Why Growing Coffee Means Losing Money, and What You Can Do.
In today's blog, i'm going to explain some of the problems that plague Colombia's coffee industry. I think it's important for coffee lovers everywhere to know the truth about rising costs of coffee. Living in Colombia for 3 years has given me a new understanding as well as a new love for my favorite hot drink. Working with small coffee farms, like the farm of Jaime Gutierrez in Arbelaez, Cundinamarca, Colombia, offers all of us a unique opportunity to try and save a failing industry that provides 1/3rd of all liquids consumed on the planet.
The first problem that we encounter while growing coffee is climate change. In the past 20 years, the average temperature in Colombia's coffee growing region has increased by almost 3 degrees Fahrenheit.
Coffee cherry trees are a broad leaf evergreen that thrives in equatorial countries that provide consisted 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of sunlight year round. These trees require moderate temperatures, if it's too hot, the broad leaf can burn and be affected by a mold called "Coffee Rust". If it's too cold the tree can freeze and die. They also require constant rainfall, with a 3 month dry season to flower and start growing the cherries. The increased temperature and less consistent rainfall has not only lowered production of Colombia's coffee industry, it has started killing the fragile coffee trees.
There are a few things that can be done about this in order to save coffee, techniques like irrigation and planting shade trees can work wonders for the small farm. Adding irrigation not only increases the water supply to the plants, but can also help lower the ambient temperature of the field of coffee. The downfall of this plan is that it is a fairly costly infrastructure upgrade, the price is so high that often it is not considered to be a realistic option for many farmers. You will realize later on how little money is actually received by the typical coffee farmer. Planting shade trees can also lower the ambient temperatures of the crop significantly. The quickest answer for many farmers is to plant bananas or plantains through out their coffee field, but bananas also require a lot of water and rainfall, and can be disadvantageous at times because they can rob the precious water from the more desirable crop of coffee. The long term answer is diversifying the shade trees. Finca Nelly, where the La Primera Cosecha brand of coffee is grown, is a great example of how diverse shade trees can work in symbioses with the coffee crop. La Primera Cosecha is a Premium coffee grown at 5300 Ft of altitude, and the variety of shade trees include Bananas, Plantains, Mangos, Guanoabana, Oranges, Avocados, Limes, and Lemons. The downfall of this plan is the time required for these fruit trees to grow to a sufficient height before they provide any beneficial shade to the coffee crop underneath. Many of these trees require 5-12 years before they reach mature adulthood and start providing shade and fruit. If you planted your coffee and your fruit bearing shade trees during the same year, your coffee crop will likely perish before your fruit trees start producing fruit.
If the climate change continues to increase yearly temperatures, it is likely that 45% to 60% of coffee production around the world could be lost. There are over 2000 known varieties of coffee, most of these varieties are grown in the wilds of Africa. Arabica and Robusta are the only popular farmed varieties of coffee grown. Robusta is usually reserved for making espresso coffee, due to its higher caffeine content. Arabica coffee is less bitter tasting and more popular, and is what most people buy in their grocery stores. In Colombia, coffee farmers, or Cafeteros, have begun working with the Federation of Coffee and the Co-ops to plant a newly found type of coffee that is more heat resistant. The Castillo variety has an excellent flavor and doesn't perish in the heat like your typical Arabica coffee plant. It can produce a large amount of cherries for 30 years when properly maintained and cared for. The disadvantages of growing Castillo coffee is that in order to change over to a new variety, a farmer must remove their entire crop of existing coffee trees and plant new ones. This is a labor intensive and expensive process, and it also means that the farm will no longer have an income for the following 2 years until the new coffee plants mature and produce cherries. Since most coffee farmers live in poverty, not having an additional income for 2 years would be absolutely devastating.
Coffee prices around the world are linked directly to the coffee commodity prices on the New York Stock Exchange. This is one of the worst factors of the industry. The NYSE is a computer that doesn't farm coffee. It doesn't buy fertilizer, plant shade trees, pay for harvesters to bring the crop into processing, nor does it actually have any clue how much it costs to produce coffee. Since 2009, the NYSE trade price of coffee per pound has usually been well below the costs of production. The NYSE price is the price that the Co-Ops guarantee to the small coffee farmers when they bring their harvested and dried coffee seeds, or beans, to sell at the market. When a Coffee farmer sells their coffee for this price, they lose money. The sale of the coffee alone is not sufficient to pay for the production costs of coffee and the Cafetero must seek other work in order to run and maintain the farm. This is an example of economic slavery at its finest and its worst.
