Articles From Whole Latte Love

More to Good Coffee Than Meets the Machine: The Coffee Farming Crisis

Posted: 08/20/03
Table of Contents:
1. Introduction
2. Farming Coffee
3. The Coffee Crisis
4. What’s Our Response?
5. Introducing CoffeeKids
    a. Mexico
    b. Nicaragua
    c. Costa Rica
    d. Guatemala
6. Who Supports CoffeeKids
7. More Information on CoffeeKids

About the Author: Fortune Elkins is a self proclaimed “New York chick coffee lover who loves her Silvia.” She and her husband both enjoy sharing the wonders of the espresso world. Fortune is admittedly, “in constant search of coffee perfection!” This search has brought her to a cause that is extremely close to her heart, CoffeeKids. For two years now she has been deeply involved with this non-profit International Organization established to improve the quality of life for child and families living in coffee-growing communities around the world. The following article was graciously written for us by Fortune Elkin, ENJOY!

For Connecticut wife and Yale film-school teacher Delia Konzett, there’s no doubt that making coffee is one of the day’s most important rituals. She and her husband share their afternoon coffee together as their time for intimate connection.

Espresso ShotsDelia’s husband, who is Austrian, prizes this coffee time as a piece of his European heritage. If they can’t be together to savor their home-roasted espresso, they won’t have coffee by themselves. Coffee is an important part of their couple-bond.

Since we’re here browsing the Whole Latte Love website, there’s also no doubt we also understand the importance of good coffee in our lives. There’s no need to explain the simple but profound joy a well-made cup of coffee or espresso brings to any day.

Already we’re aware of the many different types of machines available for coffee, and how they perform, as well as the beauty they add to our kitchen décor. All of us enjoy making coffee for ourselves and take pleasure in the smiles great coffee brings to our friends, family, and officemates.

But one of the most interesting things about coffee – one often noted, and yet remarkably unexplored – is that coffee is the world’s second most heavily traded commodity after oil. The coffee trade is a huge global business, one that connects us as consumers to a whole industry of which we are often only vaguely aware.

We all come here to Whole Latte Love to order machines, demitasses, exotic and elegant coffees fit for connoisseurs. The simple act of buying high-quality, premium coffees – known as “specialty coffee” to the trade – is something we do because we have learned to enjoy its complexity. With at least 800 identified flavor compounds, coffee is a more complex beverage in its appreciation than wine.

To buy specialty coffee here at Whole Latte Love also has a ripple effect. In our market-driven world it creates links with people who at first seem far away, but are actually always with us, as close to us as the cup beside our elbow while we drive or work on our computers. As close to us as Delia is to her husband every afternoon. Not only the retailers, roasters, importers, customs inspectors, coffee buyers, but also with the actual coffee farmer.

Farming Coffee
Few coffee lovers ever consider what a coffee farm might be like. Perhaps we have some hazy memory of the last Juan Valdez commercial we saw while running to refill our cups, where a happy man in a serape tends and picks coffee with the help of the cutest little donkey.

If we were to guess, we might say that coffee is grown like other crops with which we’re familiar, on large farms or plantations with modern equipment and the latest scientific methods. And in some situations, this is true. But the coffee farming situation encompasses a surprising variety of farm types.

We might also have heard of the renowned but smaller estates or fincas, where families who have been growing coffee for generations tend their trees with the care winegrowers give their precious Sonoma vineyards. Or we might think of a mere 5-acre farm in Kona, Hawaii, where dedicated Americans who love their fragile piece of paradise nurture plants that can be nearly a century old on the slopes of a volcano.

But in many coffee-growing regions, especially those where the most prized coffees are grown, coffee farms are often little more than big gardens in the remote and misty mountains. Imagine a few small coffee trees nestled among larger shade trees, a situation where a peasant family has inherited its coffee, and tends it as it does the vegetables it grows for daily sustenance.

These people rarely have schools or hospitals, few roads, little or no electricity. They do all the work by hand. Even on the larger fincas or plantations, much of the labor must be done by hand. Since coffee fruit can ripen on the tree at different times, farmers need skilled and experienced workers who recognize which beans are best for picking at any one time if they are to produce the highest quality coffee.

Processing the coffee – separating the beans from the sticky, juicy coffee cherry – is also a skilled activity. Farmers often send their coffee out to a mill to do it for them, but many farms do at least some of the work. So while many manual laborers on a larger coffee farm are uneducated people, they have special knowledge gained through training and experience.

Unlike in other forms of agricultural labor, you can’t just hand anyone a hoe. But still in some countries, there is still a surplus of coffee labor. The only hope for these people is for them to diversify their family income out of coffee. But how are they do to this? How are they to get skills, education, capital to allow them to do so.

