Organic Production in Coffee Farming: Part 1

This is the first in a four-part series that will highlight some of the most critical issues surrounding organic production in coffee farming systems.  Its principle aim is to shed some light on the reasoning that informs farmers’ decisions when considering whether or not to pursue organic certification and to examine the rationale for choosing to purchase organic coffees from a consumer’s perspective.  The final piece will describe Intelligentsia’s position on organic coffee in the context of our overall commitment to sustainability. 

Part One:  Major obstacles that farmers face when seeking to 'Go Organic'.

Meeting the nutritional needs of the plants
With organic fertilizer the synchronization of nutrient availability and crop demand is difficult to achieve.  There are periods in the growth and production cycles of coffee trees during which certain elements are needed in abundance, and if the tree cannot access those nutrients it will not perform and may become more susceptible to disease.  Organic fertilizers release nutrients very slowly and at variable rates depending on changes in the environment, limiting a farmer’s ability to address specific plant nutrient deficiencies when needed.  When deficiencies are detected through soil and leaf analysis, farmers that are not able to correct for these through spot application of vital macro- and micronutrients like Phosphorus, Potassium, Boron, Magnesium, and Zinc are at a severe disadvantage compared with those who utilize these supplements.

Access to sufficient biomass and nutrient-rich organic matter to create compost
This is a big issue for most small-scale farmers, especially those living in mountainous regions with a scarcity of available land.   Most do not generate enough material at their own farms to create significant quantities of fertilizer, so farmers looking to meet all of the nutritional demands of their trees often must purchase manure and other constituents from outside the farm and find a way to transport them back home.   It requires around 2000 kilograms of organic fertilizer to supply 40 kg of nitrogen to one hectare of coffee, making the logistics of relying solely on organic material to fertilize the farm extremely challenging at best and out of reach for some farmers who lack financial resources.

Lower production

On average, farms that rely solely on organic fertilizers can expect anywhere from a 20%-40% lower yield than those who choose to utilize even small quantities of conventional fertilizers.  In an industry where margins are already extremely slim, small declines in yield can push a farm from profit to loss in a single season.  Multiple years of low production can lead to ruin, especially for farmers who depend exclusively on income from coffee to sustain their livelihoods.

Increased costs

The biggest added cost for farmers who implement a fully organic production system comes as an increase in labor cost; the collection, preparation, and application of organic fertilizers requires a lot more labor as compared with traditional regimens.  Another sometimes overlooked burden is the cost of the certification itself; annual certification-related expenses can be prohibitively expensive for farmers who do not benefit from the economy of scale found at large-sized farms.

Susceptibility to common coffee diseases

Coffee Leaf Rust (or "Roya") is a devastating plague that causes loss of leaf material and eventually kills the trees.  A single outbreak can cause dramatic losses in yield within months of infection.  Central America is currently experiencing an unprecedented epidemic of rust and farmers are understandably worried.  Without controls, Leaf Rust can decimate a farm in just a few seasons.  In East Africa, Coffee Berry Disease (CBD) is one of the biggest challenges facing farmers, as it can destroy as much as 80% of a crop when left unchecked.
Next up:  Part Two—Organic Coffee and Sustainability