By Will Frith
High on the Lang Biang plateau near Dalat in Central Vietnam, Rolan Colieng and Josh Guikema’s picturesque coffee farm lies in the shade of the country’s third highest peak. Josh and Rolan are a couple of the change-makers in this region, with a shared dream that Vietnam’s coffee can come to be renowned as a single-origin phenomenon, rather than a sticky-sweet dessert.
In Vietnam, where cooperatives are not well established, informal groups of families pool resources and knowledge for coffee farming. Some of these groups are ethnic minorities, like the K’Ho people, of which Rolan is a member. Her tribe, like many in the area, was targeted in the mid-1980s by the Vietnamese government to benefit from coffee seedling projects. The purpose of the project was to help the poorest minorities in the area as they struggled to keep pace with post-war economic expansion. Before coffee, the K’Ho tribe’s only income was based on tourism, textiles, and trading subsistence farming produce. “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,” notes Rolan.
These hills were French domains once upon a time, and many of the coffee varieties are descended from those original colonial seedlings. The K’Ho people, who represent something of a cooperative of tribes, farmed coffee then as they do now. Many of the tribes were displaced by wars—both French and American—from other parts of the region and collected in and around Dalat, which saw relatively little warfare. Since the end of the wars, several waves of migration, both centrally-planned and voluntary, have changed the ethnic and business landscape of the area. In more recent years, Dalat has seen an agricultural boom, with flower, strawberry, and artichoke farms covering the hills.
During the same span of time, ad hoc coffee production increased dramatically in the area. After Doi Moi, the relaxing of the Vietnamese Communist government’s tight post-war economic controls, entrepreneurial Vietnamese were free to pursue business activity. Many in Dalat chose to start coffee plantations, including Son, who invested in a four-hectare farm after several successful years selling car parts.
Son knew nothing about coffee when he began, only remarking that after tasting it in the ubiquitous Vietnamese ca phe den, he figured it had to get better. He bought some land and planted coffee trees and orchids, and sold his raw cherry to his nephew, Quang, Vietnam’s first, and perhaps only, relationship trade processor focusing on specialty coffee. For three years Quang tried to convince his uncle to taste the coffee that was being grown on his farm, and when Son relented, he noticed something different—it was not only palatable, it was good. Now he is a daily coffee drinker.
“At first I thought all coffee was the same, because I didn’t drink it… After [a few] times drinking this coffee… [I found that] it has a different aroma, and I wasn’t uncomfortable after drinking it… Now I only drink the coffee I make myself,” says Son.
Josh and Rolan reported similar observations of their friends and neighbors who, once they had tasted the local varieties of Arabica, simply could not go back to drinking the sludgy, dark, rubbery Robusta roasted with butter. On the morning we visited, a pair of policemen also stopped by for coffee. Rolan said that they’d come to get their fill and also to encourage her to hurry up with her plans to open a roadside cafe, because they want someplace to drink good coffee.
The fact that Dalat’s coffee producers are also its consumers is a miniature revolution in this country, where Robusta exports constitute the second highest agricultural product in value for the country. If farmers of Robusta do drink locally-grown coffee, they aren’t likely to taste the fruits of their own labor. In Dalat, by comparison, farmers recently competed in an UCC-sponsored Arabica coffee contest, with winners taking home the equivalent of half-a-year’s income.
A mere twenty kilometers from Josh and Rolan’s farm, Quang is building a bigger warehouse for his green-coffee buying and processing business. He’s just hired six more staffers, who will help him run a tour program for visitors to Dalat. He will also add a coffee bar to attract visitors from the roadside. During an English lesson recently, students were overheard learning how to inform guests that coffee came with neither milk nor sugar. The trainees were learning how to kindly suggest a Chemex brew of local bourbon.
Quang acts as a sort of aggregator and connector, often forgoing a profit for several years in order to build trust and help a farmer incrementally scale up production and quality at the same time. He acted as translator for a week of visits to various producers in and around the Lang Biang plateau, where the issue of labor emerged as a primary deterrent to success for the farmers we spoke to.
“[Many laborers] want to go to the big city. There, they have a chance to find a job that has a more comfortable environment… Working on a farm—it’s dirty, low pay, and it’s very hard work,” according to Son.
They also have to compete with other local agricultural businesses, such as the many flower and vegetable greenhouses popping up all over Dalat.
“[Coffee laborers] have to work in the sun and rain, carry very heavy bags, and the income is lower than [those working] in the greenhouses… Coffee picking pays 150.000 Vietnamese Dong ($7) for one day, [and tending] flowers [is] 200.000 Vietnamese Dong ($10),” says Son.
In Dasar, an area 25 km from the city of Dalat, Cil minority people grow coffee almost exclusively. Their farms are dotted with persimmon trees, used for shade, and their backyards full of chickens and pigs, but the majority of their income is made each coffee harvest. Krajan Ha Djim, whose French is better than his English, faces his biggest challenge every year with labor supply.
“There are plenty of people who are ready to pick coffee every harvest, so that becomes a problem,” he explained. “Many of the people who pick coffee come from other places and need some accommodation. They want to work for someone who can pay their transportation as well as their fee.”
Like Son, Ha Djim pays the prevailing wage of 150,000 Vietnamese Dong, a little less than $7 per day of picking. They have to pay the same day rate as their competitors, even though they train the workers to pick only the ripest cherry. Quang is prepared to reward their hard work, paying a premium for coffees he knows he can serve at Workshop Cafe, an industrial-chic shop in Ho Chi Minh City that serves the best of Vietnam’s burgeoning specialty coffees.
For those without access to investment in labor or fertilizer, the picture is graver. Anecdotal reports from around Lac Duong, a community of both minority and Vietnamese families, include predatory lenders who take payment in cherries, often leaving families with little to no income each year. Some of the poorest farmers also make themselves available as pickers. According to Ha Djim, his neighbors, who have their own farms, will often come to him for extra income during the harvest.
“Labor is the most difficult issue. I could secure good labor if I could pay them more, or cooperate with other farmers to share labor,” he says.
Ha Djim knows that he can secure better, more consistent labor with higher wages, but is stuck in limbo without access to export markets for his coffees. Quang and others like him are trying to help by offering coffees to roasters internationally, but for now the prices are too high for tiny lots of a variety of coffee Vietnam is not yet known for producing.
Special thanks to Kelly Norman for her research and assistance on this article.
Will Frith has been working with producers, roasters, and baristas in Dalat and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to encourage best practices for specialty Arabica production. He offers roaster, barista, quality control, and technical training to clients in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. In the past, he has worked as director of coffee for The New Black (Singapore); roaster, quality control, and customer support for Olympia Coffee (Washington, USA); production specialist, training and education specialist for Batdorf & Bronson (Washington, USA). Most recently, he joined the team at Modbar (Indiana, USA) as their West Coast representative.