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We drink a lot of coffee around the world—some 500 billion cups a year—and it’s important to know that it all begins with coffee farming.
The coffee industry provides income for an estimated 25 million people across the world, and that’s just the smaller farms. It’s a big deal.
You’re part of something larger than the supercharged brew in your cup; buying coffee supports a way of life for people all over the world.
So how is coffee farming done?
Let’s take a look at the conditions, the yield, and the facts about coffee that might boggle your mind if you’re just researching this for the first time.
Different Types of Coffee Farming
Coffee comes from many sources around the world, and as you might imagine, different cultures approach coffee farming in different ways.
You can group up most of these methods into three categories.
Organic Coffee Farms
There’s an organic craze going on right now, and coffee is in the midst of it.
Organic coffee farming has a few specific things about it that are really good, such as how it leaves the soil untainted by pesticides and chemicals.
This makes yield after yield extremely healthy, and can actually expedite the ripening of beans (in a good way) by a few weeks.
Coffee is organic if:
- It’s produced without pesticides for a minimum of three years. For that first three-year period after the last date of pesticides being used, the beans are not considered organic.
- Grow in exclusive organic coffee crops. They can’t share space with standard pesticide-inclusive coffee crops. Rain, soil movement and other factors would potentially ruin the organic quality of the coffee.
- Farmers use alternative means to control pests and soil value/nutrients. Compost and other forms of organic plant food are essential to maintaining healthy soil, and are completely organic and chemical-free.
For farmers, organic coffee can often fetch them a lot more money than standard coffee beans.
You also have to think about the impact of not using chemicals in these regions that grow coffee, like Brazil.
With a high volume of chemicals in the soil and water, it depletes the quality of life for surrounding communities. Organic is an excellent way to go.
High Production Farms
These make up 20% of farms that aren’t family-owned or operated, for the most part.
Some family farms might have gone full industrial, but for the most part, it’s a commercial type of farming.
In countries like Mexico and Vietnam, companies have industrialized farms that output high yields of coffee.
Small Family-Owned Farms
This is the bread and butter of the coffee world.
80% of all coffee farms are small and family-owned.
There are organizations in place that we will talk about later that make sure these small farmers aren’t muscled by exporters and large coffee corporations, as we’ve seen with agriculture.
There’s no ridiculous strongarm on the industry, and that’s a good thing.
Over 125 million people rely on coffee in one way or another to provide their livelihood, 25 million of them being farmers or farmer’s aids.
Billions of coffee drinkers rely on these farmers to provide them with something in their cup every morning.
Environmental Conditions Required for Coffee Farming
Coffee is produced in traditionally hot and sometimes humid climates.
Most notably, you can see similarities between the two largest coffee yielding countries: Brazil, and Vietnam.
Similar conditions, though they’re on opposite sides of the world.
Apart from consistent heat to sustain the coffee plant year-round, you also need a certain amount of elevation to keep the plants at their peak coffee yield and overall flavor.
Brazil generally has coffee farms resting around 1,900 feet above sea level, which is a great altitude to grow coffee beans.
Then you have Indonesia, who produce two very high-quality and high-demand beans: Sumatra, and Toraja.
These grow on specific islands and can have altitudes of up to 6,000 feet above sea level.
It impacts the taste, and though it’s difficult to get your hands on this premium, pricey coffee, it is definitely worth the extra cost.
Environmental Conditions That Affect Farming
First and foremost, the rising temperatures around the globe are having a severe impact on coffee production, and that will continue into the coming years.
An IPCC report revealed that in South America and Africa, conditions are going to make coffee harder to farm, and cropland will see a massive reduction in the coming decades.
Since we’re expected to break into a 9.7 billion population by 2050, coffee is going to get harder to find, become more expensive, and you’ll have more people after it.
But currently, there are conditions that affect how coffee farmers conduct business.
For one, rain can be an extreme issue during the drying process.
Constant rain and flooding is known to happen in places like Sao Paulo in Brazil, which has the potential to wipe out a coffee crop.
This is why farmers used raised beds to dry their coffee (more on this in a moment).
Rain is a good thing when it’s in the right quantity.
