By Bob Fish
Over the past two years, I have travelled all over the world visiting coffee farms. I love spending time with the farmers that produce the beautiful cherries, that hold the seeds, that make that magical elixir we call a cup of coffee. READ: The Journey of Coffee
But regardless of where in the world I am, I drive by coffee farms that have been abandoned.
In part, this is because the price of coffee has been at an all-time low. So low, in fact, that the coffee farmer is often selling their crop for less than it costs to produce. Selling for a loss is not economically sustainable.
It’s true that on the retail and consumer side we have been the beneficiary, and some of us might even have regarded this as a windfall. But the consequence is real: less acreage is producing coffee every year just as world-wide coffee demand is growing.
The Effect of Climate
Climate change is real, too, particularly as it shows up in coffee producing countries. Increases in rainfall have made more crops susceptible to a condition called rust seriously reducing production. It’s true that shade grown coffee farms can mitigate rust to a certain degree. But there are only so many shade grown farms today.
In places where they are not getting more rain, they are often getting less. Rising temperatures are bringing drought, and with it an increase in the range of diseases that affect coffee plants. Not to mention the killing of large swaths of the insects that pollinate coffee plants.
Rust on a coffee cherry.
The Looming Threat
Studies have shown that about half the land around the world currently used to produce high-quality coffee could be unproductive by 2050. Again, the consequence is real: less acreage is producing coffee every year.
Rampant evidence of abandoned farms is the early warning that something is wrong. Unseen forces are at hand, putting negative pressure on the coffee producing ecosystem. Coffee pricing has remained low, but it is inevitable that there will be a quick and sharp reckoning. We are interested in mitigating that threat.
Changing the Paradigm
Farm-Direct is a part of the solution. By working with individual coffee farmers today, we empower their capacity to thrive and produce crops, which in turn guarantees us continued access to high quality coffee.
They, too, have a guarantee: fair and predictable pricing that allows them to pay above national wages, practice sustainable farming methods, and invest in their communities (including other local coffee farmers). It fosters a symbiotic relationship where they and we are working together to improve our understanding, our practices, our education, our humanity, and our connectivity to each other. For this we will pay a small premium today, knowing in good conscience that we are treating the planet, it’s people, and society, right.
Price stability is far more valuable to us than the lowest possible price. Although we pay a premium for our product, we understand exactly from year to year what the parameters of that cost are. We are not held hostage to the fluctuation inherent in the current system of pricing with the C-contract. Stability is always more valuable in business than instability.
There have already been payoffs with our current efforts in Farm-Direct. As we guarantee purchases, confidence of the individual farmer goes up, and some are already eyeing adjacent abandoned farms for acquisitions.
Of course, they will bring a more advanced level of farming, yielding a higher quality product, and a better price than what those farms were producing before. Our relationship with Michigan State University (an agricultural university) and others also brings benefits, as we connect our farmers with the most advanced knowledge in agriculture, soil science, and how to avoid the perils of climate change.
The future of our industry depends on our farmers. We’re stronger when we work together.