Carlos Trujillo is an organic coffee farmer in
It was one of the worst harvests that Carlos Trujillo remembered. An organic coffee farmer in
This year, however, even some of the earthworms would have to go hungry. The 23,000 trees on
While local buyers are paying record prices for the unusually scarce supply of coffee,
“Coffee producers are always the ones who invest the most,” he said. “But then benefit the least. More farmers are asking whether there are other ways to make the harvesting more efficient.”
International coffee prices are reaching record highs in 2009, and it is unlikely that local farmers like
An unusually heavy rainy season and several farm renovation projects have slashed
In Nariño alone, a province which along with Cauca and Huila produces 20 percent of
This drop in supply has dramatically boosted international prices, which may rise by as much as 26 percent by the end of 2009. In May, Colombian coffee sold for an average of $2.25 per pound in
But such a boom is unlikely to affect farmers like
But even as farmers are receiving higher prices for their wares, the major industrial centers that toast, process and grind the coffee still make bigger profits. Farmers face steeper costs of production as they must pay for chemical fertilizers, as well as the manual laborers who pick the berries.
For fertilizer alone, farmers shell out an average of 85,000 pesos (about $42.50) for enough fertilizer to treat 500 coffee trees – and every 500 trees need two treatments of fertilizer each year.
“I probably spend about 145,000 pesos (about $116) to produce 12.5 kilos of coffee,”
Consequently, even when local buyers offer record highs in prices, record lows in the harvest means farmers are hardly at an advantage.
While some local farmers have lobbied for stabilizing the price of high-quality organic coffee at 75,000 pesos (about $37.50), the national coffee federation FederaCafe is considering other, more technological solutions to address the shortfall.
“Coffee picking is a trained skill that’s been evolving for almost a century,” said Luis Fernando Hernandez, an agronomist who works closely with coffee farmers in the
Tests conducted by Hernandez in the northern part of the coffee-producing valley in
The traditional method, known colloquially as the “coco” technique, involves no more equipment that a laborer’s two hands and a plastic sling tied around the waist, for carrying the berries. But in light of the coffee shortfall, there are greater concerns about making harvesting more efficient. As a result, FederaCafe is developing two sets of equipment, known respectively as the canguaro and the mallacán, that would give coffee-picking a technological upgrade for the twenty-first century.
The canguaro is essentially a backpack with a large rubber tube that runs underneath the coffee-picker’s shirtsleeve. After a berry is picked, it tumbles down the tube into the backpack, effectively eliminating the need for a worker to make the back-and-forth arm movements of the traditional “coco” method, reaching out for a berry and then dropping it into a bag. The wide-necked tube is also supposed to catch any wandering berries that would otherwise end up on the ground.
The mallacán, meanwhile, is best described as a type of net that is spread upon the ground before the harvest, and accumulates stray berries dropped by the laborers.
Both equipments present disadvantages – the mallacán is not effective on hilly terrain, a major disadvantage in
“What we’ve seen is that these cafeteros have a truly great ability to pick coffee, one that is not necessarily enhanced by this new equipment,” said Hernandez. “It may be a question of training workers to become more used to the new equipment, after which it may become just as or more efficient than the coco method. Change is something that makes people cautious, after all.”
And change has unmistakably come to
What used to be a family-based economy – fathers, sons and sometimes mothers as well would support themselves through berry-picking – is increasingly dependent on individual, migrant labor. The older generations of experienced laborers are disappearing, while the younger generation is drifting towards the cities.
“The coffee business wants and needs workers that come out of family units,” explained Hernandez. “Migrant workers who are contracted during harvest seasons could be anybody. Meanwhile, the workers who learn their skills through their family, and acquire these skills that have passed down from generation to generation, are the workers with more expertise and are more careful.”
With a high demand for skilled laborers who are increasingly hard to come by, FederaCafe hopes to address the crisis by creating a training program for impoverished youths from cities. The coffee federation would recruit young adults from CORJUCALI, an organization that provides job training for about 3,000 youths, many former delinquents or drug addicts. Rather than tinkering with machines that fail to work as effectively as a trained work force, such a program hopes to remediate diminishing coffee harvests by boosting the number of expert laborers.
And, as farmers repeatedly emphasize, the hand-picked berries is what distinguishes Colombian coffee from its many competitors. Technological innovations like the canguaro or the mallacán may be easily copied in other coffee-producing bigwigs like
In order for
“They’ve tried to invent all kinds of machines over the years,” said
“But for the country to really compete, even in bad times, it has to go back to marketing what makes
Elyssa Pachico is a graduate of
 Murphy, Peter, The Guardian, “Tight Colombian Beans Turn Buyers to Latam Coffee,” June 23, 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/feedarticle/8573163
 Wall Street Journal, “Narino Mitaca Coffee Harvest Seen Sharply Down,” June 30, 2009 http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20090630-712680.html
 Caminada, Carlos, Bloomberg News, “Coffee May Jump 26% as Output Slows,