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How coffee growers can adapt to a precipitous industry:

Coffee may be a commodity, but the people who grow it are not. In most of the places I work around the world, coffee is the sole income crop to farmers, even those who try to diversify and grow other things.

Because coffee is grown in distant mountains, not in the middle of cities, they really don’t have access to markets other than what they can grow and trade locally. If you take away the cash crop, it changes the economics of life in villages all around the world. And remember, most of the world’s coffee — 60% or more — is grown by small-scale farmers. The rest is grown on large plantations.

China is now a big place for new crops of coffee. Big coffee purchasers are invested heavily in growing coffee in China. OK, that’s a possibility of a new area for growing. Poor farmers there will have an opportunity for income. But it comes at the expense of 25 million coffee-growing families all around the world, and poverty in those regions is always one crop failure away.

There’s a trophic cascade. And it starts with the changing temperatures. Coffee thrives in a narrow temperature band. If you move up 1 degree or 2 degrees, the plant can’t survive. Because of the heat, the plant itself is seeking a cooler climate, and farmers are planting higher and higher upslope where it’s cooler. The higher up you get, the less land there is, the more you may have to deforest, the more chemicals you may need to use, and the more species habitats are disrupted.

Rainfall. Rainfall patterns are already seriously disrupted all over the tropics. Rain no longer reliably comes at the right time or in the right quantities. There might be a one-month delay in the rainy season, which means that the flowers that have to develop for the bean to come, those flowers are not developing. Instead, they are withering and falling off. Which means no coffee beans. Or the rain comes, and it’s not the typical quarter-inch a day, but rather a deluge that leads to erosion and landslides. Plants are not developing properly because of too much water.

For many coffee farmers, they are leaning in that direction, because they are small scale. The average coffee grower only has a few acres. Very small. They are already in forested areas. It’s not a far cry to improve the agricultural productivity and sustainability of those farms because they area already on that path.

However, this where it gets difficult. If I am a coffee farmer and I need money to hire people and get the crops ready, I go to the bank. And the bank says, “What do you produce per acre?” The farmer projects a yield and gets a loan. But then I say, “I am moving into agroforestry, so I’ll be limiting the number of coffee bushes and we’re moving them around, and planting them in different places. For the first few years it will lessen my yield, but soon I’ll be just as productive with higher-quality beans.” Unfortunately, the bank sees risk. It can’t predict your yield. So either you get a loan with a higher rate of interest to cover that risk, or no loan at all. The farmer is then faced with a choice. This is where two systems come into conflict. Changing to adapt to climate change costs the farmer more because banks see a higher risk. So for farmers, it’s harder than you might imagine to break away to farm differently.

Read the full article on the link above


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