Some savvier coffee farmers are socially aware, such as the famous Finca Dos Marias, whose 1,400 acres produces some of the finest coffee in Guatemala, have instituted broad social programs for coffee workers and their families. They don’t rely on migrant workers.

For example, the finca has its own school system and boasts a literacy rate of 95% among its workforce. But again, these initiatives are expensive and depend on the finca being able to maintain a good profit. Chuck Jones, whose family has owned the finca for 5 generations, attributes their social vision to creative and sound long-term planning, planning that realizes the value of skilled, long-term labor-farmer relationships.

The Coffee Crisis
Since coffee is commodity like oil, it traded in the same way oil is, on the exchange, and by contract. While other methods of buying coffee do exist, the reality is that the contract price on the exchange sets the standard.

And the reality of the coffee commodity market is that prices are frighteningly low. So low that farmers cannot make a living. A common estimate is that to grow coffee generally may cost US$0.90 a pound. But the price on the market recently has stayed about US$0.68 a pound.

And prices have plunged lower than this during the last three or so years of this world-price depression known in the trade as the “coffee crisis.” Worldwide, estimates hold that as many as 25 million people have been hurtled into poverty by the coffee crisis. That’s equal to the population of the entire state of Texas.

For example, in Colombia, coffee sent the farmer’s children to college for decades. But now, it hardly pays to grow coffee. In fact, many farmers have either cut back their trees to wait for prices to bounce back, or are looking at bankruptcy and the loss of lands that have been in their families for many years.

In these cases, the farmers may even consider just abandoning the land altogether. That’s sad enough, but what happens to the coffee workers and their families when this occurs?

In Nicaragua’s Matagalpa coffee region, aid workers have estimated that as many as 20,000 former coffee pickers and workers have lost their jobs, homes, and income. Now they live under plastic tarps along the roadside and beg for food, according to reports by press agencies like Reuters.

In Colombia, according to press reports from papers as diverse as the Washington Post and the Financial Times, farmers have looked to save their lands and the jobs of their skilled workers by converting their farms to the production of illegal drugs. The slopes on which coffee grows are also the perfect environment for opium poppies – the basis of heroin – as well as coca, the basis for cocaine.

Nestor Osorio, the head of an important coffee group, the International Coffee Organization (ICO), told the press in April of this year that he personally saw aerial photographs of former coffee farms replanted with coca. News service Knight-Ridder reported this month that Andean cocaine production had increased by 6,500 acres.

But these aren’t abstract facts. We see the results of the coffee crisis in these profound and unexpected ways here in our own country. In the United States, our government has spent billions in Colombia fighting the war on drugs. Obviously, the coffee crisis is an important component to be considered in this complex situation.

Coffee FarmingIncreases in illegal drugs in our communities isn’t the only way the coffee crisis affects us unexpectedly. International aid organizations estimate that the economic losses from the coffee crisis have cost as many as 500,000 agricultural jobs in Central America and Mexico.

Particularly in the Mexican coffee region of Huatusco, job losses have been severe, forcing men to leave their families and cross illegally into the United States to search for work. Many desperate coffee workers have silently melted into our underground economy.

But not everyone survives the dangerous trip. Last year the story of 11 such men found dead in a boxcar in Iowa made headlines. Those coffee workers who have made it north may never go home again, leaving families permanently separated. Thus the new term used in Mexico: “coffee widow.”

What’s Our Response?
We live in a market-driven world. So the best response to crises in the market lies in the market itself. How do we, the average consumer affect this? What’s surprising is our plain act of coming here to Whole Latte Love to buy specialty coffee is the one of the most effective things anyone can do.

Buying and drinking more premium specialty coffee is actually a statement for positive change. Whether you knew it or not, the coffee that you and your family now enjoy, just as Delia and her husband enjoy, already involves you in improving the situation. To buy fair-trade or bird-friendly coffees, whose special certifications offer a better price to the coffee farmer, helps even more.

But market solutions are also long-term solutions. When Rhode Island coffeeshop owner Bill Fishbein went on a trip to coffee country – known in the trade as “going to origin” – in Guatemala in 1988, he was deeply moved. His personal experience provoked him to begin what has become a market-oriented program to offer coffee families economic alternatives so they are less reliant on the vagaries of the coffee market. What he started is the charity known as CoffeeKids, now active in the U.S. and the U.K.

Introducing CoffeeKids
In this dire time, with the coffee crisis pressing heavily on entire countries and communities in Latin America, Bill Fishbein’s organization is already in place with a vision. Bill doesn’t see the struggling coffee farmers and workers as victims. He understands them as powerful moral agents, people able to take charge of their own lives.

