The coffee industry is facing some serious challenges – low C prices, climate change, and the impact of political tension to name a few. But how do these compare to the challenges faced by previous generations of coffee producers, and what can we learn from our elders?
I spoke to several Guatemalan coffee producers about how the industry has changed, how they’re handling current challenges, and what advice they have for younger generations.
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Coffee trees at Finca La Labor in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Credit: Ana Valencia
How The Coffee Industry Has Changed
There are many traditional aspects of the coffee industry that may seem timeless, particularly on small-scale farms. Consider how many producers still hand-pick cherries and dry their coffee in the sun. But just a generation ago, there were some very different hardships for coffee producers. There were also some concerns that are just as relevant today.
I interviewed farmers from my own community in Esquipulas, Guatemala. Julio Lima is a first-generation coffee farmer at Finca JRRJ and a member of Mesa de Café Trinacional, which aims to strengthen the coffee producing industries in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. He tells me as recently as 1989, the roads in Esquipulas were so bad that he “had to have people who would carry the coffee on their backs to where vehicles could take it.”
Clodomiro Guzman is another first-generation coffee farmer, at Finca El Fruto. He tells me that he started growing coffee in 1980. “The price has always been a problem,” he says. “The ups and downs that it has had, and mass media.”
“Also, when I started producing coffee, we mostly didn’t have good roads… It was difficult to move large quantities of ripe coffee with animals, or on people’s backs. There were long distances, so it was hard and the roads were muddy quagmires.”
Workers at Finca Jacoba carry coffee on their backs. Credit: Alvaro Guzman
These producers tell me that during the 1980s and earlier, coffee farmers in Guatemala pulped their coffee in their mountain plantations to avoid carrying extra weight downhill. But this process contaminated rivers and other ecosystems, which was a big concern for Anacafé.
Julio says, “When coffee was depulped and processed on the farms there were a lot of problems with contamination. The water was completely polluted and we had to do some very intensive work to prevent coffee being processed in the mountains. That’s when centralized mills were established.”
Bags of Guatemalan Coffee at Las Cruces dry mill in Guatemala City. Credit: Ana Valencia
For previous generations, finding buyers was a big challenge. Without email, cheap phones, and social media to contact prospective buyers from other countries, it was difficult for producers to promote their products. This is one reason why small-scale coffee farmers usually sold their coffee as raw material and rarely processed their products. It often meant that they were compelled to sell their coffee at a lower price. Rolando Solis Jr. is a third-generation coffee farmer, at Finca el Guayabo. He recounts how his father would sell coffee.
“My dad would send a telegram asking for the price of coffee and he would receive a telegram that they would buy it from him at 25 quetzals per quintal. So he would sell 200 quintals by telegram and he would keep the rest. From 1960 to ‘66, my dad worked like this. Then, he bought and sold coffee until 1975. After 1975, he planted more varieties. Later, technicians from DIGESA [Directorate General of Agricultural Services] moved to Anacafé [Guatemala’s National Coffee Association] and helped to technify coffee.”
A view from Finca Vizcaya in Jalapa, Guatemala. Credit: Ana Valencia
Tackling Today’s Challenges in The Coffee Industry
I asked the producers what challenges they have on their farms today and how they tackle them. Some of these issues have always been a problem for coffee farmers, but are being handled in modern ways. Others are a result of contemporary economic conditions.
Pests & Diseases
Historically, farmers in this region of Guatemala grew just one coffee variety, which put them at risk of losing all of their crops with any outbreak of disease. When Anacafé started to provide support in the 1980s, it encouraged growing several varieties, including ones that are more resistant to coffee leaf rust.
Julio tells me that his sons now run his farm and that “one of their suggestions was that they start to change varieties. We had grown Catimor. Nowadays, there is Sarchimor, Catimor, and Parainema on the farm and there are still some small remains of Catuai.”
Disease-resistant varieties reduce the risk of a devastating outbreak, but Alvaro says that it has become more expensive to tackle diseases. “It wasn’t very expensive before. But nowadays – as well as in 2012 to 2013, when we were attacked by coffee leaf rust – the cost of fighting coffee leaf rust is high, which increases production costs by up to 30%.”
Different coffee varieties at Finca La Granadilla, Esquipulas. Credit: Manuel Maderos
Cost of Labor & Shortages
Alvaro also tells me that the cost of labor has increased in recent years, making it even harder to make a profit or break even.
He says, “One of the very big problems here in Guatemala is workforce. There are reports stating that in Vietnam, for example, a person is paid $1 per day. We’re talking 7.50 quetzals per day for work for one person, while here in Guatemala it’s like 70 quetzals, which would be the minimum wage. So it’s ten times more expensive.
“The payment of workforce and inputs [make coffee production expensive here]. For example, fertilizers and pesticides in other countries like Honduras are subsidized. And in Africa, fertilizers and pesticides are so much cheaper.”
He tells me that even with these higher wages than elsewhere, it’s difficult to find enough labor.
“In the past, people needed to work and they were the ones who asked for a job. And in order to keep their jobs, they would even start working earlier. But today, because the government gives them free food and other gifts to buy votes, people don’t want to work anymore.”
Coffee and bananas at Finca JRRJ. Credit: Julio Lima Acevedo
Alvaro breaks down the costs of producing coffee. “This year, a quintal of ripe coffee was sold at approximately 100 quetzals and we paid 40 quetzals per quintal for picking it. That means that 40% was only the cost of picking it – nothing else. Plus the cost of workforce for pruning, fumigating, and fertilizing. In the end, the total cost of labor was around 65%. And then there is the additional cost of fungicides and fertilizers.