It’s hard to overwater a coffee plant since they usually grow in humid conditions, and the plants are designed to thrive in these climates.
When the colder side of the season hits, that’s when coffee harvesting begins.
When it gets extremely dry and there isn’t rain for a while, coffee leaves start to yellow and accelerate the ripening process of coffee beans.
This normally sounds like a good thing, but it doesn’t mean a faster harvesting season.
It could drastically reduce the caffeine content in the coffee beans, and deplete it of antioxidants, making the coffee itself basically useless.
At the very least, intermittent periods of extremely dry periods can reduce the quality of coffee and make life harder for coffee farmers.
Coffee Plants Actually Produce Fruit; the Beans are the Seeds
There’s this idea of dried, brown beans being plucked off of a branch somewhere, but that’s not even close to what goes on.
Coffee is the seed (or pit) inside the fruit (also called a cherry because it looks like a cherry!). The seeds are green and come two per cherry.
If a cherry only has one coffee seed, it can be thrown into the mix or sold separately as peaberry coffee beans.
Coffee fruit can actually be eaten as it is. It doesn’t have to be dried out and turned into coffee, though that is what the majority of coffee fruit goes into.
Some farmers will sell coffee fruit, but since the caffeine concentration and antioxidant compounds aren’t as good as a brewed cup of coffee, it’s not commonplace to find these for sale.
The Way Coffee is Dried
Coffee isn’t pulled off the plant, and then just tossed into a bag to be sent to a roastery. It can take three to six weeks to prepare coffee properly.
It has to dry in the sun to dry up the pulp and liquid inside of the coffee cherry.
Pulling the beans out now would basically make them just like any other agricultural product; quick to spoil, and hard to handle.
However, if you left fruit out in the sun for that long, can’t you imagine that it would rot in that time?
Coffee farmers used aerated and raised beds to store the coffee cherries on while they dry, and they move them periodically throughout the day, covering them appropriately when it’s going to rain or storm.
Can you imagine growing something all year, just to have to dry it out for another six weeks? Coffee farmers are at the mercy of mother nature on this one.
Coffee Plants Take Years to Grow
From the time they are planted, a coffee plant can take about three to four years to bear fruit.
After that point, it still takes about one full year for the cherries to grow to fruition.
Harvesting beforehand can result in a lot of sour-tasting coffee, and inconsistent drying methods.
Each coffee plant/bush can usually give you about one pound of roasted coffee per year.
That is to say, after the water weight and skins of the cherries are tossed out, and you’re only accounting for the beans that are taken from the plant.
Yes, we pay a lot for our coffee, but it isn’t necessarily the most lucrative trade for people to get into.
Those cherries are loaded with tons of water, and if you’ve ever held coffee beans, you know that they are most certainly dry as can be.
Coffee Farming Isn’t Always Lucrative
Coffee bean farming requires you to lose a lot of product.
If there are ten pounds of coffee fruit on a series of plants, farmers might only get two to three pounds of beans out of there.
If a coffee farmer wanted to yield 10,000 pounds of coffee, they might have to grow enough plants to grow 35,000 pounds of cherries.
Then you have to factor in processing.
While some farms still pick and sort by hand, some use machines to strip the cherries from the plants.
Either way, labor isn’t cheap, and neither is maintaining those machines. It’s a lot of picking only to throw away more than 66% of what you just picked.
Coffee is the Second Most-Traded Commodity in the World, Next to Oil
It’s true: coffee is widely traded across the world and even has a booming presence in the stock market.
With the number of cups of coffee we consume every year, it makes sense that the two most-traded things in the world are both fuels in a sense.
Coffee crops change every year with different yields, just as the #3 and #4 commodities do, being agriculture and animal goods, respectively.
It’s safe to say that given the necessary climate that coffee needs to thrive, we’ll be enjoying it in high quantity for a very long time.
What Does Fair Trade Certified Mean for Coffee Farmers?
There’s a lot that goes into the coffee chain—farmers, middlemen, roasters, exporters, importers, companies, down to the coffee houses and store shelves.
There’s a lot of steps, and nobody does something for free.
