Saturday, September 15, 2012

One more cup of coffee for the road

The beans are starting to turn red in
La Cuchilla, Santa Rita

This is the time of year when Honduran coffee growers find out what price they can expect for their beans when the harvest starts in November. And right now, the news looks pretty good.
The current international price for Honduran coffee beans is $161 per quintale - 100 pounds.  My co-workers at the Comisión de Acción Social Menonita tell me the make-or-break-it point for the small producers around Copan is $150 a quintale. So getting $11 more is happy news indeed, especially after the bad year local producers had in 2011.
That’s the thing with coffee as your only cash crop: You just never know. There used to be a marketing board of sorts for coffee that kept prices more predictable, but that ended in 2001. Prices now fluctuate from year to year, creating booms and busts for coffee growers.
The big growers ride out the highs and lows. But for small producers a dip in prices makes the difference between eating and going hungry after the harvest ends in February. In three Copan area coffee-growing communities where CASM has a project going on, producers have plots ranging from four to eight acres, and are frighteningly dependent on coffee to cover the year's bills.
A North American might easily drop $2.50 or more on a cup of coffee at any high-end coffee shop in their neighbourhood. Allowing for 40 cups of coffee per pound, the price you pay for the amount of beans used in your cup is about 100 times more than what the grower in Honduras got paid.
Blame some of that on all the middle men that lie between the grower and the consumer. But there’s more to the economics of coffee than that.
World tastes change all the time, swinging from Arabic to Robusta, from mild to dark.  The fate of producers all over the coffee-growing world hangs in the balance, as each country has certain beans that it grows best.
Then there are the many natural disasters that small producers have to worry about, from insects and coffee leaf rust to uncertain weather patterns and poor soil. If there’s plenty of rain in May, that bodes well for a good crop later in the year. But too much rain in September and October can bring all the coffee plants on at once, wreaking havoc on a harvest if pickers end up in short supply.
Even in a just-right year, the small growers around Copan have to rely on pickers from Guatemala, seeing as every Copaneco  with hands – including children as young as seven – has as much work as they can handle during the four busy months of the harvest.  A quarter of the country’s eight million people directly participate in the annual harvest (USDA Foreign Agriculture Service), earning the equivalent of $71 million during those four months.
Honduras was the second-largest exporter of coffee in the world last year, according to last month’s report from the International Coffee Organization. Among the subsistence farmers that CASM works with, coffee is by and large the only crop that generates money.  Even the corn and bean crops they need to feed their families take a back seat to coffee, with many farmers opting to bypass a second planting of vegetables in order to free up time for the hectic coffee harvest.
It’s understandable, but so risky. The project CASM has just launched in the aldeas of La Union II, Guaramal II and Las Flores involves mapping the indicators of when a community is at risk of widespread hunger. It’s clear a mere week into the project that the state of people’s coffee crops is going to be one of the major determinants.
The world drinks an astounding 1.4 billion cups of coffee a day. I’m sure it can’t be good for us. But given the economic disaster that would befall coffee-dependent communities were we to ever shake the habit, just think of it as taking one for the team.

1 comment:

Owen Gray said...

My wife and I have been known to complain about the cost of coffee, Jody.

But it's obvious that the small grower is not laughing all the way to the bank.