Emergence of a Coffee Origin: The Complete Interviews

Interviews by Will Frith

lavietQuang, La Viet Specialty Coffee

Why do people leave coffee farming in Vietnam?

All the young guys want to discover a new world; they’re attracted the bright lights of the city – even if they have to rent a house and get a very low salary, just enough to cover their living expenses. They need that because they go with the hope that “I will have a bigger chance to escape from the rural life.”

Does this happen a lot?

More of the young guys now, they don’t live and work on the farm. For the majority of them, when 5-7 years have passed, when they are not successful in the urban areas they come back. Or, if their family has some problem like their parents pass away and there is no one to take care of the farm, they are forced to come back and take care of the land, but rarely do they take over the actual farming.

How does this affect quality and long-term relationships?

When this generation’s farmers age, they don’t have enough energy to keep things going – fertilizing, cleaning, weeding, etc. They need the younger generation, but they don’t have any support from family so they have to hire laborers from outside. These laborers are not responsible for the quality of their work. They do the bare minimum, just enough for their salary. They don’t care about quality, just doing what they are required to do, without passion.

We need to work with the farm owner, and the family that owns the farm. We need to explain to them about quality, and the work that they should do to increse the quality in the long term – because quality needs a long relationship to improve. So if we just talk to the old man, and no one is there to make it work after he’s gone, it’s meaningless. You’ll get a few good harvests but nothing after that.

Rolan Colieng & her father, K’Ho Coffee

When did K’Ho people come to this place?

This area has belonged to the K’Ho Lach people for a long time, and the Chil people came here in 1970. There are lots of different tribes – K’Ho is the name of the community.

K’Ho Chil people started coffee in this area from 1956. There were only a few families growing coffee in their area near Dalat at the time. His parents started growing coffee that year.

Why did they start growing coffee?

Before coffee, it was just subsistence agriculture. The French people in the area brought in coffee from outside. When he began, my father just wanted to test the land for coffee. Until 1975, the government gave to each family in this area 10 small plants of coffee. “Moka” (typica and bourbon) coffee came from French. The government gave the same varieties of coffee. Because the quantity of the typica coffees were too low and the plants too tall, the government wanted to make it become a better business, so they brought different coffee varieties.

Government programs?

Government helped the community to grow up. They distributed plants, like persimmon and orange trees, along with fertilizer and education.

How has agriculture changed since 1956?

Before 1956 the community was so poor because they depended on subsistence agriculture. It was a very poor life. After coffee came, there was a higher standard of living, more income, more food to eat. Coffee was the basis to help improve our lives. More and more, they grow it because it brings food. They have something to trade for food.

K’Ho community — Most of the people who went to America, because they were working for American Army for a long time, then they moved there, and after that they wanted to take their whole family to go, there are still people who have coffee plantation here, but they’re still growing coffee, but some of the people who live there, they sold off the land. Coffee is a longterm plantation, but they like to have short-term planting so they build a greenhouse, some of the family that has the land to grow coffee, sometimes it is really hard for them, if they don’t have other jobs, they only depend on coffee which is hard, they have to wait until harvest.

Most of the people my age like to move away, to find another job, it’s easier and find more money than to wait a long time for harvest time. People were just moving here since 1970 so we don’t have a lot of land for gardening, they find out that waiting for coffee takes too long, but they don’t have other jobs to do here, most of the land they’re growing coffee, so they like to move to other places where they have income every day.

How does this effect community?

It’s a very important job for us to do , because we’re trying to keep training people how to improve our traditional plantation, and we have to change it, the basic income for family. So we need to change it, to make the plantation more valuable. If the farmer is happy, they will keep working on the farm. We like to keep them in the same point of view. They can become rich from the plantation. This is very important – it takes the family from very poor to better income. We don’t want to lose all of that.

How do you keep them here?

First, I would like to get them to join with us, make the best coffee that we can – keep the environment safe by using organic fertilizer, try to do our best increase price for coffe, every harvest we sell it together, share the money, the community profits for coffee, all the producers we will trade fairly. We like for them to think that they are doing the right way, they are protecting one another, hand in hand, to help their coffee become very popular.

Our eventual goal is to export coffee. Profit and sharing, we learn and teach them what we learn, we like to have more activity in our group that we’re creating, so they learn that there’s more to do in coffee.

Besides coffee, we are trying to do handicrafts, to help the village find a market in Japan or other country to sell traditional handicrafts.

Others should know that we are together to make good coffee, and we are developing together, not only individually, but by a community developing together.

Challenges?

We have a lot of competition and investment for fertilizer. We have no income until the harvest, especially if we have a hard market. It’s difficult to get a high price.

