year. The Community Collections Grants program is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which seeks to create new opportunities for more Americans to engage with the Library of Congress and to add their perspectives to the Library’s collections, allowing the national library to share a more inclusive American story. Read more about the AFC’s Community Collections Grants program here.

The following is an interview with filmmaker Russell Oliver and his Community Collections Grant project, Documenting the Stories, Agricultural Traditions, and Culture of Specialty Coffee Farmers in Puerto Rico.

Congratulations on the grant, Russell! How did the idea for the project come about?

Thank you so much, I am beyond grateful for this opportunity. Much of the film work I love to do is documentary and based in real stories, which is why I am so excited the project was chosen by the Library of Congress. The project began with an invitation to the mountains of Yauco at the locally owned coffee farm Hacienda Masini, located in the Cordillera Central region of Puerto Rico. At Hacienda Masini, which has been owned by the Masini family since the 19th century, I participated in a series of educational programs at the farm and surrounding community led by my friend and colleague Douglas Pardue, Associate Professor at the University of Georgia. I experienced first-hand farming practices, learned about the kinds of crops suitable for the area, and discovered the history of coffee and its importance to the economy of Puerto Rico.

An aerial view of Hacienda Masini Casona in Yauco, Puerto Rico

Hacienda Masini Casona, Yauco, Puerto Rico. Built in the 1860s, the Casona still serves its original functions of dwelling and coffee production in the highlands of Yauco. Photo courtesy of Russell Oliver.

Over the years I became friends with coffee farmers in Puerto Rico. I realized that many of the remaining coffee farmers were aging and wanted to pass their agricultural knowledge and traditions on to the next generation.  This led to the development of the project with my friends and team members, Keren Carrión, Remy Rodriguez, and Gustavo Arroyo, to document and preserve the knowledge of “tradition bearers” and emerging agricultural practices of Puerto Rico’s coffee farmers for future generations.

What makes Puerto Rican coffee so distinctive (and delicious)?

The quality and flavor of the coffee beans begins with them being grown between 2,000-3,500 feet above sea level in volcanic soil, with the right amount of rainfall, and beneath plenty of shade. Any variation in these conditions will influence the flavor of the beans.

Most coffee grown on the island is Arabica with a flavor profile that has a chocolate-like sweetness with notes of fruit. It’s smooth, bold, and not bitter. My friend and team member, Remy Rodriguez, of Fincas La Sombra (Guayanilla), says: “Puerto Rican coffee is known for its medium/citric acidity, sweet aftertaste, with a heavy, creamy, and silky body. The coffee has notes of caramel, milk chocolate, nuts, and spices like vanilla or cinnamon and other tropical fruits like pineapple, Spanish lime, and oranges in a medium roast.”

Though, not all coffee sold in Puerto Rico is the same, and the quality will change according to how it is processed. I suggest trying specialty coffee that is from local coffee brands using 100% Puerto Rican grown beans. In general, I have found that the best tasting coffee on the island comes from farms using more natural methods in their production.

What aspects of coffee production will the project team be documenting and how?

This project will provide new documentation of local farmers agricultural practices, knowledge, and values that continue to shape coffee production in Puerto Rico. Filming and photography will capture farmers’ stories, the architecture and spaces on farms, daily and seasonal rhythms, as well as historic and cultural artifacts. We will focus primarily on farms in Yauco, Adjuntas, Jayuya, Guayanilla, Lares, and Maricao.

Interviews with coffee farmers will be conducted in-person at local farms, haciendas, and production sites. Additionally, documentation will focus on agricultural practices and methods, everyday surroundings and material culture, coffee processing steps from seed to cup, and the daily life of coffee farmers. Photography will be used to document the filmmaking process, portraits of farmers, architecture of Haciendas, historic and cultural artifacts, clothing and tools, coffee farms, and surrounding landscapes. Fieldnotes will be produced during the project to keep a record of chronological activities, observations, and reflections.

Idelfonso Rodriguez with a coffee plant at Hacienda Masini

Idelfonso Rodriguez at Hacienda Masini. Yauco, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Russell Oliver.

With the devastation of Hurricane Maria still fresh in memory, I’m curious how coffee farmers have been impacted by the climate crisis, and what their concerns are for the sustainability of their livelihoods?

Many of Puerto Rico’s coffee farmers are concerned. According to the USDA, projections show that under high greenhouse gas emission scenarios Puerto Rico’s mean annual temperatures will exceed parameters suitable for Arabica coffee by mid-century. On this, Remy Rodriguez notes:

Remy Rodriguez walks among the shaded coffee trees at his farm, Fincas La Sombra

Remy Rodriguez walks among the shaded coffee trees at his farm, Fincas La Sombra, Guayanilla, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Russell Oliver.

“As a coffee farmer in Puerto Rico, climate change is always a big concern. Prolonged droughts, irregular rain patterns, strong winds, and frequent storms or hurricanes are always a threat. Prolonged droughts affect coffee harvests by altering flowering events, mainly extending the season, thus increasing labor requirements and future productions. Storms and hurricanes threaten coffee production every year, mainly the harvest, which coincide with hurricane season. Higher temperatures increase pest and disease populations, which decrease coffee production, yields, as well as coffee quality. All these adverse climate change effects have a major impact on farm profitability.”

The elevation on Puerto Rico is capped around 4,000 feet, and you don’t find many farms above 3,000 feet. If climate change continues as projected, it’s going to hit the island hard and put many of these farms at risk. It’s not so much about losing the coffee, but that you lose the culture. You lose the highland culture that coffee allowed to thrive, which is the national identity of Puerto Rico. My colleague, Douglas Pardue, adds that the “highlands are like the figurative and literal soul. If you lose that culture, you lose that heart.”

Read about the 2022 Community Collections Grant recipients here.

4 Comments

  1. Susan Coleman Fedor
    September 2, 2022 at 2:51 pm

    Fascinating. Interesting descriptions of distinct coffee flavors. So glad this is being documented before all possibility is lost.

  2. David Noriega
    September 2, 2022 at 4:24 pm

    I look forward to seeing the documentary. My great grandfather once owned a farm in Puerto Rico and I love to read and learn more about our culture.

  3. Maneet Kaur
    September 2, 2022 at 4:48 pm

    I am amazed and thrilled to learn about this initiative. It’s not just coffee but a cultural knowledge share which is indeed a treasure in its own. Imagine the world of opportunities opening up with this detailed knowledge. Happy to read and know about this. Keep up the good work!👍🏼

  4. Michael Logan
    September 7, 2022 at 8:49 pm

    I specifically purchased my home here located in Ciales Cigalitos specifically surrounded by some of the oldest and most beautiful coffee farms on the island for this reason. Located above 2600 ft it’s considered a secondary growth cloud forest that as immense beauty and culture for any coffee aficionado to visit and enjoy. I’m looking forward to this documentary and the opportunity farmers and scientists showcase this incredible beauty of Puerto Rico! GOTOCIALES

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