Fungicides require money upfront, which a struggling farm may not have access to as farmers are not paid until their crop is sold. The only way to get the money needed is to get financing, which again is not always easily accessible for small farms. Because of this many of the areas in Guatemala that are being hit hardest by Roya are the poorest regions that cannot afford fungicides. The other option is to plant disease-resistant varieties. A change like this has a lot of risks. Coffee varieties that are resistant to Roya may be susceptible to other diseases merely replacing one problem with another, albeit with the added costs (or losses) from the time required for the coffee plant to mature and produce fruit. In addition to that, the quality of the coffee from resistant varieties is often lower than non-resistant varieties. Organizations like World Coffee Research (WCR) are constantly working to create varieties that break from this trend, but due to the instability of first-generation varieties, results can vary greatly on subsequent crops. It is a risk that doesn’t always pay off, and unfortunately the farmers have the most to lose.
The financial burden can often have compounding effects. If farmers don’t have enough money to invest in their farms then the crop quality goes down. If quality drops, the farmer will not be able to sell their coffee for a good price, leading to lower revenue further reducing the amount of money available to invest. It is a downward spiral where producer and consumer alike lose. Without some kind of intervention, it is unlikely for that spiral to stop.
Avance was the SCA’s first take on a sustainability conference. This was significant because as an organization they are in a unique place to bring our industry together, to give a voice to those that may not have the platform or resources to speak out, and to have a real impact on practices on both a micro and global scale. Unfortunately, there was one voice that was under-represented: the small farmer. The high entrance fee, relative to the economics of the country we were in, meant that the dialogue revolved around the perspective of those that are more well off. As an industry we are aware of many of the issues that the coffee supply chain faces, but we will never have a complete picture without the voices of those who are struggling the most. The global nature of coffee means that the impact of these issues can be far reaching. There were a lot of questions raised at Avance but not a lot of answers. Unfortunately, the reality of the challenges we face in the coffee industry today is that there isn’t one solution. Every region and every farm can have its own unique challenges. Because of this, it is even more crucial that we talk to the people who deal with it firsthand.
I left the convention with mixed emotions. I wanted there to be a clear, simple solution that would allow me to have a noticeable impact. I wanted to learn more about what is happening at the ground level of coffee. The conference didn’t quite do that for me. Thinking about it in hindsight, I have put a lot more time into thinking about these issues since then, partly due to my frustrations with not having the answers I wanted. In that sense the conference was a success, although not in the way I had originally hoped.
While the conference wasn’t exactly what I had hoped it would be, my experience in Guatemala echoed what many others before me have expressed. It was beautiful and inspiring, almost magical. It was also an eye opening experience that put the magnitude of the coffee chain into perspective. It gave me a new respect for a product I already held so dearly as well as for all the people that put so much work and care into something that, for many of us, we so often take for granted.