We try to sell all kinds – cherry, parchment, green, roasting, diversifying as much as possible.

hoJosh Guikema, K’Ho Coffee

Is migration to cities a problem for your community?

Our community is close to a growing city and generally there are more people moving into our area than people moving out.  Development and farming of other crops is reducing the amount of land available for coffee production.

What are some reasons people move to cities?

Most people leave the farming community to move to cities for education work or marriage.

Over the last 20 years, how has migration affected coffee production in your community?

Over the past 20 years in our area there has been an increase of population and road construction, and along with that, an increase in coffee production.  As some land owners move away, they rent out their land.  Usually farmers who are renting land have short term interests, thus the land and trees are poorly maintained.

Where do people go when they move?

Most people who move go to Dalat city, Ho Chi Minh City, or abroad.

Do they come back? Do they keep in touch?

Yes, most people keep in touch or come back depending on how far away.

What do you think coffee farming communities and the industry in general can do to help keep people on land and producing income through coffee?

Higher quality processing, continuing to improve Vietnam’s coffee image, and access to specialty markets would give farmers more incentive to continue planting and feeding their coffee trees.

What else do you think members of SCAA reading this article would benefit from knowing about issues around migration and your coffee growing community?

Vietnam has a young, growing population of farmers with agricultural experience and a strong work ethic.  Urban migration may be more of a problem for coffee production in other areas of Vietnam, or in countries with a large land mass such as Brazil.

SonQuang and Son

How Son got started in the coffee world, his experience and how Quang influenced it.

I had some friends who regularly invited me to drink coffee, but I never thought it tasted very good. I owned a business selling car parts and had some extra money, so I bought some land and planted orchids, but when I started the orchids I had to spend lots of money on workers. I decided to give coffee a try soon after starting that.

How much coffee do you grow now?

18,000 trees on 4 Hectares

What’s different about your production now compared to when you began?

8 years ago, I just sold cherry to local collectors at a very low price, and now I process the coffee and sell the parchment to Quang.

What do you do differently now for Quang?

Now, I wet process the coffee myself, adding more work but also getting me more value. Previously, I harvested and sold to random collectors for whatever the going price was at the time.

Why did it take three years for you to try your own coffee?

Because I didn’t like coffee. Sometimes I drink one cup of coffee in one year, and it always made me feel anxious and nauseated. Quang would process and roast my coffee for me to drink, and I would just put that coffee in the corner of the kitchen.

When did you know it was different?

At first I thought all coffee was the same, because I didn’t drink it. But after one or two times drinking this coffee, I thought it was a little bit different. It has a different aroma and I wasn’t uncomfortable after drinking it. After 7-10 times drinking this coffee, I think it suited me well. Now I only drink the coffee I make myself.

What’s wrong with the coffee people drink on the street?

The problem is that it makes me feel uncomfortable, my heart beats really fast, and I can’t sleep at night.

What do they do differently than you do?

I have no idea what people do with their coffee. I don’t know why when I drink that coffee it makes me feel nervous, uncomfortable. When I drink coffee from Quang I feel okay, I can accept that.

What’s your big dream for you and other farmers in ten years because of the coffee you’re growing now?

If we try very hard to follow a good QC system, the image of good quality coffee in Vietnam will be accepted worldwide.

Have you tasted a lot of coffees from around the world and if so, what do you think of other coffees compared to Vietnamese coffees?

Vietnam Arabica beans compared to other countries, the quality is not very different. We are doing it correctly, but some cultivars like geisha or pacamara from other countries the quality is outstanding! With popular coffees like bourbon or typica, Vietnam has some varieties that can compare with other countries.

How big do you want to see your farm grow – do you see yourself staying or moving? How is your role in that changing in the next few years?

I think that when I start to get stuck in planting coffee I will take it the furthest I can. My farm is near the jungle, and the elevation is quite enough, so I will focus more on planting special varieties, like pacamara or something.

Why do people leave coffee farming in Vietnam?

People, especially young people, want to go to the big city. There, they have a chance to find a job that has a more comfortable environment. They don’t have to get dirty, and they make a good salary. Working on a farm = Getting dirty, low pay, very hard work.

What other agricultural products are popular, some that may cause people to stop growing coffee?

Of course I agree with that idea, because it’s real. It happens here, that people for example choose to plant flowers and have more income and the work is quite easier than farming coffee. Another reason is mostly related to the money that they get – when they plant more profitable agriculture, they will have more money, so step by step they will stop planting new coffee on their farm and start planting more profitable products.

How does this affect your farm labor?

