Over 125 million people around the world are involved in the coffee farming industry. Yet coffee is susceptible to high degrees of fluctuation in its price, leaving a tremendous number of those people vulnerable. Part of the solution to this may be diversification.
Diversification can give farmers a steadier income, as well as helping to make the coffee industry more stable. Read on as we explore why it’s so important, and how it’s put into practice.
Growing Camote, a vegetable similar to Yuca/Cassava, is a method of farmer income diversification. Credit: La Palma y El Tucan Coffee Growers
What is Diversification?
The act or practice of manufacturing a variety of products, investing in a variety of securities, selling a variety of merchandise, etc., so that a failure in or an economic slump affecting one of them will not be disastrous.
(The Oxford English Dictionary)
In coffee farming, diversification means introducing new products to the farm so that coffee isn’t the farmer’s sole source of income.
Yet diversification doesn’t just bring in extra, much-needed income for farmers – it’s also a helpful way of protecting crops from natural diseases. By carefully managing the ways multiple crops are planted together (intercropping), physical barriers can be created to stop the spread of disease. This also promotes biodiversity, as certain other crops release byproducts complementary to the growth of other crops.
All of this leads to a healthier overall ecosystem, meaning that diversification isn’t just a backup for coffee. It also helps the coffee industry to thrive.
A white fleshed, semi ever-green, Chirimoya fruit native to Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Credit: La Palma y El Tucan
Under the Microscope: The Agricultural Case for Diversification
There are many natural variables to which coffee is susceptible to. Whether it’s drought, pests, or pestilence, these variables can have a serious impact on both the quality and quantity of a crop.
Within Central America, one of the most prevalent causes of crop issues is coffee rusting. Coffee rust (or La Roya) is caused by the Hemileia vastatrix fungus. It manifests as yellow spots on the leaves of coffee plants, and it is from this that the disease derives its name. It’s not just the rust spots that are the problem, though: coffee rust stops cherry-growing plants from producing fruit.
Until recently, coffee rust only seemed to affect crops at lower altitudes. However, the disease has developed and now poses a threat to coffee grown at any altitude.
Under the Microscope: The Financial Case for Diversification
In 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that coffee rust was responsible for crop losses worth $500 million and cost 374,000 jobs in Central America. Damage wrought by coffee rust could drive up prices of coffee in Central America and the Caribbean.
Coffee rust: a troubling sign for any coffee farmer. Credit: La Palma y El Tucan Coffee Growers
Even if their farm isn’t hit by coffee rust, or a similar pestilence, farmers may still be affected by it. In today’s increasingly information-rich world, investors know which countries are susceptible to pestilences and pests. They may avoid investing in those countries, just out of fear of what might happen.
This means that diversification can be crucial for providing an alternative income when coffee is doing badly – and boosting farmers’ incomes even when coffee is doing well.
Diversification in Practice
Diversification can take many forms, and the best method for individual farmers will depends on things such as location, farm size, and consumers. We could never hope to cover every single strategy in one article (or even series). That being said, we’ve spoken to a couple of producers about the diversification methods that work for them.
Carlos of La Palma y El Tucan Coffee Growers, Colombia, wanted coffee to remain his primary product but also to improve cash flow and provide food for his family. After some research, he decided to plant red beans, corn, squash, marrow, pumpkin, bell peppers, avocado, bananas, and a selection of profitable fine woods. The result? Over three years, he generated an additional 8,000 USD from non-coffee crops. Additionally, thanks to intercropping, he noticed a reduction of plant diseases such as coffee rust.
Carlos generates an additional income and food source through cultivating non-coffee crops such as calabazins (courgettes or zucchinis). Credit: La Palma y El Tucan Coffee Growers
Ben Weiner of Gold Mountain Coffee Growers took another approach: he set up a “living coffee museum”. It houses living coffee seeds that will enable Gold Mountain and their partners to carefully diversify and select the coffee they plant. Certain coffees will grow better at higher altitudes, while some will be more resilient to diseases like coffee rust; by ensuring that the coffee crops planted suit the surroundings, farmers are hoping to see stronger long-term crop growth and attract more investors. You can check out more of Gold Mountain’s work and learn more about their water-friendly farming practices here.
Gold Mount Coffee Grower’s living coffee museum. Credit: @goldmtncoffee
There are many other forms of diversification out there, with numerous initiatives currently being trialled by farmers. And some national organisations are also backing diversification programmes. For example, the National Federation of Coffee Growers in Colombia is promoting the intercropping of coffee and maize (corn).
Is intercropping of coffee and corn a more sustainable alternative to coffee monoculture? Credit: La Palma y El Tucan Coffee Growers
What’s the Future of Diversification?
Diversifying coffee farming is crucial to both the continued success of the coffee trade and the well-being of producers, yet there is still a lot more research that needs to be done.
However remote you may feel from coffee farming, coffee is ultimately a community. We all want to keep those precious cherries growing in abundance and keep those wonderful farmers smiling – one way we can do this is by supporting research into sustainable diversification.
Written by M. Fury and edited by S. Parrish.
Feature Photo Credit: @timjcoffee
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