The Aging Out of Coffee Farmers
Today’s coffee farmers are aging out of the workforce as they begin to move from middle age and into, what should be, retirement age. Most smaller farms are family businesses and the younger generations are finding farming to be a high-risk and low-status vocation. As these young people head off to the city to find jobs that require less labor and offer more security, it then falls to the older generation to struggle and maintain the family farms with little or no help.
These younger generations are not wrong about the need for change in order to make coffee farming a more desirable vocation. Mechanization, transportation, and, for the lucky few, pension funds have helped keep smaller farms afloat. However, many changes, such as education, fair pricing, and financial planning are still areas that need or need to become the norm instead of the exception.
Changes to Build On
While farming has seen changes, many smaller farms still struggle to just feed their families on their nominal income. Fair pricing has always been a fight for smaller farms. Unfortunately, even with the current efforts, these changes do not account for the fact that when you adjust the price for inflation, farmers are making less per pound than they did 40 years ago.
Mechanization is always a great way to decrease labor intensive work but, coffee farming can only be mechanized so far before accessibility and quality become concerns. The terrain of most farms makes equipment too cumbersome even when it is able to access the plants. And of course, a sun dried batch of green bean will always be more desirable than a machine dried batch.
In addition to access and quality, cost becomes a large obstacle. Co-ops are able to mechanize the processing of the green bean once it arrives to them because the equipment is purchased by all of the smaller farms contributing. However, these machines don’t alleviate the labor on the farm itself. Labor that is becoming harder for the older generation to keep up with as they are aging out of their active years.
Further Change Needed
Many Co-ops have been working to help make necessary changes when they see the needs. The Co-ops also work together with one another when necessary to work for the needs of the farmers. Particularly when it comes to lobbying local and state government organizations. Some changes include:
1. Education – Not only for the younger generations but, for women as well. Schools that are accessible to the farmer’s children and for farmers to learn more about various farming techniques and the entire coffee industry cycle as a whole. This also allows farmers to learn about each other’s challenges and brainstorm how they can adapt to the challenges; such as leaf rust and climate change.
2. Financial Planning – Many farmers do not have the ability to fund their farms, let alone save for those rainy days. Through education, co-ops, and lobbying, a lucky few now have access to small loans and saving programs. These programs enable coffee farmers to expand and become more secure. Farms can purchase additional plants, replace sick plants, and even branch out.
3. Parallel Businesses – These businesses, such as jam and honey producing, provide much needed income during off season times. They also can assist in the coffee production. Fruit trees provide much needed shade for coffee to blossom under, bees pollinate the plants, and honey can also be used to process the green beans to minimize water waste.
4. Fair Pricing – Many organizations, such as Fair Trade USA, work to assist farmers and their Co-ops to get a better and more stable price for their coffee. They help connect the buyers and consumers directly so every cent can make a difference. When farmers work with these organizations, they also receive an additional amount to invest in their communities and production.
With many in this older generation aging out of the coffee farming vocation, it is imperative that we all educate, purchase, and contribute wisely so that the changes necessary can be made for the next generation of coffee farmers.
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