The Graying of Coffee Farmers

Many busy Roasteries have a core business plan of insisting on buying good-quality coffee as inexpensively as possible. Contracts with customers are secured, and prices are set, based on the cost of green coffee. A broker may, to gain a customer, call and offer a green coffee for a bit less than what you are currently paying. If the more-expensive coffee can be substituted with a coffee of lower price and grade without negative notes in the cup, many roasters will work it into their blend or offering. I am not against making a profit and, indeed, none of us will be in business long if we don’t. But have we ever stopped to think about how that statement would sound to a coffee farmer? Outside of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, where I have been buying coffee for the past eight years, there are farmers who are spinning their wheels, virtually going backward each year, unable to make a profit. Hundreds of farmers, who for many years have not seen a profit, struggle to stay afloat. They literally “owe their soul to the company store.”

Our insistence on low prices is at the heart of a social change happening across coffee-producing lands. I have witnessed it firsthand in Central America, South America, East Africa, and Northern Thailand. There are three significant changes I have seen in the past 12 years buying, importing, and roasting coffee.

1. Gender shifts – Fewer men are on the farms today. They are in the cities earning a living, leaving the women and children on the farm to work the coffee plantation. I’ve seen this in the little community of El Tuma, Nicaragua. Producing high-grown coffee in these rugged mountains is hard work. Families struggle without the men involved, but they get it done. This rural-to-urban gender shift introduces other societal ills into the community, as these men may have a separate life in the city that’s often never talked about or acknowledged.

2. Graying population – Young people, seeing how hard their parents have worked only to be deep in debt, want nothing to do with this life. Opportunities to get off the farm and go live in the cities are sought and seized. Parents see education as the ticket off this treadmill, and they sacrifice much to get their children to the city to develop academically. These kids never return.

3. Land use – In the Central Plateau, outside San Jose, Costa Rica, are large tracts of land covered in concrete supporting housing developments, malls, and retail outlets. Just four years ago, some of the best coffee in Costa Rica was grown there. This land will never go back into coffee production and is lost forever. Real estate has more value for building than it does for producing a fluctuating commodity.

At the core of these societal changes is an incorrect assumption concerning the production of high-quality coffee – that coffee is just coffee. Coffee is a commodity and, as a commodity, its value is based on supply and demand. Corn from Iowa is no more valuable than corn from Ohio. Corn is corn, right? Yes, in my opinion, it is. (However, a corn farmer may disagree with me.) But coffee is not just coffee. All coffee is not equal in value to the roaster and thus is set apart from other commodities. Everyone in the coffee industry knows this. Michael Sivetz, in his unromantic treatise on coffee, Coffee Quality, wrote that there are more than 100 separate, verifiable steps that farmers take to produce coffee, from the nursery to the loading dock. If just one of those steps is missed or goes wrong, the cup can be affected, slightly or significantly. Buying coffee as inexpensively as possible is not compatible with the desire for quality coffee, where farmers must be rewarded for their hard work. If there is no value or incentive added for labor, why continue to add it?

Although complicated, the answer is not impossible to find. Direct trade, based on long-term relationships of mutual respect and understanding, is a principle I believe in. I need the farmer and he needs me. We each have a face, a name, and a life. My life is no more valuable than the farmer’s. If I must make a profit to survive, so does he. Coffee is people and, in the end, people matter. I believe these societal shifts can be corrected by truly valuing the coffee for what it is. It is the fruit of someone’s labor. As long as we turn a blind eye to who grew this great coffee, we can buy it cheap and pass it off to our customers. But by having a direct relationship with those growers, looking out for their welfare as rigorously as I do my own, I am not even tempted!

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