Small farmers say low coffee prices could eliminate unique flavors

Small farmers in countries where production is still mostly artisanal and coffee is a subsistence crop are looking for ways out of the current price crisis, saying failure to guarantee higher income will eventually extinguish unique coffee flavors.

Increased global coffee output in recent years due in part to higher productivity in countries using machinery and irrigation have driven coffee prices to decade lows, leading small-scale producers with higher production costs to struggle to make a profit.

How to bring economic sustainability of those farmers spurred discussions at the 2nd World Coffee Producers Forum, being held in Brazil, with disagreements about the idea of increasing yields as one way to help those farmers to survive.

“One shoe will not fit all,” said Samuel Kamau, executive director of the African Fine Coffees Association, referring to a presentation by economist Jeffrey Sachs at the forum indicating that increased productivity would be key for smaller producers.

“We will never be able to compete with Brazil in terms of volumes. We have different growing systems, different topographies, different coffees,” he said, adding that the industry needs to recognize that and offer different prices for each origin.

“If we don’t get better prices, the industry will risk losing some of the unique flavors that African producers can offer,” he said.

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Colombian Nelson Camilo Melo Maya, who heads SPP Global, an international organization representing small-scale farmers, said that most of the world’s coffee is still produced by small farmers, despite the growing number of big farms.

“To say that there is no future for them if they are not efficient enough to compete with the world’s biggest producers is relative. Small producers can be efficient in their own way and can have a future in coffee,” he said.

Beyond premium prices, those producers are evaluating options such as direct sales, using new web-based marketplaces, and higher interaction with end-users to grab a larger part of the sales proceeds.

Aman Adinew, chief Executive of Ethiopia’s coffee grower Metad, suggests a more radical move, setting minimum prices, in a similar move to what African cocoa producers are trying to do with the chocolate industry.

“A minimum price is necessary. Exporters compete with each other, bringing prices down. We need to avoid that,” he said.

No solution is easy, he said, but the fact that the problems are being openly discussed in the forum is positive, it could call the attention of the industry and help bring improvements.

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