Why are smallholder farmers "vulnerable" and what's the "uncertainty"? Getting specific about the issues

Many of us interested in sustainability, rural economics, transnational supply chains, food security, and many other social and environmental fields, grasp some of the reasons why smallholders are vulnerable. But too rarely is it summarized in one place. In preparation for an article I'll put out next week about the role of the private sector in supporting farmer resilience, the purpose of today's post is to consolidate some contributors to smallholder vulnerability, with reference to a Latin American coffee context.

Coffee is a soft commodity of a high degree of interest to international companies. In Colombia, over 500,000 small farmers depend on coffee, and many live in a climate of uncertainty due to low prices, threats to quality and productivity, high production costs, and insufficient farm-level income and nutritional diversification.

Since many farmers produce in a subsistence manner, they have trouble saving money and struggle to reinvest in their crops. This can have a negative impact on the environment, as well as the quality of the goods they produce, since it compromises good agricultural practices. For example, many coffee farmers apply fertilizers and pesticides incorrectly or insufficiently due to cash flow problems or lack of knowledge, leaving it open to infestations and vulnerable to diseases like coffee rust. Coffee rust, or "la roya", is an affliction causing major problems in Central and South America, and has wiped out entire harvests, leaving farmers with nothing.

Climate change also threatens farmers and the ecosystems in which they live. Weather phenomena attributable to climate change are known to impact flowering of coffee plants, which can damage productivity, quality, and resultantly, farmer income. Furthermore, weather influences have led to coffee ripening throughout the year. Cherries have to be collected every fifteen days, or, depending on the varietal, they fall to the ground and rot. Farmers often have trouble finding workers to harvest the ripe cherries, due to rural-to-urban migration, large-scale infrastructural projects competing for workforce, and more localized social challenges, such as alcohol consumption, fostering disinterest in the potential  workforce.

Some farmers do not have the title for the land they farm.  Many farmers do not have accident, medical, property or life insurance, despite living in vulnerable areas. Vulnerable, in this case, can mean the likelihood of being hit by an earthquake, landslide, flood, or other natural catastrophe. The volcanic soil in coffee growing areas of Colombia is particularly prone to landslides.

Farmers generally do not have pensions, meaning many work until they die. Even in Colombia, where there is subsidized healthcare, farmers often struggle to access clinics due to poor or nonexistent roads. In remote farming communities, bad roads force farmers to carry their coffee to the point of purchase on foot or on horseback, and many children walk up to an hour to school each day.

In addition to not having insurance and pensions, many farmers do not have bank accounts, savings, or a structured approach to managing their farms finances and activities. This is due to a variety of factors, one of the most central being a lack of knowledge transfer. Many farmers do not have the opportunity to learn these skills from their parents, or other family members, because they do not have the skills either. These are also not typically skills learned in school. Without a precedent for bookkeeping and risk management, it's not surprising that for most farmers, it's not common practice. However, it is a problem. 

A risk that becomes a reality for farmers on a frequent basis is low coffee prices gutting income. Lacking future orientation prevents farmers from buying sufficient inputs, as described above. Farmers say it's very obvious when inputs have been used in the right quantities, since quality and productivity shoots up. That means the farmers most lacking in resources are also the farmers most likely to continue lacking in resources, through starkly reduced yields and negative impacts on quality. 

While a central component of producer vulnerability is poor cash flow management and lack of savings, this is only part of the story, as a substantial portion of “income” in rural economies is not monetary. Bartering food, skills, resources, and labor, is a key element of life and survival on farms. Farmers are often able to grow a substantial amount of the food they eat on their farms. However, those that don't are at a particular disadvantage.

In this context, what's the role of the private sector in changing the subsistence farming cycle that many farmers find themselves in? What are our next steps?

Next week, I'll tackle that.