Smallholder coffee production: Thin months revisited

Changing the backstory of smallholder coffee production

8 July, 2014 by (comments)

Discriminating coffee enthusiasts expect a lot from their espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes.  These consumers want a “mind-blowing” coffee, which not only has an extraordinary taste but also comes with an upbeat backstory about its origins. Collaborative CIAT research in Guatemala, Mexico, and Nicaragua has helped reveal what the backstory of smallholder coffee production really is, how it has changed for the better in recent years, and why.

The approximately 25 million rural people in the tropics who depend on coffee production face many hardships. And these are made much worse by volatile prices for coffee and other crops that rural families grow.

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Consumers have become increasingly aware of these difficulties, thanks in large part to the fair trade-certified coffee model. Created in the late 1980s, it offers growers an above-market “fair-trade” price on the condition that they meet specific production and environmental standards. Certification of fair-trade coffee provides consumers – who pay a premium price for this product – with some assurance that it’s grown in conditions favoring social justice and environmental sustainability.

Hard evidence

While still accounting for only a small proportion of total coffee sales, the market for fair-trade coffee has expanded significantly in recent years and has evidently benefitted many smallholder producers. To further ensure that coffee’s backstory is getting better, Keurig Green Mountain, Inc. (formerly Green Mountain Coffee Roasters) – the world’s biggest buyer of fair trade-certified coffee – invests millions of dollars in projects intended to improve the conditions in which smallholders work and live.

With the aim of grounding these investments in hard evidence, Keurig Green Mountain has entered into a partnership with CIAT, which revolves around scientific studies on the livelihoods of smallholder coffee-producing families. The most recent of these studies, called “Thin Months Revisited,” was carried out collaboratively with the Agroecology and Rural Livelihoods Group at the University of Vermont, USA, in 2013. “Thin months,” or meses flacos in Spanish, refers to a seasonal hunger period, when food and cash from previous harvests run short.

“We began to recognize seasonal hunger as a major threat to our agricultural supply chain when CIAT conducted a baseline study for us 6 years ago in Guatemala, Mexico, and Nicaragua,” explained Colleen Popkin, manager of the company’s coffee supply chain outreach. “It found that two-thirds of the growers surveyed reported facing extreme food scarcity during 3 months or more every year. These results had a sobering effect on our leadership and on many others in the fair-trade coffee movement.”

In response, Keurig Green Mountain began to focus its outreach on bolstering food security, often with projects designed to diversify household livelihoods. Judging from the results of Thin Months Revisited – which involved interviews with 100 families, many of whom took part in the earlier study – these efforts are paying off.

In the words of the study report, new research offers “irrefutable evidence that the situation has improved for most families” over the last 6 years – particularly with respect to food security. Across study locations, the average number of thin months has declined from 3.81 in 2007 to 2.83 today.

Diversification for a better future

The study doesn’t claim that Keurig Green Mountain-funded projects alone accounted for this significant shortening of the hunger period. But it does show that, in Mexico’s Chiapas State as well as Nicaragua, farmers taking part in these projects saw “marked improvements in livelihood diversification.” In fact, some farmers have begun using income from their coffee harvests to expand into other enterprises (like fruits, vegetables, cocoa, livestock, and honey) and vice versa.

“Diversification lowers the pressure on coffee through a system that is in harmony with the environment and offers alternative sources of income,” said Santiago Dolmus, a member of the technical assistance team with Cecocafen, an organization that supports coffee-grower associations in northern Nicaragua.

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Why is a company in the coffee business helping coffee farmers with other crops? The answer is that Keurig Green Mountain views the coffee value chain through the lens of sustainable rural livelihoods. “Diversifying into other crops,” said Popkin, “helps smooth out household income across the year and makes families more resilient to a volatile coffee market. A more resilient farmer will continue producing coffee and supply us with the quality and quantity we need to grow our business.”

Diversification should also help growers weather another, longer term threat to their way of life and the coffee business. According to a CIAT study carried out several years ago, gradually rising temperatures will make coffee production far less viable in areas of Mesoamerica where it thrives today, requiring that farmers both modify their coffee management and explore other options.

“The news isn’t all bad, though,” said CIAT scientist Peter Läderach. “Climate change will create both losers and winners. And the winners will be those who learn to adapt through diversification and other strategies.”

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Read the study: Thin months revisited, 2014

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Filed Under: Climate Change, Latin America and the Caribbean