Coffee Seeds

Coffee farmers can continue to import seeds with a federal permit, after a federal judge granted a permanent injunction ordering the local Department of Agriculture to stop interfering in the process, regulated primarily by federal laws. (Gabriel López Albarrán)

After adopting a recommendation from magistrate judge Bruce McGiverin, federal judge Gustavo Gelpí granted a permanent injunction banning the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture (PRDA) from interfering with coffee farmers that import seeds from foreign countries with a permit issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Puerto Rico Farm Bureau’s coffee sector celebrated the decision.

Despite the fact that Secretary of Agriculture Carlos Flores had announced to several media outlets his intention to challenge McGiverin’s recommendation, Gelpí stated in an order issued earlier this month that the recommendation “remains unopposed and it is hereby adopted in its entirety.”

Iris Jannette Rodríguez, president of the Puerto Rico Farm Bureau's coffee sector

Iris Jannette Rodríguez, president of the Puerto Rico Farm Bureau's coffee sector, expressed satisfaction with the decision and condemned Flores' alleged attempts to cripple the industry's recuperation after Maria. (Josian E. Bruno Gómez)

On Oct. 17, 2018, Siembra Finca Carmen sued for declaratory and injunctive relief against Secretary Flores and the deputy secretary of Agriculture, Jesús Santiago, after the agency fined the company $5,000 for importing 280 kilograms of coffee seeds from Nicaragua without the agency’s authorization. In its motion seeking the preliminary injunction, attorney Liz Arelis Cruz Maisonave, from the law firm Pietrantoni Mendez & Alvarez, argued that the laws invoked by the officials to impose the fine were preempted by the Plant Protection Act (PPA), a federal regulation meant to prevent the introduction of plant pests into the United States.

Before importing the seeds, Siembra Finca Carmen obtained a “controlled import permit” from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the office under the U.S. Department of Agriculture in charge of promulgating and enforcing the PPA. It also initiated the process of obtaining a permit from the PRDA, but the agency requested information about planting and harvesting that the company could not provide at the time. During that back and forth, the PRDA imposed the fine.

On its behalf, PRDA, represented by Idza Diaz-Rivera for the P.R. Department of Justice, responded that no such relief was merited because its actions were authorized by Puerto Rico law, which had not been preempted. It was also argued that the federal regulation in dispute only regulated interstate commerce, as opposed to foreign commerce.

Coffee trees

Hurricane Maria destroyed 85 percent of coffee farm harvests when it wrecked the island in September 2017. (Josian E. Bruno Gómez)

In a 13-page report, McGivern sided with Siembra Finca Carmen, a subsidiary of Puerto Rico Coffee Roasters, that over a year ago decided to import seeds to palliate the damage caused by Hurricane Maria. The storm destroyed 85 percent of coffee farm harvests when it impacted the island in Sept. 2017.

“In sum, the laws that authorized PRDA to require SFC (Siembra Finca Carmen) to obtain a permit prior to importing coffee seeds from foreign countries and to penalize SFC for its failure to do so, are expressly preempted by 7 U.S.C. § 7756(a),” stated McGiverin in his report.

This means that federal laws take precedence over state laws or, in the case of Puerto Rico, the territory.

The judge directly ordered the PRDA to restrain from requiring SFC to obtain a permit prior to the importation of coffee seeds for planting from foreign countries, and from levying sanctions against SFC for its failure to obtain a permit prior to the importation of coffee seeds, amongst other conduct.

Iris Jannette Rodríguez, president of the Puerto Rico Farm Bureau’s coffee sector and a second-generation farmer in Adjuntas, expressed satisfaction with the decision and condemned Flores’ alleged attempts to cripple the industry’s recuperation after Maria.

“We must remember that the secretary tried to intervene and block initiatives to plant new coffee trees. Just look at the handling of the 2 million seeds donated by Starbucks after the storm,” Rodríguez noted.

At the time, coffee farmers denounced Flores for creating a new protocol that stalled the planting of the donated seeds, hindering the recovery of a coffee industry that in 2017 had been expecting its best harvest in a decade.

“This confirms that the secretary tried to prevent coffee from being planted in Puerto Rico in a disappointing attempt to maintain the Department of Agriculture’s monopoly over the coffee supply on the island. The court’s decision also confirms that our claim was and still remains fair. The damage caused by the secretary’s actions is real, and we continue to feel its effect today with the slow recovery of our farms,” Rodríguez insisted.

While the coffee farmer favored the importation of coffee seeds, she raised questions about Flores’ policy of promoting the entry of green or raw coffee beans, a move that she believes discourages the production of coffee on the island.

“We want to make it clear that the court’s decision in no way affects the regulation that prohibits the entry of green or raw coffee for toasting on the island. The importation of raw coffee continues to be prohibited,” Rodríguez told THE WEEKLY JOURNAL.

She also chastised Flores’s handling of the coffee shortage and his alleged lack of support of the industry by making the process of issuing incentives to coffee farmers a cumbersome one.

Puerto Ricans consume 240,000 quintals of coffee, but local farmers are only producing 16,000. As a result, the PRDA is importing coffee from countries like Mexico.

Reporter for The Weekly Journal. She is a curious and fearless journalist, equipped with 16-plus years of writing. Cynthia received a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and English Literature from Sacred Heart University.

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