Coffee is the most popular drink in the world, why are the prices so low? Because no one is doing anything about the price of coffee.
Sure, programs like Fair Trade exist, but with mixed results. There have been many studies performed to discover whether or not this program has a real benefit to the coffee growers, and you may be surprised at what these studies have found. The Fair Trade system has flaws that undermine its benefits. A farmer wishing to participate in Fair Trade must pay and register as a Fair Trade farm, which will then set limits on what wage must be paid to the workers and on what fertilizers and pesticides can be used; this results in an increase in production costs, meaning there is no additional money going to the farmer when all is said and done. Often, the Cafetero that is Fair Trade is still producing coffee at a loss.
The Fair Trade model fails to transfer the goodwill of the consumer to the coffee producer; The model prices itself out of the poorest coffee growing regions; The model incentivizes low quality coffee to be mixed with higher quality coffee; The model lacks transparency; the model imposes significant costs to the poorest farmer; And finally, little scientific evidence exists to support the desired economic impact of the Fair Trade model. The marketing of the Fair Trade company, however, would lead you to believe otherwise.
Why would anyone want to grow coffee if they knew they were going to lose money by doing so? All relevant coffee farms are in South and Latin America, Africa, and Asia. These regions are also plagued with poverty, and along with poverty comes poor education. Many coffee farmers worldwide know how to produce coffee by tradition, but they are not educated in other areas, and many do not know that they are losing money in order to produce coffee.
With all of these grave issues surrounding the coffee industry, what can you and I do about them? The first and most obvious solution is to buy your coffee from ethical businesses that pay ethical prices to their coffee producers without requiring that the producer assume additional costs. All of our coffee sold at Brand of Brothers is produced and paid for ethically. All coffee is purchased directly from the coffee farmer, often at prices a lot higher than Fair Trade prices, and never at prices lower than Fair Trade. Part of our business model is to only buy high quality coffee directly from small farmers that would likely have no other option but to sell their coffee to the Co-Op and lose money year after year. Buying your coffee from Brand of Brothers Coffee means that you are taking a stand AGAINST common economic slavery practices that are dooming a $100 Billion annual industry.
Whether you agree that climate change is man made or not, increasing temperatures are killing coffee crops worldwide. Doing your part to reduce, reuse, and recycle will absolutely help in the long run. Using coffee brewing methods like a Pour Over with a reusable stainless steel screen means no longer are you going to your store every week to buy a paper filter that will be used one time and then discarded.
Why did I choose to open my business in a losing industry? Anyone you ask in Colombia will tell you its a bad business to be in, and it certainly is from their perspective? Why would anyone choose to SPEND money instead of MAKE money in their business? The reason to these questions is that I see an opportunity for changing how the product of an entire industry is purchased and sold.
What make Brand of Brothers Coffee different from all of the others? The first difference is our absolute refusal to participate in the enslavement, economic or otherwise, of anyone who works with us. We pay fair and ethical prices for our coffee to every small farmer that we work with, and the farmers have full bellies, financial relief, and signed purchase contracts to prove it. The second difference is that we perform as much of our process at the coffees origin as possible. We pay fair prices for all of our bags and labels, we pay fair prices to all of our coffee processors and roasters. All of our coffee is origin roasted, meaning the Colombian coffee you are enjoying, like the Jaime Gutierrez Premium Brand and the La Primera Cosecha Premium Brand, were grown, harvested, produced and roasted by the people who know and love the culture of Colombian coffee. Finally, we are the only US Veteran owned Coffee company with a mission to help fellow mankind. We generously donate part of the proceeds to Non Profit Organizations that are working hard on making the world a better place.
Camp Ryan Adams is an example of one of those Non Profits. Celebrating the life and memory of Sergeant Ryan Adams, we have created a collection of gear to show our support for Camp Ryan Adams. Camp Ryan Adams is a Non Profit Organization based in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Their mission is to facilitate the emotional healing of disabled and wounded individuals and their families placing a special emphasis on U S Military veterans. Proceeds from the sales of our CRA Gear are donated directly to Camp Ryan Adams. If you would like to read more about Camp Ryan Adams, their Blog is located here.
I would like to thank you for supporting the Brand of Brothers Coffee mission of providing the best coffee in the world. Thank you for supporting the small coffee farms that provide your favorite beverage, and thank you for supporting Non Profit Organizations like Camp Ryan Adams that are working daily to end suffering in the world. If you would like to share your pride with others, we have some super soft tees and a great looking hat located here! If you need a new mug to drink your favorite coffee from, visit this part of our store.