Rehabilitating coffee farms

A coffee plant can take two to five years to reach maturity. The plant generally hits its producing peak between the ages of seven and 20, before production volumes start to decli

ne. Experts recommend decommissioning weaker plants after anywhere from 20 to 30 years as part of a farm’s regular renovation and rehabilitation (R&R) efforts. 

Those same experts say coffee farmers should be renovating a portion of their farms every year.

The problem with those recommendations, however, is that most farmers are not conducting regular R&R efforts. This majority is made up of smallholder farmers, who typically have fewer than five hectares of coffee land yet produce nearly 80 per cent of the global industry’s coffee. It is these farmers who rarely have financial, physical, or social resources for any R&R efforts, let alone annually.

Meanwhile, the industry is in dire need of an upgrade.

Hanna Neuschwander, Communications Director at World Coffee Research (WCR), says that widespread planting in the 1970s and 1980s means many trees are now well past their recommended renovation period, and even further past their peak production period. What’s more, today’s coffee farming “best practices” are based on research from 50 years ago and most coffee producers are still using the same varieties that have been in use for 200 years.

“Not only has farming changed, but we’re also just starting to see the limits of those varieties with climate change,” Neuschwander says.

According to Renovation & Rehabilitation for Resilient Coffee Farmers, a guidebook commissioned by the USAID Bureau for Food Safety and Conservation International’s Sustainable Coffee Challenge, global need for smallholder farm R&R is estimated at about four million hectares. That’s more than half of all smallholder coffee farmland and equivalent to the entire harvested area of Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, and Ethiopia. If properly conducted, global coffee production could increase up to 20 per cent – up to US$3 billion in farm-gate prices through increased coffee sales. But without R&R, “the industry will instead need to expand on one million to three million hectares of new land to achieve the same increase in global production under current yields,” explains Raina Lang, Director of Sustainable Coffee Markets at Conservation International.

“For a [non-government organisation] like ours, whose mission is to protect the environment for the good of the people, [that statistic] is very alarming because it would mean huge potential for deforestation.”

Deforestation threats aside, the list of other drivers behind current R&R efforts is extensive, with the major theme being sustainability of the global coffee industry.

Since the 1990s, consumption and production have increased by about 2.1 per cent per year, according to the International Coffee Organization. If coffee consumption continues to rise 2 per cent per year, by 2050 the industry will need 298 million bags of coffee – double current world production. With these increases, Lang’s estimates are quite modest and don’t factor in the exponentially higher yields required to satiate increasing global demand for coffee.

“It’s just at a point where if nothing is done, we won’t have the coffee that we need to meet growing demand, so when we think about the sustainability of the industry, R&R is a key piece,” Lang tells Global Coffee Report. “It’s key from the fundamental fact that we have deteriorating tree stock. On the livelihood side, the impact on the farmer is less production, which means less profit.”

Last year, the Sustainable Coffee Challenge set into motion what would become four Collective Action Network groups tasked with leading initiatives in the four areas deemed the most important in sustainability efforts, one of which is R&R.

Lang leads that group, whose mission is to, “Accelerate the responsible renovation and rehabilitation of coffee farms… making it possible for every coffee farmer to undertake these efforts as a regular part of doing business.”

One of the group’s tangible, albeit ambitious goals, is to renovate one billion coffee trees by 2025. It plans to achieve this through the Challenge members’ on-the-ground initiatives.

As a founding member of the Challenge, Starbucks has long been committed to this goal. In 2015, when the Challenge was created with a mission of making coffee the first fully sustainable agriculture product, Starbucks also launched its One Tree for Every Bag commitment. For every bag of coffee sold in participating US stores, Starbucks donated 70 cents to purchase a new rust-resistant coffee tree for a farmer in Mexico, El Salvador, or Guatemala.

The program was such a success that Starbucks raised enough funds to provide nearly 30 million new coffee trees for renovation efforts. What’s more, in support of the Challenge’s recent commitment of one billion trees, Starbucks has quadrupled its original commitment to 100 million trees over the same period.

Facilitated by Conservation International, 20 million trees have been purchased and distributed to farmers, with the remaining 10 million of the initial goal to be distributed this year. Starbucks also provides education on the varieties and incorporates environmental social safeguards that ensure farmers are using the seedlings for renovation efforts rather than for expansion onto new land.

The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) has been working in coffee farm R&R even longer. Before the coffee leaf rust epidemic wreaked havoc on the country’s farms from as early as 2008, the Colombian government and FNC partnered in a large-scale crop renovation program called Permanency Sustainability & Future. FNC designed low-interest, seven-year renovation loans with Banco Agrario that were specifically tailored to the multi-year period for new trees to become productive and the uneven cash flows tied to annual harvest cycles. With that loan, a coffee farmer could renovate between 0.2 hectares and 1.5 hectares and was only required to pay back 60 per cent of the principal. The stipulation, however, was that the farmer only plant the rust-resistant Castillo variety.

