'We Producers Are At The Weather’s Mercy': Coffee Farmers Talk Climate Change

Storm’s a-comin’ — via Unsplash

Last year, drought and heavy rain impacted coffee harvests around the world. The year before that, same thing. The climate crisis is coming for coffee, and the industry doesn’t seem to be moving swiftly enough. We’re told that coffee might not survive past 2050, which is when most of the big companies say they’ll reach net zero (whatever that means). But the effects are already being felt around the world.

We in the coffee media (is that a thing?) talk a lot about climate change and the inevitable impacts it will have on the industry. Usually, the experts being featured are researchers, or representatives of roasting companies and NGOs. Rarely do we hear from the producers, those at the far end of the supply chain who have some of the least power but carry the most risk.

So I reached out to a few farmers to ask their thoughts on the climate crisis, the effects it's already having on their work, and what the wider industry can and should do to help.

Big disclaimer: most coffee farmers don’t have access to the internet, and most don’t speak English. I’m slightly hampered by my location in Scotland and lack of language skills, so this article is reliant on farmers I contacted via social media or with whom I had already spoken for other projects.

I’m aware that this might skew things slightly, and that it’s not going to be completely representative of the millions of coffee farmers worldwide. However, I hope it’s a start in giving a voice to some of them.

The Rain Splits the Beans

The number one issue that everyone I spoke to mentioned was the unpredictability of the seasons. Coffee cherries take about nine months to develop, and this development relies on reliable climate patterns to ensure a high quality end product. Rain at the wrong time, too much or too little rain, or an unforeseen frost can play havoc with what is a fragile plant.

“Agriculture is very difficult,” says Daniela Rodriguez Eulert of Agricafe in Bolivia. “It is complicated to plan ahead of time and know how the harvest will be. Every year is different. We have some clients that ask that they want the same coffee as last harvest, but it is not like producing T-shirts in a factory.”

“The impact is noticeable due to erratic and unpredictable weather patterns,” says Marianella Baez Jost of Café Con Amor in Costa Rica. “The last four years we have seen more rain than usual and at a later time than expected.” This has presented a significant challenge, Jost says, because once the flowers have turned into cherries they need lots of sun in order to ripen. “But the rains have been prevalent in December making it very difficult for the harvest, as the rain splits the beans and causes them to fall to the ground before they are ripe.”

In El Salvador, Roberto Samuel Ulloa of La Divina Providencia Coffee Farm has seen similar occurrences. “The most noticeable change we have felt is in the stability of the rainy and dry seasons” Ulloa says. “Now it rains more so later and earlier away from the regular cycle periods. This affects the coffee plant physiology, where it blooms earlier and picking seasons start still within the regular rainy season.”

These erratic rainfall patterns were mentioned by almost everyone I spoke to including by Kenneth M. Barigye of Mountain Harvest Coffee in Uganda. “The early onset of rains or delayed rains which have become rampant in the past five years lead to yield shocks,” Barigye tells me. “These adverse weather conditions make it difficult for farmers both small and large scale to plan any intervention. We are witnessing prolonged harvesting seasons where the fruits are not ripening at the same time and this increases the cost of production. We are harvesting almost for five months, whereas the harvest was two months ten years ago.”

In India, Ashritha Gowda of Bynemara Coffee has also noticed erratic rainfall which has impacted on production: “Unfortunately we receive heavy rainfall during harvest which then affects us while harvesting and post harvest process, such as difficulties in washing and drying.”

It’s not just the coffee that is affected by the sudden onslaughts of rain. Several farmers noted the impact flash floods can have on infrastructure, damaging roads and making it harder to transport coffee from often remote farms.

Pests & Diseases

Increased and extended rainfall is a dream environment for growth of coffee diseases and pests. Almost every coffee region has seen an increase in incidence of pests like the coffee berry borer beetle, or diseases like coffee berry disease and leaf rust.

