by Marcela Pino

As September winds down, we gear up to celebrate International Coffee Day on October 1st. International Coffee Day was started in 2014 by the International Coffee Organization as a celebration of the coffee sector’s diversity, quality, and passion. It was designed to recognize the millions of people across the world – farmers, roasters, coffee shop owners, baristas, and more – who do hard work to grow and serve coffee. It is an opportunity for coffee lovers to share their love of the beverage and celebrate and support the millions of farmers whose livelihoods depend on the aromatic crop.

It is easy for us in the US, the largest importer of coffee, to take our morning cup of coffee for granted and to feel very far removed from the farmers who work tirelessly to bring us the coffee we love, and that the $495.5 billion coffee industry relies on.

But who is today’s coffee farmer? 

No two coffee farmers are the same. The differences depend on each farmer’s context and circumstances; do they manage small, medium, or large farms, do they have access to credit and other production services, do they belong to a cooperative or sell independently, is the farm in a region that enjoys political stability or not? These are just some of the realities that dictate whether a farmer can afford a decent livelihood. However, one of the key aspects that determines their ability to succeed as coffee producers is their capacity to produce coffee.  In other words, can they produce enough volume to afford a good living for themselves and their families? Like many cash crops, coffee operates on an economy of scale, where the more you produce and sell, the more you make. In the current economy, small farmers face significant obstacles to covering their costs of production and their basic living requirements, like food. A living income analysis undertaken last year with communities of one of our partner organizations, ACODIHUE, in Guatemala, showed that farmers with less than 1 hectare of land were not able to cover their coffee costs of production, much less meet their families’ basic needs. One of the Directors of the cooperative, Felix Camposeco, told me with a grim expression, “half of our coffee producers have less than that. What are they going to do?”

Unfortunately, this reality is not exclusive to ACODIHUE. Ethos, an organization working toward a more inclusive coffee sector, just published their 2023 Coffee Barometer, a document that aims to understand the dynamics of sustainability in the context of the coffee industry. The Barometer is rich in information and worth your careful reading. The report mentions that 95% of the 12.5 million coffee farms are considered small farms (less than 5 hectares) and 84% of those are less than 2 hectares. The document says that coffee farmers “continue to grapple with poverty and precarious living conditions.” They share the results of a living income study done by Columbia University, where in 8 of the 10 coffee producing countries listed, the average annual coffee income is at or below the poverty line

In addition, the report mentions that female workers in the coffee sector earn significantly less than male workers, in part because they are unpaid family workers. This is especially troubling in recent years as male farmers have been leaving farms and communities to find work elsewhere, leaving women to tend to the coffee crops, and care and provide for children, while making little to no  income from coffee. 

On average, smallholder farmers earn only $1500 from their coffee production. The condition of poverty is cyclical. Poor farmers can’t afford to invest in necessary coffee production practices, which results in a crop of less quality and even smaller volumes. Smallholders who have access to credit have the option to go into debt to invest in fertilizers and other inputs, hoping that next year prices and volumes will be better, and they can pay their debt back. Because of this vicious cycle, families annually suffer a period of food insecurity when the money from the coffee has run out and food prices are higher. During these months, they eat less, buy cheaper food, or borrow money to overcome their thin months, as they are often called.

All these circumstances make small coffee farmers more vulnerable to different types of shocks, because they don’t enjoy access to the services that can help them recover from crises such as natural disasters, socio-political upheaval, or drops in the international coffee price. If a family loses their crop to pests or a hurricane, they may need to go into deeper debt and go outside the farm to work or, as we have increasingly seen lately, emigrate to the United States and abandon their coffee plot. It is estimated that about 73% of the coffee we drink daily is produced by these smallholder farmers!

Food 4 Farmers works with these coffee farmers, helping them increase their food production so they can access food when they need it, and when they are ready, helping them diversify their sources of income, mitigating their  overdependence on income from coffee. Income diversification has been associated with stronger resiliency for coffee households (Anderzén et al., 2020), a testimony we hear regularly from our partner organizations in Latin America. As Jose Santos Tombe Choque, one of our program participants stated, “In the program I have learned to grow all kinds of vegetables and herbs, thyme, onions, beets, carrots, peppers, everything! We use the production mainly for consumption. The great thing is that thanks to what we save with our home garden I have been able to fertilize the coffee throughout the year. In the past, I could only do a little bit, but now I can do it regularly. Also, last year I joined the production diversification program of F4F and grew maize and beans to sell at the market. I planted 7 kilos of beans and 3.5 kilos of maize. We are planting only local seeds. I sold most of the beans and with that I bought more inputs for the farm, and the maize was used to feed our family and the chickens we keep. I want to keep participating in the program because I save money, feed my family and the animals, and because I keep learning how to do things better.”

With the inaugural International Coffee Day, the International Coffee Organization pledged to support struggling coffee farmers worldwide to make a living wage. At Food 4 Farmers, we work towards this goal everyday. 

That’s why we are launching our “Campaign to End Hunger in the Coffeelands” on October 1st, International Coffee Day!

But why stop at just one day?! Join us in raising funds to support Food 4 Farmers critical food security programs all month long! International Coffee MONTH!

Together, we can cultivate a food-secure future for coffee farming communities and ensure they have access to nutritious food all year long!