CAP-ROUGE, 27 Sept 96 (CoxNewsService) - Staring across two colorful, high-altitude acres of farmland, barefooted Lagneau Pierre says he's gambled his family's future on America's craving for designer coffee.

Pierre is one of 18,000 farmers in Haiti producing a specialty bean called Haitian Bleu as part of a U.S.-sponsored project that could bring a financial windfall to this impoverished nation. ``I used to get $40 a season, but now I could get more than $300, which means my 10 children could go to school,'' said Pierre, 57, who's sold beans, bananas and coffee all his life. ``I feel like I am more in control of things, and that I have a chance to really get something out of life.''

Inspired by Jamaica's success in selling its high-priced coffee, the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1990 launched the $7.3 million project to improve Haiti's coffee bean crop and market it to U.S. roasters.

Advisers have guided a select group of mostly illiterate farmers by teaching them new fertilization and fermentation techniques. The farmers have caught on fast, turning 500 pounds of seeds imported from Costa Rica into tens of thousands of well-shaded, thriving coffee trees. Last year, during the project's first year of sales, farmers exported 150,000 pounds of gourmet coffee beans. This year, they will export twice that amount.

The project has proved so successful it even garnered a visit last year from Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper, a spectacle that still has this remote, mountainous village buzzing with excitement. ``The farmers didn't know how to bring their product to the United States, and now they do,'' said Frantz Bissainthe, the project's marketing manager. ``They didn't know how to develop a processing program to ensure quality, and now they do.''

Named for the bluish color of the coffee bean, Haitian Bleu is sold to five U.S.-based roasters, including Oregon's Coffee Bean International and Alaska's Heritage Coffee Co., which distribute it at specialty coffee stores across the country, including Barnie's Coffee and Tea Co., Inc.

Sales of specialty coffees in the United States have climbed each of the last 30 years, and gourmet coffees now account for 20 percent of all the coffee consumed at home, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

``Haitian Bleu is sweet-tasting and smooth, very comparable to Jamaican Bleu, but cheaper, so that it sells really well,'' said Andrea Olsen, assistant manager at the Barnie's at Florida's Palm Beach Mall.

Haitian Bleu sells for $9.99 a pound, while Jamaican Bleu sells for $49.99 a pound. Most Haitians earn less than $300 a year, so farmers are baffled by Americans' willingness to pay so much for a bag of coffee. Still, it's an expensive habit that has its rewards for Haitians who have never seen the inside of a Starbucks.

Farmers earn about $2 a pound for Haitian Bleu, or four times as much as they could selling to Haitians. ``Everyone says that Americans will spend anything on coffee, and now I believe them,'' said Frankel Joseph, a life-long coffee farmer who used to earn just $33 a month on sales, but now hopes to make twice that much.

Like Joseph, most of the participating farmers live in or near the port city of Jacmel, a three-hour drive south of Port-au-Prince.

Quiet, with 10,000 residents, Jacmel has changed little since the late 19th century when it was a booming coffee port and its rich merchants imported cast-iron pillars and balconies from France and the United States to build New Orleans-style mansions.

It was the farmers around Jacmel who helped make coffee Haiti's main cash crop in the 20th century, providing more than 10 percent of exports. But the industry suffered in the 1970s and 1980s as rapid deforestation played havoc with watersheds and agriculture. Compounding the problem was low productivity. Farmers relied on rudimentary tools to grow coffee and other crops.

``More and more, farmers started to plant beans because plants mature in six months, and not in three years like coffee plants,'' said Daniel Desmarais, a project consultant. ``Now they've learned that, with patience and skill, growing good coffee can be much more profitable than growing beans.''

Trough the U.S. Agency for International Development project, farmers have been taught to remove peels from coffee cherries using high-tech machines. They make compost from leaves, and use it for fertilizer. They remove moisture from the cherries through a 10-day drying process.

Most important is the heavy promotion to a U.S. audience that's willing to pay for a quality product. Capitalizing on the popularity of Haitian art, the project commissioned 13 paintings from popular artist Vincent Gary to illustrate mugs, T-shirts, posters, brochures and other promotional items.

Now the challenge is to make the project self-sustaining, as the U.S. financial assistance is scheduled to end next year. It won't be easy, since most of the farmers don't speak English or know anything about fax machines and computers. Still, there is a real desire among the farmers to see the program succeed. ``I want to buy a new roof so that the rain doesn't come in,'' Pierre said. ``Selling my good coffee is the only way that I can do that.''


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu