Questions Brew in Colombia, As Coffee Farmers Face Record Shortfalls

Carlos Trujillo

Carlos Trujillo is an organic coffee farmer in Colombia‘s lush, green Andean region known as Cauca. This past harvesting season, his 23,000 trees produced a record low. While local buyers are paying record prices for the unusually scarce supply of coffee, Trujillo knows that farmers and laborers will benefit little from the bonanza. And the shortfall is causing him to question whether Colombia‘s manual laborers – who hand-pick the crop berry by berry – are in need of a technological upgrade.  


Trujillo examines a coffee bush for stray berries which manual laborers may have missed during harvest season.

It was one of the worst harvests that Carlos Trujillo remembered. An organic coffee farmer in Colombia‘s lush, green Andean region known as Cauca, Trujillo usually managed to produce at least 2,500 kilos of coffee on his small farm. At a glance, all would seem well so far this year: the yellow husks of dried beans lay spread beneath see-through plastic tents, and a few stray ripe berries still glimmered in between the branches of squat coffee bushes. In one tiny dirt lot, Trujillo fed leftover coffee pulp and shells to an army of fat squiggling earthworms, which then produced a brown liquid later used for fertilizer.  

This year, however, even some of the earthworms would have to go hungry. The 23,000 trees on Trujillo‘s farm had produced less than 1,000 kilos of beans this past harvesting season, a record low. 

While local buyers are paying record prices for the unusually scarce supply of coffee, Trujillo knows that farmers and laborers will benefit little from the bonanza. And the shortfall is causing him to question whether Colombia‘s manual laborers – who hand-pick the crop berry by berry – are in need of a technological upgrade.  

“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 Trujillo will reap any of the profits. And with Colombian coffee inventories at their lowest level in history, producers there are increasingly wondering whether the age-old, traditional technique of hand-picking the berries one by one must be replaced with newer technology – or else disappear completely.  

An unusually heavy rainy season and several farm renovation projects have slashed Colombia‘s coffee production almost by half this year, sending world prices reeling[1]. FederaCafe, the national coffeegrowers federation, counted just 2.8 million 60-kilogram bags produced between this January and April, compared to 4.25 million bags produced during the same period last year[2] 

In Nariño alone, a province which along with Cauca and Huila produces 20 percent of Colombia‘s total coffee crop, production has fallen by up to 50 percent[3]. Colombia is now expected to produce just 9 million bags year, down from its annual average of 12 million. 

This drop in supply has dramatically boosted international prices, which may rise by as much as 26 percent by the end of 2009[4]. In May, Colombian coffee sold for an average of $2.25 per pound in New York, compared to $1.43 last year[5]

But such a boom is unlikely to affect farmers  like Trujillo, who sells his wares to local buyers in tin-roofed shacks, near the bottom of the Andean foothills. Prices are as good as Trujillo remembers them – while 12.5 kilos of coffee usually sell for 50,000 pesos (approximately $25), the average price now hovers at 65,000 pesos (about $32.50). On particularly desperate days, the price has been known to reach as high as 105,000 (about $52.50).


Organic coffee farmer Carlos Trujillo surveys his land.

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,” Trujillo estimates. “It’s the coffee buyers who stand to make most of the profits.” 

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 Cauca region. “What FederaCafe is investigating are ways of producing equipment that would make the harvest more efficient, so that less berries stay on the branches.” 

Tests conducted by Hernandez in the northern part of the coffee-producing valley in Cauca show that staggering amounts of coffee berries are lost during harvest season. As efficient as the berry-pickers often are, that doesn’t prevent a few stray berries from sometimes dropping on the ground – and the numbers add up. Tests showed that Cauca loses approximately 2,000 kilos of berries each harvest, which, depending on the price of coffee, may add up to 8,000,000 pesos (approximately $4,000) in losses. 

In Cauca, berry-pickers are often Guambian Indians who have been working as migrant laborers for generations. On average, they are paid 300 pesos (about 15 cents) for every kilo of berries that they pick. However, skilled workers are capable of picking an average of 70 kilos of high-quality, ripe berries a day, and some have been known to reach up to 200 kilos. 

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. 

ImageThe 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 Cauca‘s Andean foothills. Notably, studies completed by Hernandez also show that workers who use these technologies are not as fast or productive as the truly skilled manual laborers.  

“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 Colombia‘s coffee pickers in the past decade. The country is not just facing a coffee shortage, but skilled laborers are also increasingly in short supply. While no hard data yet exists, interviews with local farmers and representatives from agricultural research organizations in the region reveal a consensus that truly skilled laborers are a dying breed.  

 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[6]. 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.  


From right to left, the four stages of coffee production, from berry to grounds.

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 Brazil and Vietnam, meaning Colombia would quickly lose whatever competitive edge that such equipment may provide.  

In order for Colombia to truly weather these tough times, producers argue, it must continue supporting what truly distinguishes its coffee from the rest: the small-scale farmers who grow the coffee berries, and the manual workforce that picks them. 

“They’ve tried to invent all kinds of machines over the years,” said Trujillo,

“But for the country to really compete, even in bad times, it has to go back to marketing what makes Colombia coffee so essentially Colombian. And that’s the attention and the manual labor that goes into producing it.” 

Elyssa Pachico is a graduate of Wesleyan University and a former intern at The Nation. She can be contacted at

[1] Murphy, Peter, The Guardian, “Tight Colombian Beans Turn Buyers to Latam Coffee,” June 23, 2009   

[2] The Associated Press, “Colombia Coffee Production Drops By One Third,” May 22, 2009.


[3] Wall Street Journal, “Narino Mitaca Coffee Harvest Seen Sharply Down,” June 30, 2009  

[4] Caminada, Carlos, Bloomberg News, “Coffee May Jump 26% as Output Slows, Brazil Association Says,” January 14, 2009  

[5] International Coffee Organization, 

[6] El Pais, “Nueve Estrategias Para Jovenes.”