Fair Trade Certified coffee means that farmers are getting their fair share of the money so they can afford to sustain their quality of life.
Living conditions and quality of life in Brazil, Ecuador, Indonesia, Vietnam and, other countries aren’t the same as the United States.
Economically, companies take advantage of these conditions, which some view to be substandard, and make it difficult for Fair Trade coffee to continue to operate in acceptable price ranges.
Fair Trade coffee isn’t as widespread as you’d think, either.
While coffee farmers aren’t necessarily being strongarmed by the coffee industry, they don’t have it the best, either.
You’d think that the creators of the product, those in charge of the supply, would have more power than they do.
Fair Trade is the alternative to being beaten and bruised by the market, and the polar opposite to direct trade.
Direct trade comes from the farmers, and goes straight to roasters… or at least, that’s how it should go.
Fair Trade puts standards and practices into place, whereas direct trade has no definition.
In those situations, it’s easy for middlemen (those between coffee farmers and roasters) to inflate prices and buy cheap because coffee farmers don’t get the necessary representation.
If you’re conscious of what you’re buying and want to support Fair Trade Certified coffee farmers, look for these brands the next time you grab a coffee from the store.
- Cafe Altura
- CRU Cafe
- Cycle Town Coffee Roasts
- Ethical Bean Coffee Company
- The Coffee Brewer
- Kaladi Coffee Roasters
- Kicking Horse Coffee
- Kirkland Coffee
- Lidl Organic Coffee
- Mount Hagen
- Puro Fairtrade Coffee
- One Coffee
- Rhino Coffee
- Red Diamond Coffee
- Seattle’s Best Coffee
- Starbucks Coffee
- Steep & Brew
- Sun Alchemy
- Sure House Coffee
- Thanksgiving Coffee Company
- Trader Joe’s Sumatra Blend
- Van Houtte
(This full list was derived from fairtradeamerica.org. Click here for their list with direct purchase links from a verified source.)
So Fair Trade is defined as the marker for an ethical trade of coffee between farmers and major coffee brands.
If the coffee that you currently buy isn’t on that list, we strongly recommend that you try a few of the brands mentioned to find what works for you but to also support coffee farmers and their way of life.
Is the Rainforest Alliance Good for Coffee Farmers?
The goal of the Rainforest Alliance is to preserve the earth through sustainable coffee farming while offering more money to farmers to distribute their crops to roasters and middlemen for a higher amount of money.
They have a similar mindset to Fair Trade, but with an environmental factor that comes into play as well.
The Rainforest Alliance received a 97% accountability and transparency rating on Charity Navigator, and a deep dive from National Public Radio.
The latter wasn’t all good, though it does improve the income from farmers. There are some restrictions that make it a questionable idea for coffee farmers.
Much like agricultural regulations in America for chicken farmers, the Rainforest Alliance has a strict playbook that it runs by, no matter where you’re located in the world.
That’s a problem because coffee grows differently in different regions. While it can get farmers an extra 15% per pound of coffee that they sell, they often need to upgrade their farms with specific shower systems for the coffee plants and agree to a lot of restrictions in order to get their Rainforest Alliance certification.
So is it good for coffee farmers?
Yes and no. Smallholder farmers may need to jump through financial hurdles and upgrades to their farm just to get that certification, which could mean that their increased profits will be eaten up by debt for years to come.
Those upgrades also come with maintenance, and in some cases, further certification requirements and knowledge just in order to run them.
Corporations like Starbucks regularly performs audits on coffee farms to ensure that their coffee is good but to also inspect the living conditions of coffee farmers.
Starbucks is a C.A.F.E. certified partner, which helps to ensure proper living conditions and ethics when it comes to sourcing coffee.
Closer to the Bean
You know about different growing methods, climates, the condition of life for coffee farmers, and a few facts on the scale of the coffee industry around the world.
Coffee is set to pass tea to become the number one most consumed beverage in the world, it’s the number one source of antioxidants, and it’s vital to the lives of a percentage of people around the entire world.
Buy ethical coffee, look for the necessary seals from Fair Trade, the Rainforest Alliance, and C.A.F.E. to ensure that you’re supporting coffee farmers in every way possible.
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