What is Coffee Worth to You?

luis 1By Luis Rodríguez Ventura

So, Luis… Why do you grow coffee?

It’s a question I hear a lot. And it’s a hard one to answer, believe me.

My coffee life began after being hired as an analyst for the economics department the Salvadoran Coffee Council back in 2001. For the first couple of years my job consisted of gathering statistics, putting together reports and everything I could consider to be “market intelligence” to present as a tool for coffee growers to make better decisions for their businesses. As my career in coffee continued and gained more of a quality and marketing focus, my love for coffee only grew. In 2009, after leaving the Council, my wife Maria Jose and I bought a three-hectare farm in El Salvador.

While I don’t come from a coffee family, my wife is a fourth-generation coffee grower. As younger coffee farmers, we are not common; not many young people at origin get bit by the coffee bug these days. Generations were displaced to other industries in the ‘80s and ‘90s in our country, and even with the glamour specialty coffee brings for a new, quality-focused generation, it is not a career choice that many are pursuing.

Even though the current generation enters into coffee with great knowledge and intent to manage their farms and strive toward more dignified livelihoods, their low numbers present a threat to the availability of quality specialty coffee. Alternative ways to earn a living compete with the known struggles and volatility of coffee production, and those alternate activities come out looking more attractive and more lucrative. I´m sure many people can agree that El Salvador has one of the highest ratios of “cool kids” in coffee when it comes to specialty coffee producers, however I can count on one hand the people I know who rely solely on coffee growing as their main economic activity. I think that makes a good case that coffee production, regardless of specialty premiums, is not profitable enough to attract more new growers. It is instead an increasingly unpopular way to make a living.

Some of the biggest challenges I see for specialty coffee from my perspective are:

  • Access to production credit lines has become harder for growers as bank credit policies fail to evolve with our cost of production and direct trade business.
  • The idea that a fair price for great coffees is around the $3.00 per pound line. Most of these coffees are easily three times harder and costlier to grow than commercial qualities, and the risk can be five times higher.
  • Lack of solid policy-making and proper research coffee institutions. I don’t mean subsidized agriculture or an entity giving away coffee trees to plant or some fungicide every year, I mean institutions that help create a somehow secure environment with better tools to take optimal decisions.
  • If demand does not assist suppliers as they work through their difficulties, or pay them commercial prices commensurate to their cost of production, there is a big chance a lot of amazing coffees will disappear soon.
  • Changes in weather patterns are heavily affecting production and growers need to understand this and how to take measures to counteract and minimize the risk of higher volatility in weather.
  • In the past few years coffee pests and diseases are getting stronger and wilder, adapting more quickly to changes than coffee growers.

luis 6So again, why am I a coffee grower? We are hooked on coffee and have a huge passion for it, which is lucky, because honestly at this moment we cannot fully depend on it to support ourselves. Let me elaborate on this. We have been incredibly fortunate to be among the winners of the Cup of Excellence within the first couple years of owning our farm. That provided us with enough money to reinvest, but also to pay down the farm loan, which we still have. As a small grower, I am lucky enough to work side-by-side with some of the best roasters in the world, who believe in our quality and support our endeavors. Still, my yields growing Bourbon, Pacas and Pacamara—considered heirloom and exotic varieties—are hardly enough to make more than $300 per month in post-expense profits. So here’s the deal: given an earning potential of about $300 a month, do you think you would like to be a coffee grower?

At origin, we love our work. We love to learn and reinvent ourselves—our farming and processes—and we adapt to trends and changes as fast as we can. We are definitely not looking for pity. Sadly, we cannot wait very much longer for commercial behaviors to evolve. Our future stands at a crossroads: prolific, or grim. A strong message is needed within the specialty coffee industry: pay for your coffee what its preservation is worth to you. If this logic doesn’t grab your attention, then consider what it would be like for your company to lose access to what I imagine is a key raw material.

LuisLuis Rodríguez Ventura has been a coffee farmer for the past five years and has been involved in the coffee industry for 15 years. He is the founder and president of CAFERIUM, a coffee consulting company that helps establish direct trade relationships between growers and roasters. He is a trained QC analyst, barista, and cupper. He also owns a small coffee shop in a neighboring city and loves his wife Maria Jose and son Josemaría.