The Center for Coffee Research and Education — a program of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, a unit of Texas A&M AgriLife — is trying to help small coffee farmers throughout the coffee value chain with a pair of projects.
The farm-to-table journey for a cup of coffee starts with the coffee plant. Supported by USAID and implemented by Texas A&M AgriLife Research through the Borlaug Institute, the Resilient Coffee in Central America project helped bring hardier hybrids of coffee plants to Central American farmers. These specific hybrids help farmers produce larger, better-quality coffee crops earlier in the growing process.
The need to market coffee to consumers is on the other side of the farm-to-table journey. The 12th Man Coffee project helps small farmers do that by creating a direct market for their high-quality specialty coffee beans. Both projects involve farmer education and pursue the Borlaug Institute’s mission to help elevate smallholder farmers out of poverty.
“We implement projects all over the world to help small farmers,” said Eric Brenner, project coordinator for the coffee center. “Our work is an example of the work that Texas A&M University does all over the world, especially through the Borlaug Institute. This is a true reflection the Aggie Spirit.”
Coffee crop and climate change basics
The morning cup of coffee drinkers love comes from the seed or “bean” of a coffee berry. Central American, Southeast Asian and equatorial African countries are the primary coffee growing areas.
The coffee American consumers drink comes from one of two different species of plants: Robusta and Arabica. Robusta is more disease resistant and grows at lower elevations in hotter temperatures. However, but it produces a more bitter cup of coffee. Arabica produces higher-quality beans for a smoother cup of coffee. It is also more sensitive to disease and must be grown at higher elevations.
Unfortunately, climate change is threatening those higher-quality Arabica coffee crops.
“Climate change has already driven Arabica coffees up about 100 meters (328 feet) up the slopes in Central America the last 10-15 years,” said Roger Norton, Ph.D., director of the coffee center. “They used to say Arabica coffee needs 900-1,000 meters (2,953-3,281 feet) of altitude. Now it is closer to 1,000-1,100 meters (3,281-3,609 feet).”
Coffee leaf rust is the primary economically relevant disease of coffee plants. The fungus easily spreads to and destroys the leaves of the plant and requires fungicides to control. A rust-infected plant does not produce coffee berries well, if at all, thereby reducing a producer’s income. The fungus can also kill the plant, which costs producers even more money.
The fungus thrives best in warmer, wetter environments. The increased temperatures of climate change have driven coffee leaf rust to ever-higher elevations. Arabica coffee is naturally less resistant to coffee rust, meaning it and its higher-quality product are at increased risk.
The state of the global coffee value chain
“Coffee is one of the major traded commodities in the world, second in value after petroleum,” Norton said. “However, coffee prices for the producer are low and that’s not going to change in the foreseeable future.”
Norton explained that prices are low both for supply and demand reasons. On the supply side, several countries, particularly Brazil and Vietnam, have entered the coffee market in recent years. These countries have begun producing a lot of Robusta coffee. This increased supply helps keep prices paid to farmers low.
On the demand side, commercial coffee buying infrastructure works to keep the prices paid to producers low too.
“There are basically four major multinationals in the food industry that are the main buyers of coffee in the world,” Norton said. “It’s what we call in economics an oligopoly. They control the market on the demand side. So, coffee prices are not going to come up for producers in the foreseeable future.”
About 80% of global coffee production comes from smallholder farmers, many of whom cannot support themselves on their coffee production alone. This is largely due to the economic impacts of climate change and coffee leaf rust, and the low prices paid for coffee.
“A lot of small farmers are in economic need,” said Rodrigo Chavez, former manager of the Borlaug Institute’s Resilient Coffee Project in Central America and owner/roaster of What’s the Buzz Coffee Co., the coffee center’s 12th Man Coffee project partner.
“The low prices are part of why we see a lot of migration from places like Guatemala. Farmers are leaving their coffee without being picked because the prices are so low,” Chavez said.
“What we need to do is emphasize quality, which gets them into a higher tier of prices,” Norton said.
This is where the coffee center’s two projects come in.
Helping with hybrids
The coffee center’s Resilient Coffee in Central America project was a three-year project that ran from 2018-2020 to help create a stronger coffee industry in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Through it, the coffee center helped disseminate two hybrid coffee varieties to small coffee farmers: Centroamericano and Milenio.
The hybrids are resistant to coffee leaf rust, meaning producers don’t have to spend as much money on fungicides. They also reach commercial productivity earlier and have a higher yield than traditional varieties, according to Norton.
“All those benefits help with the producers’ cash flow,” Norton said. “We’ve had 105 on-farm demonstration sites in Central America and producers are very enthusiastic. Producers have taken ownership of the varieties and they’re all quite excited about them.”