Here is a rather lengthy post, and I apologize if it gets a bit fragmented.
For the past 2 weeks I have been spending quality time with the coffee producers we buy coffee from in Honduras. I spent 2,5 days with Jobneel on his farm Nacimiento in Santa Barbara and have been together with the Caballero family (Moises Herrera , Marysabel and Fabio Caballero) for 5 days.
Normally when I visit farms the schedule is always tight and I have never spent more than one full day with a farmer. Although you learn a lot in 1 day there is a lot of details and situations that never occur in such a short time.
On this trip I have learned a lot more about the everyday life of a farmer. I know that 5 days is not representative of what goes on throughout the year, but still I got the sense of how frustrating the life of a farmer can be.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that every single coffee farmer on the planet is 100% dependent on the weather. We do see climate changes in all origins we buy from and for most of the times it is very problematic. I have never really thought about how this affect the farmer from a day to day basis, but boy did I get a feeling of it while visiting the Caballero’s farms in Marcala.
It all started with a drying experiment that we had planned to conduct. We were drying freshly washed coffees in 8 different methods where 7 of them are depending on dry and sunny weather. On the Monday where we was supposed to start the experiment, it started pouring down from the skies, and it continued for 2 full days, leaving the Guardiola (mechanical dryer) as the only efficient method for the first 2 days. (Except when the electricity disappeared for 4 hours in the night.) The rain really made me frustrated as I had planned to come and do these experiments for a long time. Fortunately it stopped raining on the third day, so we could proceed with the experiment.
Rain has been a problem in a lot of origins during 2011. Colombia has had non stop rain in some areas for almost 3 years. Kenya had rain during the harvest in December making drying complicated and just a few years ago they experienced a severe draught, making the crop very small. El Salvador and Guatemala had too much rain causing land slides and a drop in crop yields. In Honduras they had a long cold and moist period in Marcala and the coffee shrubs were attacked by fungus such as leaf rust and “ojo de gallo”. At some of the Caballero’s farms there are so much wind that the coffee trees struggle surviving. They had also experienced extremely cold weather that affects the quality of the beans and also kills a lot of new coffee plants.
There are also a lot of other problems with too much rain that is hard to imagine if you don’t experience it yourself. Pickers refuse to pick coffee on rainy days, although they need the money and the farmer desperately needs to harvest the cherries in order to prevent the cherries from bursting. (During rain, ripe coffee cherries will get filled with too much water and burst / crack and get fungus attacks resulting in moldy and phenolic flavors.)
The dirt roads from the farm to the mills transform into what some people call mud baths, making driving coffee around very challenging. The list just goes on and on and it all affects the livelihood of coffee farmers who sometimes are 100% dependent on the coffee crop as it is their only income once a year.
Climate change is not only making it difficult for the farmers, but is changing where and how coffee is grown as the coffee shrub requires many years to adapt to new climates.
I also witnessed a lot of social issues that are very challenging for farmers to handle.
In the rural areas where the coffee farms are located in Honduras there are loads of problems with drinking, stealing, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and security in general. That doesn’t mean it is not safe to live there. You just need to take precautions. In fact one of my very good friends and coffee exporter in Santa Rosa, Mr. Peter Rodriguez was shot in the lung while driving his car on his way home from work. The whole thing was a misunderstanding according tot the shooter, but Peter almost lost his life. Fortunately he is recovering in hospital and we all hope he will be back stronger than ever before. Of course shooting is not a daily event for farmers, but there are loads of other problems that can occur.
Here are some examples.
Moises and Marysabel in Marcala is not able to keep bee hives in order to promote pollination of coffee trees, as local people living around the farm will just steel them. In El Salvador, the Pacas family could not keep fruit trees in their farms as local people will cut them down or break the coffee trees while trying to harvest the fruit. At Caballero’s farms they do grow fruit for their workers to harvest, but sometimes people cut down the trees just to get their hands on some avocados.
Another problem is that a lot of the local people have cows, but no land to keep them. They therefore break the fence at the coffee farm in order to let the cows grass feed. Of course there is damage done to the coffee trees and for small farmers this is a problem as it ruins part of their livelihood.
Jobneel at Nacimiento has challenges with getting pickers to work for him. Although he pays a better salary for the pickers to only pick red cherries, the pickers prefer to work for less and pick what they want. Fortunately there are some exceptions, but Jobneel is struggling getting enough people to pick coffee as his farm is at the top of the mountain and there are no people who live there.
Other farmers have problems with pickers being a bit too eager to pick. In fact some will trespass into the farms at night and steal coffee straight from the trees. However, stealing coffee from the trees is not the biggest issue I have seen.
Since the coffee prices are quite high and has been for almost 2 years now,coffee has become a target for organized crime. In fact our exporter Servex in Guatemala had several containers of coffee stolen from a warehouse they were renting about 1 or 2 years ago. There were about 50 uniformed and armed people that raided the warehouse at night and came in with several trucks and stole the coffee. It is not uncommon to hear about coffee being stolen from the road or small warehouses or even the patios at the farms, but normally it is 1 container or less and not high quantity like this. Since this was a big quantity loss, Servex only got 40% covered by the insurance which is a major economical drawback for any company.
Unfortunately we were also affected by theft this year as a truck with coffee driving our very best lot of coffee was hijacked and disappeared on it’s way to the dry mill. I am absolutely devastated as this coffee was the best I had tasted from this origin, but unfortunately there is not much I can do about it.
There is of course a lot more challenges that a coffee farmer has to live with than I have described in this post. This was just a few things that had occurred while I was traveling for the last 2 weeks and although I still struggle getting a feeling of how frustrating this must be for a farmer, I hope that more people realize that coffee farming is hard work (especially if you are trying to grow the best quality) and needs to be rewarded with better and consistent prices as coffee is the only income for most coffee farmers.