Although FNC’s ideal is for farmers to renovate 20 per cent of their farms every year, 10 per cent annually is the organization’s current goal. Since 2009, two-thirds of Colombia’s total coffee-growing area has been renovated. As a result, the average age of coffee trees has declined from 15 years to about eight, according to the FNC, and nearly 80 per cent of coffee plants are now resistant to rust, compared to 30 per cent in 2008.

The attractive loans were a key element of FNC’s program, considering that high costs and limited access to financing are the greatest barriers to R&R efforts among smallholder farmers. According to the USAID guidebook, most small farmers don’t have access to affordable and appropriate financing that can help cover what the industry calls the ‘valley of death,’ a period of stifled production and income while new or rehabilitated trees grow to maximum yield.

That is assuming a bank will even grant a loan. “The money is often there,” Neuschwander tells GCR, “but banks don’t feel confident that they’re going to get paid back.”

That’s one of the areas where WCR is trying to help. Earlier this year, WCR launched its Global Coffee Monitoring Program, an extension of some of its previous work that aims to get improved coffee varieties to farmers for renovation efforts. The program will have more than 1,100 trials in farmers fields by 2022 to test which combinations of improved varieties and  improved agronomic practices deliver the best return on investment.

“The program is designed in a way that we can extract meaningful data,” says Neuschwander. “This robust data can flow up to loan agencies that are involved in extending loans to farmers for renovations and show them whether it’s a good investment, whether or not they’re going to get their money back.”
In an indirect way, the program also helps with another component that is severely lacking – technical assistance. While there are some general best practices in coffee farming that can be applied everywhere, agricultural practices must be tailored to local context, geography, weather, languages, needs, and more.

“There are different ways of planting and management, especially with some of the new varieties, so the technical assistance around doing R&R in a responsible way is important – but it’s not always provided,” Lang says.

Organizations like WCR, CENICAFE in Colombia and CIBA in Brazil are behind some of those new varieties, with intensive breeding programs in pursuit of varieties that can resist the industry’s threats, such as disease and rising temperatures. But even though work is being done to create stronger, healthier breeds, the industry simply doesn’t have the plant capacity for current renovation efforts, let alone the amped up renovation efforts that current demand requires.

“A challenge that we see is getting enough high-quality plant material and the varieties we need, specifically verified varieties,” explains Danielle Knueppel, Director of WCR’s Global Coffee Monitoring Program. “The work that still needs [to be] done is making sure nurseries are able to produce healthy plants and pure lines that can be used in larger renovation efforts. That’s another area where WCR will be working in the future: helping build the capacity of seed producers and nurseries so that we can get better plants into farmers’ fields.”

The WCR Verified Program, launched in 2017, is the coffee industry’s first verification program for coffee seed producers and nurseries. It helps ensure farmers are receiving the exact varieties they’re paying for, which is especially important in farm renovation efforts. Unknowingly buying the wrong seedlings can mean wasted time and money and lost productivity if the plant was unhealthy or mislabelled.

“There are nurseries everywhere, so are there enough coffee plants out there [for renovation efforts]? Yes,” says Neuschwander, answering her own question. “But are they all what buyers think they are? And are they all healthy and genetically pure? No.”

To date, there are only 15 WCR Verified nurseries, all based in Central America, but the nonprofit plans to expand into Mexico and South America this year.

“There are a lot of uphill challenges to widespread, proactive R&R,” Neuschwander tells GCR. “By 2050, all the coffee in the ground today should be replaced. That’s billions of trees. What will those trees be? Which are the right trees based on challenges?”

While the increasing incidence of R&R efforts by farmers and of initiatives facilitated by industry players is a big step, global coffee sustainability may be unattainable if R&R doesn’t become a standard farm practice.

The USAID guidebook notes that past R&R efforts have largely been symptomatic, responding to severe disease outbreak, rather than focused  on root causes and preventative capacity. Aimed at supply chain partners looking to invest in R&R or launch sponsored initiatives, the guidebook advises that R&R work be complemented with good agricultural practices and capacity building to help increase coffee viability in the long run.

“There is this big need and push to support coffee farm R&R because the investments haven’t been made over the past several decades, but we eventually want to get farmers to a point where they’re implementing R&R and good agricultural practices on small portions of their farm every year as part of their normal farming practices,”

Conservation International’s Lang explains. “It can’t be a reactive response every 20 years. It really needs to be proactive.”

So as organizations like WCR, Conservation International, FNC, Starbucks, USAID and hundreds more work to give farms the upgrade they need, despite considerable challenges and lofty targets looming, the coffee industry inches closer to the greater goal of global sustainability, one tree at a time.

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