I love my morning cup of coffee. I used to be a tea drinker, but coffee is my current go-to daily indulgence. I didn’t drink coffee or tea until I had kids, but during those puffy-eyed, foggy-headed, sleepless baby years I developed a habit of going to a coffee shop for a latte. Yes, a latte. Because I am still a baby about drinking straight up black coffee. Going to a coffee shop served the dual purpose of being a treat for me (oxygen mask moment!) and a destination to get out of the house.
Finding a cozy coffee shop remains one of my favorite ways to see a new city or town. I will walk a great distance or drive quite a few miles out of my way with the lure of a local coffee shop as my destination. Some of my favorites include Reykjavik Roasters (Iceland – Icelandic folks really like their coffee!), Catalyst Coffee Bar (St. Albans, VT), the Kalaheo Coffee Company (Kauai, Hawai’i), and Café Loco (Panajachel, Guatemala).
In Guatemala, I had the opportunity to visit small-holder coffee farmers who are members of a cooperative called De La Gente. I loved this visit, of course, because coffee was involved, but also because it was my first chance to meet actual coffee farmers. I had seen large, glossy images of coffee farmers plastered on the walls of chain coffee shops – coffee farmers tending their crops; coffee farmers posing happily with freshly picked beans or with their family in front of a bright red, newly scrubbed jeep; coffee farmers staring across vast, idyllic landscapes. I had seen advertisements for Fair Trade practices, the happy smiles in the photos implying that life as a coffee farmer was good. But those images smack majorly of marketing campaigns, and I have always wondered: who really and truly are the people behind the coffee and what are their lives actually like?
As usual, the story is more complicated than a Fair Trade label and a sustainable living for farmers (known in industry lingo as “producers”). In the central Highlands of Guatemala, coffee grows in the folds of picturesque volcanoes. This area produces some of the best coffee in Guatemala because it is the perfect micro-climate for these shade-grown plants. Except when the volcano erupts, of course.
For these coffee producers, the commute is a walk up the hill to the higher elevations where the coffee beans grow. The cooperative model has had a positive impact on farmers in this area. With 28 coffee growers working together, they are able to get better prices. So that’s a good thing. Better prices should mean more money in the pocket of the farmers. Hopefully. As part of a direct trade cooperative, the De La Gente farmers are better off than many. But they still work 12-hour days, sometimes more. And they are still extremely vulnerable to the smallest change in circumstances out of their control – weather, infestation, global prices, health issues within the family.
Coffee is only harvested once per year, apart from in Columbia. This means that, for producers, managing cash flow is extremely challenging. All of their annual income is realized in a matter of one or two weeks. The farmers dream of more than just barely surviving. Stability and predictability are not yet a reality; margins are extremely thin.
How vulnerable are coffee farmers? Coffee plants rely on a temperate climate with a specific range of degree in temperature. Martin Mayorga, of Mayorga Organics, says, “If you doubt climate change, go talk to some coffee farmers. 1,000 meters was prime elevation for growing really high quality coffee in Central America. One or two degrees of climate shift, it becomes basically unsustainable.” Climate change is already impacting low-altitude coffee-producing regions because of increasing temperatures, making plants more vulnerable to insects and diseases.
In 2013, coffee rust impacted many coffee farmers in Central America. The result of this disease outbreak meant the producers weren’t able to produce enough coffee to meet their loan payments. I should mention that coffee farmers often rely on loans to bridge the gap between growing seasons. These loans come with high interest rates. If their once-per-year payment from that year’s coffee production isn’t sufficient, the farmers can’t pay back their loans. The cycle and insecurity intensify and deepen year after year.
In Guatemala, much of the coffee grows in the shadows of active volcanoes. According to Henry Wilson of Perfect Daily Grind, the world’s largest English and Spanish coffee publication (with 5 million page views), during the volcanic eruption of Volcan del Fuego in June and November 2018, coffee production decreased by 30%. How does anyone survive under these conditions?
The solution(s)? According to Mayorga and Wilson, the prescription for producers is diversification. Producers need to be adaptable to market forces, but also to the varied outside forces that impact their ability to produce high-quality coffee. Diversification enables producers to generate income from a range of products over the course of the year. Portfolio diversification equates to risk management. Both Mayorga and Wilson have begun to work with farmers to produce and market other crops that grow well where coffee grows such as chia, cacao, beans, and quinoa. According to Wilson, the coffee farmers near Volcan del Fuego survived their losses in 2018 because they had already diversified their crops.
On the consumer side, we can be more thoughtful about where the beans that fuel our day come from, how they are produced, and by whom. And we can demand better if it’s not good enough. It’s easy to forget where the supply chain that gets products onto our supermarket shelves starts, but it’s important to think about it. As Mayorga Organics notes in its purpose statement, “The solution isn’t as simple as paying farmers a few cents more. It’s about treating our farmers as EQUAL PARTNERS and empowering them through communication and cooperation. It’s about ‘trimming the fat’ in the agribusiness supply chain to create more value for farmers and for consumers–all while obsessively focusing on quality.”
The world is a complicated place. The problems in developing countries are often interrelated – the systems of export-based economies set up during colonial periods endure, keeping the poorest mired in cycles of hopelessness and poverty from which they cannot escape. In primarily agrarian economies, diversifying crops leads to greater stability for farmers on a year-over-year basis. The less vulnerable farmers are, the better able they are to weather the impacts of climate change, and the more likely they are to allow their children time away from the farm to pursue an education. The more educated the populace becomes, the deeper their understanding of the forces that impact their daily lives, from climate change to politics. It’s all connected. No one can pour from an empty cup.
I am not an expert on these subjects by any stretch. But they matter. Here are some further resources to pore over as you pour and enjoy a nice, warm beverage to start your day:
10 Reasons Fair Trade Coffee Doesn’t Work
Changing Challenges and Solutions for Guatemalan Coffee Producers
Small Coffee Farmers Need to Diversify
Acknowledging the Impact of Slavery and Colonialism in the Coffee Industry
Cultivating Change Podcast
PS – Check out the video below to further understand the conditions in which producers of various commodities the U.S. imports work, thanks to Martin Mayorga. He writes, “The farmers we typically work with are usually in remote areas, don’t have proper tools, and are most easily exploited by large traders. Our goal is to give them stable income and work with them to develop their skills, tools, and capacities so THEY can choose who they work with. It’s a long, challenging process but if we don’t go into those communities, those producers will continue to be exploited and consumers will be the unknowing tool used for exploitation. (BTW, these farmers are separating chia seed from the husk. It’s the first of many steps necessary to get to pure, clean chia seeds and is done using tractors in industrialized farms)”.