Mr Kham Moune is a hill-tribe coffee farmer living in a small village in Xieng Nguen, Luang Prabang Province, Laos. Married with five children, he has 1,500 coffee trees. His trees are both shade grown and organic. In a neighbouring village, Mrs Nut has just under 1,000 trees, also shade grown and organic. She’s married with one child.
Mr Moune and Mrs Nut’s coffee farms are unusual for hill-tribe coffee producers, some of the poorest farmers in Laos. Numerous challenges face them, making quality Arabica production difficult.
Yet I believe it doesn’t have to be. Not when purchasers adopt direct farmer engagement.
Mrs Nut with some of her coffee plants. Credit: Saffron Coffee
Inequality in Lao Agriculture
Laos’ topography is dominated by mountains and forests, meaning that only 6.5% of it is used for agriculture (according to The World Bank). This 6.5% can then be divided into paddy farming, which dominates the country’s flat lowlands, and upland farming.
Paddy rice fetches a consistent yield and has a reliable market. And so, typically, rice paddy farmers are wealthier than upland farmers. The latter, according to Rural Poverty Portal, have a poverty rate of 43% – compared to 28% in the lowlands.
But the poorest upland farmers are the minority hill-tribe farmers.
Farming Arabica can represent a pathway out of poverty for hill-tribe farmers whose crop alternatives are otherwise less than desirable. But switching crops is not an easy decision.
A rice paddy in Laos. Credit: Saffron Coffee
There are numerous reasons why hill-tribe farmers would have reservations about changing to Arabica. Here are just eight of them.
1. A Lack of Trust
Historically, foreign-owned companies and NGOs distributed coffee trees in Laos, but failed to purchase the cherries from each harvest. What’s more, they didn’t assist with marketing the coffee. The result? Farmers were left with a crop they had invested time and effort into growing, but could not sell.
Trusting non-Laos (farang or falang) is difficult for some farmers. Messages may be lost in translation, and people from outside the country can be oblivious of some of the cultural differences.
When rice and corn have been planted for generations, farmers can be reluctant to grow new crops like coffee. Even if their usual crops are an unpredictable market, farmers know how to grow them – they don’t know coffee.
3. Attitudes to Shade-Grown Agriculture
Traditionally, crops grown by hill-tribe farmers require forest trees to be cleared. Slash and burn agriculture, the process of chopping down trees and burning off the undergrowth, is common. So when we suggest using shade trees, farmers have doubts. They are often unconvinced that the coffee will grow, let alone produce a significant or profitable yield.
The impact of slash and burn agriculture. Credit: Saffron Coffee
Most crops in Laos have annual or biannual harvests. This makes turning land over to coffee (which takes three years from sprout to harvest) counterintuitive. And in fact, the small number of trees being planted each year means it may take five or six years before a coffee plot breaks even.
For families not certain where next month’s meals will come from, coffee is a hefty investment. Planting some coffee whilst maintaining other crops is the only solution for many – but some wonder why they should take the risk.
5. Lack of Knowledge
Farmers often use less productive farming practices simply because those are the methods they’re familiar with. Many Lao hill-tribe farmers are unaware of pruning and tree management techniques.
Farming Arabica on steep mountain slopes can be less labour intensive than other prevailing crops, like corn, highland rice, or Job’s Tears (Chinese pearl barley). Yet farmers may be also be ignorant of the coffee plot management techniques necessary to maximise yield and bean flavour.
Farmers are also often unaware that coffee may be intercropped with things like rubber, durian, citrus, and macadamia. A 17-year research programme from CIRAD has found that rubber-coffee intercropping is extremely profitable – but unless farmers know this, they won’t do it.
Coffee grows on the slope behind this village. Credit: Saffron Coffee
6. Market Access
Highland farmers have limited means, funds, and opportunities to take their crops to a central marketplace. And poor roads can make it even more difficult. But buyers can be reluctant to spend the time and money to access villages in the mountains.
7. Low Awareness of Coffee Profiles
Hill tribe farmers generally don’t drink their coffee. Most have never seen an espresso machine, let alone be aware of the variety of brewing methods there are. They often don’t realise the different flavours that can be drawn from their beans.
What’s more, a lack of water supply means they often do not know how to wet process their coffee – or the difference that it could make to the final cup.
And so even if farmers are trained in the best practices, they may not use them since they don’t understand the impact they could have.
Farmer training in progress. Credit: Saffron Coffee
Government red tape and the need to gain the village headman’s approval can provide issues for farmers wishing to grow coffee. Even if they do achieve these steps, it takes time.
Is Direct Farmer Engagement the Solution?
We believe the best way to overcome these difficulties is direct farmer engagement. And it’s important that we overcome them. Through facilitating the production of shade-grown, organic Arabica of the highest quality, we can enact positive social change and protect the environment.
Mr Moune and Mrs Nut are two of more than 780 families across 18 villages in northern Laos who we work with. But it takes time and patience. Mr Moune’s 1,500 trees are the result of five years of farming, and Mrs Nut’s 1,000 trees of eight years.
A farmer with his coffee. Credit: Saffron Coffee
Demonstrating the Efficacy of Farming Best Practices
We begin by identifying villages suitable for Arabica cultivation. We then initiate agreements with provincial and district governments, in addition to the village headmen.
Once a contract has been signed with individual villages, our goal for the first year is to create awareness of proven farming practices and motivate the village to adopt them.
To do this, we establish demonstration plots in a village cluster. These are small plots on which best practices are used to convince farmers of the potential gain. Not only have we seen the efficacy of them for ourselves, but a 2009 study published in the Sarhad Journal of Agriculture found they were highly successful.
Champion farmers are also identified and invited to participate in initial training. These are farmers who function as role models in the community. They have high levels of credibility among the community, are innovative, and exhibit a greater willingness to adopt new ideas.
A “coffee promoter” trains “champion farmers”. Credit: Saffron Coffee
Direct engagement means hill-tribe farmers have access to knowledge, advice, and the necessary training to grow and sustain their crops. We also employ “coffee promoters”, experienced farmers who speak both the Lao language and minority dialects.
Every year farmers are given coffee sprouts, nursery assistance, tree-planting training, and ongoing advice on plot maintenance. Every harvest, we guarantee the purchase of ripe cherries at well above market rates. And we travel to villages multiple times during those harvests.
In this way, we hope to overcome those difficulties that Lao farmers face – to prove that falangs can be trusted, to provide knowledge, and to enable access to the market.
Written by D. Smith of Saffron Coffee. Feature photo credit: Saffron Coffee.
Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the individuals or bodies mentioned in this article, and cannot directly endorse them.
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