What’s happening on coffee farms?

We talk a lot these days about how coffee farmers are poor, how they are forced into monocropping, how prices are volatile, how they can’t make money. There’s a lot of commentary about how corporations are to blame. Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges when it comes to agricultural goods prices is that the blame is hard to pin down. Multinationals may be obvious contributors to challenges of rural poverty, since they’re buying up most of the goods and therefore paying the standard (low) prices in the largest volume. But the price of products like coffee is determined by a complex combination of factors, and consumers (you and I) are arguably equally responsible.

But if we set aside the amorphous and frustrating evils of the international market and its very real impacts on farmers’ daily lives, there are opportunities to create change that we haven’t even discovered yet. To find them, we may have to look more closely at what’s happening on farms. Farmers are not making money—that’s true. Corporations play a powerful role in driving how production happens—that’s also true. But what does that mean? If we are not happy with the future of agricultural production, we need to take the reins and develop solutions, perhaps first by trying to understand the problems at a more detailed level. Here is a minute handful of observations to get the ball rolling.

Why do farmers farm? There’s a tendency to assume that farmers farm by default, or because they were forced into it by their circumstances. That is often the case, but not always. In Colombia, for example, farmers farm for a wide variety of reasons. Some farm because they have no other choice, some farm because they are unwilling to give up a home and livelihood into which they poured years of their lives, and some farm because they love the coffee-farming tradition. They connect to its place at the heart of Colombia’s national identity. Some Colombians, whose primary incomes come from other ventures, produce coffee almost solely to be connected to that cultural heritage.

But the majority of Colombian coffee farmers are smallholders who live almost exclusively off their coffee earnings. They are the backbone of the Colombian coffee producing system. What’s going on in their lives and on their farms? Why is the system in jeopardy?

What are the challenges? First of all, smallholders in Colombia are often deeply dependent on credits from the Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros when it comes to producing their coffee. Many have relied on these credits for years, or even decades. The high costs of production in Colombia, including factors such as labor and fertilizers, have rendered a large number of farmers financially unviable. “If the FNC didn’t exist it would be very difficult to grow coffee because you require, as a producer, something that—support,” said Jorge, a farmer and widely respected community member near Sevilla, Valle del Cauca. He described a situation in which a large number of producers wanted deeply to pay back their debts, but couldn’t. They were simply not making any money. Another producer described relying on credits like drug addiction—once you started, you needed increasingly more to survive.

Another challenge—one the FNC has programs in place to address—is that older farmers are not teaching the next generation how to produce coffee. Part of this is due to the familiar problem of rural-to-urban migration. More and more young people are looking for opportunities to leave farms; farmers explain that services and infrastructure in rural areas are simply not comparable to what's available in cities. Jorge sees this divide as a critical problem; life shouldn't be worse, harder, less promising for people in the country. On the other hand, it's not just youth deciding to leave. Many parents don’t want their children to become farmers. They encourage them to leave to pursue educations, or what they see as work with more opportunities. They describe the life of a farmer as, above all, hard. 

At times, the young people that get into farming are indeed there default, left behind after scholastically inclined siblings have moved elsewhere. Some companies, wanting to foster business-minded farmers, see this as a challenge. One multinational employee explained that the phenomenon of farming-by-default prevented the broad base of smallholders from being entrepreneurial, or becoming "agripreneurs".

A high level of motivation is critical to building a sustainable farm. Jorge said he worked hard to establish enough income-generating activities and organic modes of crop fertilization to survive periods of low production, low prices, or environmental crises. His 2.3-hectare farm included a couple of cows, which he milked by hand daily. He composted the peels of coffee cherries, utilized "lombricultura" (vermicompost or vermiculture),  tended a small number of orange trees and he and his wife kept a small garden, in addition to producing coffee. Jorge and Silvia worked hard to avoid purchasing many additional groceries from the market. “You have to educate yourself in the country the same as you do in university. You have to be open to learning new ways to produce things for less cost. I want to learn to capacitate myself to produce, so things don’t have to be given to me,” he told me. He believed strongly in educating his community, so he devoted substantial amounts of his free time to educating local farmers and other visitors on the ins and outs of sustainable coffee production. 

