Spotlight on Colombian Coffee Growers: Living Income Deep Dive

By Christina Archer and Stephanie Daniels

Our work these days in the Food Lab is primarily organized around the two broad outcomes of agricultural systems that regenerate soil and ecosystem services and markets and programs that enable farmers to make at least a living income. It has only been this year that we’ve been able to travel again after the pandemic and hear how farmers are advancing on the hard work it takes to achieve either goal. In a recent trip to Colombia for the International Coffee Organization’s CEO and Global Leaders Forum, we were able to visit one of the primary coffee growing regions where one of our company members has a long term program. What a breath of fresh air to walk in the moist, dark earth of coffee farms and listen to farmers share their stories!   We were visiting a supply chain that has been implementing a strategy for both economic and environmental resiliency for some time, and is just beginning a new partnership initiative with funding from the German and Dutch governments. The farmers have been working with agronomists in the Nespresso AAA program for a number of years and demonstrated both their practices and their multiyear data on improvements in yields, profits and biodiversity.

One of the farms we visited was owned by a young couple, Robinson and Sylvia, who had moved back from the city to their hometown to farm a 1.3 hectare plot of coffee and raise their daughter. Because Robinson’s grandfather had grown coffee under shade, he decided to plant native trees with the coffee when he started about 12 years ago. The farm is extremely steep but the soil is held by diverse, multistrata shade trees and well pruned coffee bushes.  Sylvia has a fruit and vegetable garden behind the house that provides for a large portion of their food throughout the year. Through breaks in the trees, full sun coffee plots planted by neighbors on equally steep slopes were visible, recently planted due to the current high coffee price. Robinson shared both the challenges they’ve faced and the satisfaction of seeing both his plants and bird populations thrive over the years. The couple’s lovely house, perched on the hillside, was dotted with bird feeders throughout the trees and they are studying to be guides for birders in agritourism programs. They are also now roasting and selling some of their coffee in local shops, another example of how they are trying to diversify their incomes – of course we bought some and can report that it was amazing!

Robinson and Sylvia are similar to many young farmers – smart, entrepreneurial, hard working – but unlike many they also are participating in a supply chain with steady and regular agronomic support, strong farmer organization and long term buyers with premium prices.  The first two aspects are lynchpins that facilitate regular and high quality technical assistance – soil tests, demonstration farms on various fertilizers and growing methods, access to input and financial assistance that facilitate adoption of better practices. The long term buying commitment that the companies have had to these farmers have also built the stability to invest in quality and regenerative agriculture. Reading about the success of the initiatives is one thing, but it is no substitute for being able to hear directly from Robinson and Sylvia how they have seen their coffee farm develop as a result of of this relationship, what worked for them, and what is still needed.

In our visit to this and other farms and processing centers, we were able to discuss the challenges and solutions this new partnership is tackling.  Because these farmers are part of a stable supply chain, the drivers of price, productivity and efficiency are being addressed through the permanent support of agronomists embedded in the system. The new initiative will tackle challenges such as creating enabling conditions for women to develop economic autonomy and the need for affordable weather insurance. We are looking forward to supporting these partners to share their learnings in the Food Lab and the Living Income Community of Practice as it bears fruit in the months to come.

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