Running a business always has risks, and when it comes to coffee, producers take all the chances. Whether it’s market prices, climate change, or the own producing country’s economy, these unstable factors may affect producers individually or collectively.
And one of these risks is not having enough laborers to pick all the coffee cherries on the trees. I reached out to several coffee producers to ask why coffee is going unpicked – and what can be done about the situation.
Coffee producers can be hit hard by labor shortages.
The Impact of Unpicked Coffee Cherries
With the coffee trade vital to many producers, producing communities, and local or national economies, the idea that coffee cherries are going unpicked can seem strange.
But in Nicaragua, for example, the Nicaraguan Foundation for Social and Economic Development (FUNIDES) states that 70.9% of coffee producers were unable to hire enough coffee pickers for the 2016-2017 harvest.
According to the Association of Coffee Exporters of Nicaragua (EXCAN), this resulted in 10–20 million kilos of coffee going unpicked. As the coffee eventually falls to the floor and rots, it doesn’t just represent lost incomes: it can also leave the coffee trees vulnerable to diseases and pests.
Across Central America, coffee-producing communities often face labor shortages – or the reverse, in which there is not enough labor for those who want to work.
Ripe and unripe coffee cherries on the same branch.
Labor Shortages as Pickers Migrate
Tania Ferrufino is a third-generation coffee producer from Nicaragua. She says that, “Central American countries, including Nicaragua, have been developing these past years, causing people to move from the rural areas to the urban areas in which salaries are much better. Moreover, rural salaries do not incentivise coffee pickers to work.”
Across Latin America, younger generations are choosing to leave coffee production to work in the city. As the average age of a coffee producer increases, it becomes harder to find enough people to harvest the coffee.
Then there are currency fluctuations, something that coffee producers always have to contend with. Tania tells me, “Continuous money devaluation will force the coffee pickers and coffee producers to move into the city.” Producers have fixed costs, combined with uncertain prices, and so currency fluctuations can hit them hard.
What’s more, coffee pickers may choose to cross the border into a country with a stronger currency, work there during the harvest season, and then return to their home country to spend their better wages.
However, there can be a positive outcome of weak currencies. Since coffee is sold in dollars, it can help producers to absorb the impact of higher costs – and pay those coffee pickers still willing to pick their coffee.
Selectively picking coffee cherries will result in better coffee quality.
Rates of Pay in Specialty Coffee
Central American countries have a reputation for producing high-quality coffees, but often varieties with better cup profiles are associated with lower yields. Tania tells me that this can become a big issue.
When growing lower yield but higher quality coffee, it requires more investment per cherry. Producers don’t want to pick unripe coffee cherries that could affect the final flavor profile, for example. However, coffee pickers are paid by the weight of the cherries they’ve picked. While riper coffees are generally denser, this isn’t normally enough to compensate for the fact that pickers are doing more work but their sacks are emptier.
At the same time, the farm owner is seeing more money come in for the higher quality coffee, but they also have more costs due to the higher quality production methods. They often have to invest in equipment and infrastructure for processing. On top of this, in the specialty coffee market, producers are often paid much later than in the commodity market.
While some producers pay premiums to pickers for following good coffee picking practices, such as selective picking, not all can afford to pay pickers enough of an increase that it seems worthwhile. It’s a situation that Tania tells me is “unsustainable”.
Coffee pickers are usually paid by weight.
Are There Any Solutions?
“We have to promote and invest in a higher life quality for coffee pickers,” Gustavo Cerna of Marcafe SA says.
This can be expensive for producers; Gustavo himself has experienced the difficulty of this. “A couple of years ago, we built a place in our farm for the coffee pickers to stay. Now, however, our coffee pickers want to live in their homes, which are far from the farm. This leaves producers no choice but to buy trucks, which produce extra expenses.”
However, Gustavo believes it is important to provide good working conditions for coffee pickers if there is to be a solution to the labor shortage.
Tania also believes that increasing local coffee consumption would lead to more stability in terms of demand for coffee and prices. “I think we need to increase the coffee culture locally,” she says. “It is also a government duty to implement plans for local consumption that would lead to higher-quality coffee consumption.”
Increased traceability, whether coffees are sold nationally and internationally, would also help. Consumers care about where their coffee comes from, and studies have shown that they would paid more for sustainable coffee. If this increase in prices were passed on to the producers, those producers could then pay coffee pickers more as well.
Mixture of ripe and unripe coffee cherries on the tree.
Overcoming these obstacles is not easy. Labor shortages are a multi-faceted problem that require multi-faceted solutions. But until we, whether we are producer, trader, roaster, or consumer, examine the root causes of the issue, we will not be able to solve it.
Written by Julio Guevara. All interviews conducted in Spanish and translated into English by the author.
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