In the face of climate change, farmers seek new opportunities

Photo credit: Oscar Leiva/Silverlight

Coffee—one of Central America’s most important exports, generating employment and foreign exchange for thousands of coffee growers, has been struck by climate change, price instability and disease.

In a push to improve productivity, sustainability and returns, coffee growers have turned to climate-smart agriculture that protects water and soil.

“We are testing and scaling new business practices that will allow coffee growers to access world-class roasters and large coffee buyers.” — Anabella Palacios

“We are testing and scaling new business practices that will allow coffee growers to access world-class roasters and large coffee buyers,” says Anabella Palacios, the MIF’s lead for Blue Harvest a project executed with Catholic Relief Services, that works with 3,500 coffee growers to develop climate-smart techniques that will produce sustainable coffee, at a better selling price.

We want to “influence the income received by producers through economic recognition of practices that control water use and protect soil,” Palacios says—a first, within coffee value chains.

coffee gets hit

At more than 1000 meters above sea level, the Matagalpa highlands are covered by lush green coffee plantations—a crop which has for generations been the main economic activity in the area.

“This year it rained in the summer when it typically never rains, and just a few kilometers away, in the lower part of the district of San Ramon, most of the harvest was lost due to a drought,” said 35 year-old Marvin Mairena, a second generation coffee grower from the Nicaragua’s mountainous region of Matagalpa.

Marvin Mairena is a second generation coffee producer who has been working with Blue Harvest to implement smart-agriculture techniques that are improving the quality of his coffee and helping him get access to better buyers in the international market. Photo credit: Oscar Leiva/Silverlight

Coffee is the most important of Central America’s export products, sold to countries within the European Union, the U.S. and Canada, but the effects of climate change and the lack of local capacity to manage natural resources have severely affected coffee production, most of which comes from smallholder farmers.

“You cannot stick to any specific farming plan—the climate does not let you.” — Marvin Mairena

Mairena describes years of unpredictable rains that have produced uneven harvests. “You cannot stick to any specific farming plan—the climate does not let you.”

Coffee beans from ‘crazy blooms’ (coffee that flowers out of season) don’t mature enough to be used—Mairena explains—whilst the intense rains that surprise farmers after periods of drought, destroy the green and red coffee beans before they’re picked.

And, in addition to the already unpredictable effects of climate change on the industry, three years ago Mairena and the members of his community saw 80% of their coffee trees eliminated by coffee rust—a fungus that in 2013 crippled coffee production throughout Central America, leaving farmers stripped of their trees. “We were wrecked by the coffee rust,” he said.

Coffee rust has also been attributed to climate change, as warmer temperatures allow it to spread more quickly.

Resilience & Conservation

In order to craft novel strategies to face these issues, and recover the economic, social and environmental benefits of coffee production, Blue Harvest works with coffee growers in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, to develop climate-smart techniques that will produce sustainable coffee.

Through this project, coffee growers and environmental experts have been working side by side to create resilience—equipping farmers with the climate-smart techniques that will help their crops survive unpredictable weather.

Amongst other practices, experts have shown farmers (almost 2,500 of them) how to:

  • identify the plant’s nutritional needs and avoid the spread of disease through soil analysis;
  • measure precipitation to plan harvests despite climate change;
  • diversify crops to lower the risk of depending solely on coffee;
  • store water to use during droughts;
  • and treat the water they contaminate when extracting coffee beans from their fruit.

And the reasons behind making coffee resilient are two-fold: coffee is not only a main economic driver in the region, but a strategic medium through which water and soil can be protected.

“Good management of coffee is good management of water.” — Maren Barbee

“Good management of coffee is good management of water,” explained Blue Harvest’s regional manager, Maren Barbee. Coffee is the dominating crop in the region’s water basins, which means that its production directly impacts water flowing downstream.

According to Barbee, we cannot discuss the value chain of the coffee industry without taking into account its potential to protect water resources. “We want to support coffee growers to continue to work with coffee because it’s good for the conservation of water,” Barbee said.

testing a market opportunity

But, in order to preserve coffee production in Central America—and thus, protect water sources—there is a greater risk threatening producers.

“I think the worst disease, worse than coffee rust for producers, has been the instability of prices.” — Marvin Mairena

“I think the worst disease, worse than coffee rust for producers, has been the instability of prices,” Mairena said. “You never know what the price will be like.”

Coffee is a commodity, and its price depends on global patterns of demand and supply, explains Blue Harvest’s Barbee: “All the producers we work with are dependent on the fluctuations in the New York Stock Exchange, and the production levels in Brazil—the world’s number one coffee producer.”

“How can we motivate producers to continue to work in the coffee industry if we do not improve their income?” she asks.

Mauricio Meza, is a certified coffee taster, from COARENE, a coffee producer’s cooperative in Honduras. Blue Harvest is testing the local coffee characteristics to promote it to international buyers. Photo credit: Blue Harvest/Catholic Relief Services

Thus, Blue Harvest is leveraging the MIF’s expertise in value chains to test new business models and innovative solutions to price instability.

Although certifications exist to guarantee coffee is meeting certain social and environmental marks, Blue Harvest is testing new models within international value chains that places a premium on good practices specifically related to the protection of water and soil—and its doing this in partnership with Keurig Green  Mountain, one of the world’s leading coffee buyers.

Hence, farmers and companies are working alongside each other to develop an environmentally-friendly, climate-resilient coffee that can be sold at a higher price.

But, finding buyers that understand the impact coffee plantations have on water resources is tricky, Mairena reminds us.

“Why would we produce quality coffee if we are going to sell it at a local market at the same price as a low-quality coffee?” Mairena asks. For specialized coffee, “it’s important to have a buyer committed to the quality,” and aware of its positive environmental impact, he says.

To find a business model that works, Blue Harvest is leveraging its participation in SAFE the platform created by the MIF that unites 13 international corporations, including two of the biggest coffee companies in the world.

The SAFE platform, which aims to improve the quality of life of more than 12 million smallholder producers across the region, is working on the ground to develop value chains, make finance accessible, and implement climate-smart agriculture capable of mitigating the effect of climate change.

Finding international clients willing to pay top dollar for coffee that leaves behind a reduced water footprint, while working on the ground to build resilience, is a model SAFE and Blue Harvest are testing. and working to scale.