It is a deeply troubling fact that many coffee farmers are paid less for their coffee than what it costs to produce. Much of the previous reporting on this subject has focused on the onerous C-market, where commodity grade coffees are traded by folks who don’t have much interest in coffee beyond its ability to turn a buck. (For reference, the C-market price of coffee hasn’t been above a $1.00 since May.) But now with COVID-19, as Bloomberg reports, even specialty coffee producers are struggling to break even.
Unlike the pricing crisis affecting commodity coffee, the issue for specialty producers is not what they are paid per pound—farmers are still getting the premium price point associated with the higher-grade coffee—but how much they can produce. As previously reported, countries around the world are closing their borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and this is limiting the available migrant workforce many producers use during harvest. According to Bloomberg, this shutdown is hitting smallholder specialty coffee farmers particularly hard as they require more experienced coffee pickers.
Per the article, skilled workers are able to pick coffee cherries something like five times faster that less experienced pickers. This efficiently is particularly important for specialty coffee, who pick at the peak of ripeness, making for a much smaller harvest window. Coffee cherries left on the tree will over-ripen or fall to the ground, effectively nullifying all the additional work put into the coffee to achieve the higher quality. “You can still sell that coffee, but once it hits the ground, it’s contaminated,” Adan Rojas, a smallholder farmer in Colombia, tells Bloomberg. “There’s no way you can sell it as specialty.”
In short, farmers will only be able to harvest a fraction of the specialty coffee they meticulously care for and invest in.
This has left smallholder farmers to look locally for help. Many are turning to neighbors to assist in the harvesting regional lockdowns limit who can enter. But for larger farms, this strategy won’t be as effective; there just simply isn’t enough local labor to meet the demand. This has left many larger Colombian coffee farmers feeling uneasy. The main harvest is in September, just two short months away, and farmers are left at the mercy of the government to ease border restrictions in order to get the skilled workforce they require. But with reopening, as many states in America can vouch for, comes an added risk of spreading COVID, which Bloomberg notes has not hit the rural farming communities like it has those in the urban populations.
Compounding the problem even further is that demand for specialty coffee has decreased during the pandemic. Even while folks are consuming more coffee at home—”typically more standard brews and instant coffee,” per Bloomberg (but there’s a lot of great instant coffee out there right now)—it doesn’t make up for all the sales lost due to cafes shutting down during the pandemic. This, according to the Specialty Coffee Association’s Chief Sustainability Officer Kim Elena Ionescu, can have significant long-term effects for specialty producers.
“[The reduction in demand] results in an inability to reinvest, which makes coffee trees weaker and more prone to diseases and ultimately less productive,” she said. “One thing leads to another and then it becomes a problem too large to solve at the farm level.”
This all amounts to a serious threat for many specialty farmers, both now and in the future. With the effects of climate change looming, many can hardly withstand multi-year setbacks associated with a global pandemic. So what can you do? For starters, buy coffee from your favorite roaster, thus allowing them to purchase more. Here's a bunch of great companies to support; here's even more excellent roasters we recommend; and here's a collection of coffee subscriptions to enjoy, in case you want to set and forget.
Also please do your own small part in preventing the spread of COVID-19: wear a mask, dammit.
Top image © Adobe Stock/Paulo Vilela