Still, for most of us, motivation requires incentives. The chance to lead a life of hand-to-mouth subsistence doesn’t often attract much entrepreneurial spirit. While older farmers often say they plan on continuing, having put too much time and energy into their farm to sell and start a new life in their twilight years, younger farmers often describe actively looking at other options. Alfert said they would keep trying for awhile, but if nothing changed, he would have to sell to ensure his daughter got the chances in life he pictured for her. He said he felt bad, because his wife, Andrea, wanted to become a nurse. However, she was unable to study while caring for the farm, raising their child, and cooking for workers. “The years go by, and I’m still here,” said Alfert. He said he felt like it didn’t matter how much he worked, or how high quality his coffee was, it didn’t change his economic standing. “I don’t want my daughter to work her whole life and never see the results.”

Income diversification practices like Jorge’s are good for the environment and enable farmers to survive, but they do not necessarily help producers get out of debt, much less move forward economically. Many sustainable farms remain subsistence farms. Farmers often said that the money they earned selling their coffee amounted to less than the money they spent producing it. “We’re indebted,” said Alfert. “If you don’t receive enough for your coffee, you don’t have the money to pay salaries and sustain work throughout the week. And food. So I do the work together with my father, picking coffee, mowing, fumigating, various things fall onto us and we get tired, and never see the fruits of our labor.”

When coffee prices are low, household income is affected immediately. “It’s not enough to pay debts, sustain a farm, or keep one’s family eating,” said Juan. “Besides plantains, yuca, corn—the, the other things you have to buy. Rice, things that we don’t produce here, fat, oil, chocolate, soap, those are from outside, and they’re not given out for free.” Many farmers purchase these items on faith from grocery stores and local kiosks to purchase household items, becoming even more indebted.

Coffee farmers described seemingly never-ending costs over which they felt they had little control. For example, some farmers have to pay to transport their coffee from their farms to local points of purchase. Alfert and Andrea lived down a poorly maintained dirt road, about a forty-five minute drive from the closest FNC point of purchase. Since they didn’t have a car, they relied on costly transportation services.

In Colombia, leaf rust has devastated entire harvests in recent years. In response, the FNC is helping farmers renovate their crops with new, disease-resistant varietals. But despite support, the renovation process is still a financial strain for farmers. Replanting entire coffee lots is labor-intensive and expensive. Farmers have to accept that they will produce lower volumes of coffee during the process, taking an income cut while trees mature. The FNC mitigates effects by helping producers roll the renovation process out in stages, but farmers still take on losses.

According to Juan and Alfert, farmers do not always understand that they have to pay interest on credits they receive. Despite receiving an explanation of the agreement from FNC agronomists, Juan said it was not clear to all producers that taking credits from the FNC would cost them money in the longterm; it did not occur to them that if they were producing at a loss, their debts would increase along with interests. Particularly producers that were older or those with limited educations struggled to grasp the terms of credits. As a result, for many farmers, the debt cycle felt insurmountable. “We’ve been in this farm for eight years, all of which we’ve been indebted,” said Juan. “Now we’re still indebted, and what we had has been chipped away by interests.” Another farmer laughed, saying "This is how we live. Cafeteros, we're magicians."

When there’s not enough money, women often take on additional work to fill in the gaps. Marie explained that in the early days of establishing her farm, she had cooked daily meals and done laundry for eleven policemen posted nearby in rural Valle del Cauca. This ensured her family's security at a time when the armed conflict was a threat in the area, but cooking and washing for eleven men in addition to caring for children and cooking for workers was substantial extra work.  “It was really hard,” she said. “There was preparation, and to prepare the pots for lunch and everything… and with workers… I worked really hard.” While now Marie has a chimney for her wood stove, at the time she didn’t. “You had to put wood on, and use a lot of strength, and it took a lot of strength to make the arepas—it got very hot,” she explained. Many women in rural Colombia still cook on wood stoves in poorly ventilated kitchens, posing major long-term health risks.

This is just a glimpse into farmers lives, and it’s certainly not new information. But while low coffee prices are the most obvious obstacle farmers face, my hope is that we can start a conversation about what else is going on. International prices are hard to take action against. Let's look at what's happening farms, and learn what farmers need. Let's locate demand-driven opportunities to create simple, systematic and sustainable change.

Let’s spend more time on the ground and more time in conversation.