Coffee KidsThus CoffeeKids has successfully used the concept of microcredit to turn people, particularly women, into entrepreneurs. With careful training and some expert aid, the people in CoffeeKids programs run their own mini-banks and savings groups, from which they make each other small loans to start their businesses.

What’s different about the CoffeeKids use of microcredit is that unlike other programs, where the microcredit loan money comes from outside donors, the people create their own capital. Over time, the lending pools are fueled largely by the savings of their own members. This frees the people from any dependence on outside aid or grants. They are then the makers of their own destiny.

CoffeeKids has been amazingly successful in several countries, including Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.

Mexico In Coatepec and Huatusco, Mexico, CoffeeKids’ microcredit projects now serve 2220 women with their own businesses such as bakeries, restaurants, and a sewing collective. But the women of Coatepec are simply not content to think small. Having come to understand their own capabilities, and now possessing some capital and business experience, one group of women began to investigate what it would take to open a bed and breakfast in their community.

In Huatusco, people were so reliant on coffee, they grew little food. They depended on coffee income to purchase corn. When the price of coffee plummeted, farmers abandoned the coffee fields and people had no money to eat. Many men members left for the United States to seek illegal work, causing great social stress as families were disrupted. Now CoffeeKids has begun a microcredit project, and the women are building their savings pool.

In Matagalpa, Nicaragua, an area devastated by both Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the coffee crisis, CoffeeKids’ project supports 360 women and their families in a clothing resale business; selling cosmetics, chicken, vegetables, and dairy products; as well as tortilla bakeries. Women start their businesses with loans as small as US$100.

Returning from the effects of double devastation, these pioneering women are now operating their own ventures, saving money for the first time in their lives, and learning how to run their own community bank.

Costa Rica
Costa Rica CoffeeKids is also devoted to educational projects. In the Hijos del Campo project, located in Costa Rica, local children have benefited from over 1,400 high school & university scholarships. There have also been 224 grants to elementary schools. This means that over 6,000 students who would mostly likely never had any learning opportunities are now improving their lot through the best means – education.

GuatemalaFinally, CoffeKids is well aware of the lack of adequate medical care in many coffee regions. The Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala is famous for its excellent coffee, but the people had no access to a doctor. In remote rural areas such as Lake Atitlan, there is only 1 doctor for every 85,000 people.

CoffeeKids began a microcredit program San Pedro de La Laguna, which has lead to the creation of businesses such as a small general store, a pig farm, and a weaving enterprise. Also, the women set up a basic health care program that now serves 250 of them and their families. Project volunteers receive basic preventive health care training, and they in turn teach others.

Once again, these women are now thinking on a larger scale. They are now investigating funding a reforestation project and an AIDS education program.

Who Supports CoffeeKids?
Nearly 70% of the funding for CoffeeKids comes from the coffee industry itself. Many prominent coffee professionals are devoted to the organizations’ goals. “Until CoffeeKids, the North American coffee roasting industry was asleep at the switch. They had no idea there was a human connection between the families that grew the coffee and their families at home,” says renowned coffee roaster, Don Schoenholt of Gillies Coffee in Brooklyn, New York. “CoffeeKids made that connection clear.”

“CoffeeKids supports the kinds of programs we like to support. We launched a new organic blend to celebrate our anniversary and for each pound of that we sell, we donate 25 cents to CoffeeKids,” says Jesse Sweeney, a partner in Seattle’s Caffé Umbria.

Rick Peyser, of Vermont’s Green Mountain Coffee and president of the CoffeeKid’s board, has been an enthusiastic supporter of CoffeeKids for several years. He was among the early supporters, offering capital for the community banks. And Rick personally is involved in the CoffeeKids program in Huatusco.

“What appeals to us about working with CoffeeKids is that it provides economic opportunities beyond coffee,” he said. “I’ve had the privilege of visiting these women’s savings groups. It was very moving. It’s a great model.”

The remaining 30% of CoffeeKid’s support comes from coffee lovers, average people like those of us who visit

Feeling moved yourself to aid the work CoffeeKids does? Their excellent website, which provides a quick and easy way to donate and a list of businesses who support CoffeeKids with their own donations, as well as in-depth discussion of their projects, can be found at

More Information on the Topic
Interested in learning more? Check out these web resources: a Finca Dos Marias picturebook; a link to a great PBS documentary on the coffee situation in Central America and an interview with the author of a book about the lives of coffee farmers and workers in Guatemala through a political lens, called “Silence on the Mountain.”