It makes things very diffcult. We all know that making coffee is challenging. Workers have to work in the sun & rain, carry very heavy bags, and the income is lower than workers that work in the greenhouses that plant flowers or vegetables. They don’t have to face bad weather, the rainy season. If we want to get more workers, espeically during harvest season, we have to increase the money we pay them. Coffee picking pays 150k ($7usd) for one day, flowers are 180-200k ($10usd). Because flowers are more profitable.

Coffee income is lower than flowers or vegetables, because we sell it to the very small domestic market. When we export it, it doesn’t meet the quality standards or price expectations, so we can’t increase income or wages. People need to keep their livelihood, their standard of living. They expect that they get stable income, so that they can plan well for their families, send their kids to school, or buy a house. But now it’s unstable, it depends on the market price. And sometimes the market price is very low, so they suffer. They’re quite happy when the market price is high, but they rarely plan ahead for that, so they invest it poorly.

A lot of producers around my farm get more money when the market price is high, and spend it on karaoke machines, motorbike, drinking, and then some of them just spend all their money right before the next harvest, so they don’t have money to reinvest on the farm. So I think stable income is very important.

How does this affect your vision for the future (Vietnamese coffee with a high regard internationally?)

The issue is that it’s difficult for the farm owner. And the worker – hard work, less pay. For me, this year I have five workers. My workers receive 150k each day. When they look up and see the greenhouses planting flowers, with laborers earning 200-300k daily – they think “I work on the rain, carry 60 kg on my back and get less income than the people who work in the greenhouse.”

Family labor?

From the Vietnamese point of view, I am the man of the family, and I work very hard and I don’t want my family to work as hard as I am. I don’t want my family members to get involved in this kind of work. You can see this very clearly, you work very hard and have that amount of money, so of course you don’t want to make your children work that hard.

What else should SCAA readers/members know/hear about from you? Challenges / opportunities?

As we change the image of Vietnamese coffee, we need more farmers to care about quality. When we talk about the quality of Vietnam, people expect that we should bring the best quality coffee so that the producer will have fair income, to encourage them to keep going. Some farmers are serious about and like to plant coffee, but they were effected about the comparison with money, income, with other agricultural products. We should think about how to increase the value of the coffee, real quality coffee, so that they don’t have to compare and get rid of the career that they love.

For me it’s quite crazy – I know it’s very hard work, but I love it so that’s why I keep doing it.

What do you think/feel about the next generation in coffee farming? Will it be more difficult or will we find better ways to attract people to this side of the industry?

It’s difficult, because people expect more easy work, and easy money. Coffee is hard work, so for the next generation it will be difficult to find people to keep it going, except that we can find a better way to increase the demand and value for coffee and increase the quality of life for people.

(Quang): In my opinion, I think it will keep going. Coffee industry in Vietnam, it’s existed for hundred years. For example the land problem – they have a big plot of land, but without electricity or water sources, so they have to choose more labor intensive agricultural products to plant – coffee may fill that need. Farther north in the central highlands, where the elevation is not good but they have lots of land, they will just plant robusta. People will find their own way to keep going, they are so smart.

Maybe in the future, because they are afraid of so much hard work, the next generation will learn that a certain coffee cultivar will have more value per unit. For example, they may be able to sell 1kg of bourbon at the price of 3kg of robusta or 2kg of catimor. Easy yeah? But now we need to prove that – you plant this variety, maybe the yield is lower but the price is higher.

hajimKrajan Ha Djim

How does quality affect what you do?

It depends on what requirements, but usually it takes a longer time than usual low quality production. Sometimes people feel it’s not as easy, or they feel sorry to be getting so few cherries. They think they can just harvest more quantity, but we require higher quality. So we feel sorry about getting less cherry, and of course we have to pay them fairly. They get less cherry but we still have to pay the full day labor work.

What is the current daily rate for laborers?

150,000 Vietnam Dong

Last year the yield was not good, but he still had to pay full days’ wages. This year looks promising so far, but the labor work will become higher with more production.

What do you think about the future of your coffee farm?

My mother-in-law farmed before my wife and I did, and I will pass the coffee farm along to my children. Of course I don’t know if they will choose to farm coffee when the time comes.

It is very easy to find people to pick coffee, but it’s difficult to get them to work for me. Some farmers are able to provide transportation and accommodation for those who come from other areas to pick coffee. There is very high competition for labor. Sometimes people require that transportation and other costs are paid by farmers.

Labor is the most difficult issue for me. I could secure good labor consistently if I were able to pay them more, or cooperate with other farmers to share labor.

In the Dasar area, most families farm coffee, so there is very little competition for labor from other agricultural products. Vietnamese people in Dalat work in greenhouses, but ethnic minorities are mostly working in the coffee fields.