Lately we have been visiting a lot of farms as they are preparing for the coming crop. All of these producers are focused on quality, since this is the market we mainly work with. Today, while we were visiting a beautiful and healthy farm; the farmer pointed out to us a neighboring farm and it opened our eyes to realize that the current situation of coffee production in most of the world is not like the one we experience with the farmers we work with on a daily basis.
One of the current challenges for farmers is to keep their farm practices and coffee knowledge update to date. Going back to the neighboring farm we saw, it wasn’t looking healthy at all and it barely had any production. Our farmers say that a plant should have, at the most, three stems coming from the trunk in order to produce a good amount of high quality cherries. The conventional farm we observed had 10 or more stems, which is crazy! This is telling us that many farmers have very old farm management practices, in this case with pruning, are simply neglecting their plantations, or cannot afford to maintain them. We also realize that some farms are very old, the plantations are tired, and ready to be renewed; but many of these farmers don’t have the resources to renew their plantation. In Costa Rica the cost to renew a farm depends on many factors:
The type of land: if the land is flat or sloped. If it’s sloped the farmer needs to create terraces and this will require higher labor cost. Also if there is old coffee that needs to be removed this requires more labor.
The type of variety planted: for example if you plant Caturra and Catuai the cost per plant is $0.50 USD but if you plant a Hybrid is $0.90 USD and a Geisha maybe even more expensive.
The planting distance: for example varieties like the Hybrids and Geisha need to be planted 2 mts by 2 mts, other varieties need less space in between them.
The time for the plant to start producing the first coffee cherries: depending on the varieties and altitude of the plantation it might take 2 to 4 years.
For you to get an idea the approximated cost per hectare to renew coffee is $2200. This cost is to plant a normal variety like Caturra and Catuai in flat land.
Another challenge that has been creating big movements in the world is climate change. This is a problem that keeps dramatically affecting the behavior of the plantations; especially the ones located at low altitudes. Farmers are combating stronger and more varieties of diseases and fungus like leaf rust. Producers need to spray multiple times a year in order to control the rust and this makes the cost of production really high. To give you an idea, just to spray one time, one hectare of coffee, a farmer in Costa Rica can spend around $120 USD including labor. Remember that the farmers are spraying usually 3 or 4 times a year each hectare of coffee; which leave us at $360-$480 USD per year per hectare. If you think about it--it’s a huge cost. Our farmers also want to reduce the amount of chemicals used in the farms, but unfortunately at certain altitudes and with certain varieties it’s very difficult to spray less. That’s why producers need to grow varieties that are resistant to all these diseases. We are working very hard to guide farmers and recommend them to take the right decisions at all these pivotal points. The farmers that are at 1700 masl are not worried about growing Caturra and Catuai yet, but the farmers at 1200 masl up to 1500 masl are struggling with these common varieties that are not so resistant to rust.
We must not forget that most of the farmers in Costa Rica are 50 years old or more. Their children are going to school, getting their degrees, and becoming professionals. They look for jobs and move to the city to work in order to lead a more comfortable lifestyle. This situation is happening to most of the farmer’s children; especially the ones that work under the control of the C-market prices. Since these prices are really low there is no motivation for them to stay in the farms and work the land anymore. On the other hand, with the opening of micromills that are run by families like mine; we as the next generation in coffee are more enticed by specialty coffee. We get premiums for good quality which keeps us motivated to continue with our family legacy. But if you ask me, I would say that these cases are still rare overall in the world. In general, the new generations in coffee don’t want to work in this industry since they don’t have an incentive to really do so.
We at Selva are working tirelessly to find market niches for the forty different producers and suppliers we work with. We know this is one of the biggest challenges for many farmers. Our producers are doing their best to focus on growing and producing the best quality coffee and this takes most of their energy and time. They need companies and partners like us that can focus on trading, guiding them, and finding great partners that share our same values in order to build a sustainable supply chain.