“Climate change has significant impacts on coffee farming, such as changes in temperature and rainfall patterns that has to affect crop yields, the size of the coffee bean, as well as increased incidence of pests and diseases like the coffee berry disease,” says Muchiri Nyaga, a director at Njemu Coffee Estate in Kenya.

A fungal disease that can devastate coffee plants exclusively in Africa (for now), coffee berry disease poses a serious threat to production on the continent. “The disease primarily affects the coffee fruit and can spread rapidly in wet and very cold conditions, and can result in significant yield losses and reduced coffee quality,” Nyaga says.

Barigye says that incidence of pests and diseases, especially the coffee berry borer beetle and coffee leaf rust, have noticeably increased in Uganda, while in Costa Rica Jost has noticed rust at higher elevations than before. “Rust is more prevalent now due to global warming,” Jost says. “It used to be more common in lower lands but now, as the weather is warmer, the rust exists in farms up to 1500 [metres above sea level]. The warmer the weather, the higher the rust is reaching.”

In Hawaii, coffee leaf rust has spread throughout the islands and devastated harvests over the past year. Victoria Magana, who works with other small producers on the Big Island, has seen production drop precipitously. “I work with a lot of farmers and this year was really devastating to them because of the coffee leaf rust,” Magana says. “This year it's ridiculous because these farmers put in more labor or material for the pesticides or fungicides or whatnot, and they got 50 to 60% less production this past year.”

“Almost one hundred percent of high quality coffee varietals have a direct inverse ratio to different coffee diseases,” Ulloa tells me. “The higher the quality the less resistance against disease.” Producers can use good farming practices to fight back and prevent diseases, Ulloa says, but the costs are prohibitive to many producers.

A Benefit For Everyone

In the face of these challenges farmers are finding ways to adapt, and it’s interesting to note how many of those I spoke with are adopting sustainable practices as a core part of this response. Some of these methods include planting cover crops to protect soil, using more shade trees, and mulching the coffee plants to help retain water.

Diversification was another approach suggested by several interviewees, planting other crop trees to offset potential losses from coffee. At Mountain Harvest, Barigye says, they are financing agroforestry practices and training in regenerative agriculture, including intercropping each acre of coffee with beans, macadamia, avocado, papaya and other trees.

Barigye also talks about deforestation, telling me that “the population has exerted a lot of pressure on the natural resources when it comes to the need for firewood, timber and extension of agricultural land to cooler places higher up in the mountain.”

“We need to plant more trees and restore forestry cover,” Barigye says. “Fortunately for coffee, growing coffee under shade improves quality and increases yield so there is a benefit for everyone. It is a simple and practical solution.”

At the Weather’s Mercy

I also asked each farmer what they would like to see the wider coffee industry do to help those on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Most mentioned the need for more investment in farmers to help them plan for the challenges ahead. “The coffee industry should remember that we producers are at the weather’s mercy,” says Ana Vizcaino of Finca Esperanza in Guatemala.

“Climate change is destroying the livelihood of farmers due to unpredictable and lower harvest yields,” says Muchiri Nyaga from Njemu Coffee Estate in Kenya. “Coffee consumers, importers, exporters and roasters should contribute directly to programs to caution farmers to extreme weather.”

Others are more blunt. “Basically it comes down to economics,” says Ulloa in El Salvador. “Direct trade between producers and distributors may help. Many coffee shop owners are receiving high profitable returns on their investments. And that is great! But you do not see that many coffee growers are getting those profitable returns on their investments. In many producing areas coffee growers are going broke and their land is losing value. At our end of the coffee industry you have the highest risk level versus a coffee shop risk.”

Marianella Baez Jost from Café Con Amor in Costa Rica is also forthright: “Customers need to know that farmers are aging and new generations have better and more choices than their parents did. Young people have access to the internet and have found a world beyond their rural lives. They will seek jobs that provide a better lifestyle.”

“If the prices of specialty coffee don't increase for the farmers,” Jost continues, “there will be a lot less specialty coffee available, and people will have to consume conventional low quality coffee, less arabica and more robusta, overall a much worse cup.”