“This year, coffee prices were so low that many people have emigrated. That’s one of the problems of migration: low coffee prices. And we have also been suffering the drought effect of El Niño for three years.”
The combined effect of low coffee prices and high costs have caused a lot of younger people to migrate away from the region or pursue livelihoods outside of coffee. This is so common in the communities of Esquipulas that you can see many abandoned farms by the roadsides.
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An abandoned farm in Caserio San Joaquin Santa Rosalia, Esquipulas. Credit: Julio Lima Acevedo
Using Diversification to Survive
All of the producers I spoke to mentioned that they can no longer survive on growing commodity coffee exclusively.
Julio says, “Coffee yields only once a year and when coffee plantations grow old, they’re more likely to have problems with coffee leaf rust. We were hit by the perfect storm in 2011, 2012 – we had problems with coffee leaf rust, old coffee plantations, and low prices. The plants needed to be restored, but younger producers didn’t have money to start again and there was nobody who would finance them.
“So a program was developed to restore 25 apple trees, in 10 years, and that is how we thought of planting banana trees. Bananas tree yield all year round and they fruit after two years. And most importantly, the market for bananas is good.”
Julio’s farm also includes oranges. He says that this also helps provide income and reduce food insecurity between coffee harvests. He says, “we have late-season Valencia, which produces when there aren’t oranges in fruit in other places.”
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A load of bananas from Finca JRRJ. Credit: Julio Lima Acevedo
Rolando is diversifying in other ways. He uses coffee pulp to create both fertilizer and cascara tea.
“The tea is the opposite of coffee,” he says. “It’s antioxidant and relaxing. Coffee wakes you up and motivates you, but the tea relaxes you. When I was cupping it, I had like 10 samples. When I would go back home, I would almost fall asleep on the road. People still don’t trust it much because it’s made from husks, but it’s really good. The people who I have shared it with liked it.”
He also creates coffee infusion bags. “You carry these bags of coffee and prepare them like a V60. There are people who like good coffee but don’t want to carry weight. With these infusion bags, you only need to carry the bag. Hotels are already introducing the coffee. They place a kettle and the bags of tea, coffee, and decaf in their rooms.”
Alvaro tells me that he has shifted towards producing specialty coffee.
“We decided to try to choose really good coffees and ensure that they are well picked, well fertilized, and well processed,” he says. “We’ve tried not to use as many pesticides and use traps for coffee borer beetles instead. And we’ve tried to find market niches to sell to people who really want to drink good coffee.”
Coffee infusion bags from Finca El Guayabo. Credit: Rolando Solis Jr
Working Together & Using Cooperatives
Alvaro’s focus on specialty coffee led to him creating Esquipulas Coffees, a cooperative of seven independent farms in the Esquipulas region of Guatemala.
“The idea originated when we went to a trade show and realized how much [specialty coffee] is a boom and the impact that it was having. People don’t want to drink bad coffee and there is a demand for good coffees. Then we won a prize and we started getting more farms to participate in Anacafé events, like regional competitions.
“Now we are seven farms and we have all won a prize. There are even two farms – Miramundo Estate, and JRRJ – that have won the regional competition, the Nuevo Oriente from Guatemalan Coffees. Their coffees have travelled to other countries. Miramundo went to Seattle and JRRJ was presented in Boston.”
Esquipulas Coffees aims to promote the region using each farm’s own brand. This year, the cooperative promoted its coffees at the National Barista and Cupping Competition in Guatemala City. The cooperative also aims to share knowledge and experience with small-scale farmers, teaching them how to improve the quality of their crops and process their coffees on a small budget.
Members of Esquipulas Coffees at the V Competition and Forum of the Trifinio Region in El Salvador. Credit: Alvaro Guzman
Advice For Younger Generations of Coffee Farmers
I asked the producers what they recommend to younger generations of farmers.
Alvaro says, “We shouldn’t remain the same. We should diversify and plant new varieties, the varieties that are in demand. Plant what the market wants because if we don’t connect to the market, we are going to fail. Let’s diversify the farm and devote ourselves to producing specialty coffee and try to change people’s mindset so they don’t stick to bad coffees.”
Rolando advises becoming more involved with and informed about the wider coffee industry. “What we did was become more involved. The producer receives 3% of the production chain and the coffee industry keeps 97%. The more you move to the other side, the more chance [of success] you have.”
Julio says to “not only have one buyer, but many buyers of small lots, and these [should be] prepared according to what the market wants.”
He recommends that producers “sell processed coffee and also diversify your source of income. As they say, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, but look for various incomes and other crops in combination. Producers, roasters, and baristas must work together to do something comprehensive. It has to come from agronomy to the cup.”
Members of Esquipulas Coffees during the 2019 National Barista and Cupping Competition in Guatemala City. Credit: Alvaro Guzman
These conversations with producers provide some useful advice for other producers, whether you’re in Guatemala or elsewhere. But individual circumstances will vary, so make sure you get to know your own coffee community and market.
If you’re a roaster or barista, get to know the origins of the coffee you serve. Do your best to visit farms so you can see how your products are being produced. For consumers, do some research and try to buy from places that pay fair prices to producers. If you can’t find out much about the source of your coffee, you may be buying a product that isn’t providing a living income to coffee growers.
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Written by Byron Sosa. All interviews translated from Spanish by Laura Fornero.
Please note: Before implementing the advice in this article, we advise also consulting with a local technical expert, since differences in climate, soil type, varieties, processing methods, and more can affect the best practices for production and processing.
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