But, says JONAS LEME FERRARESSO, there’s more to the country than high volumes and cutting-edge crop technology – Brazil’s coffee crop has undergone enormous changes and many challenges over the past century-and-a-half.
It’s not just that Brazil has held the title of the highest coffee producing country for so long that makes some associate “Brazil” with “big.” It’s also home to the largest single coffee producer in the world, who harvests approximately 180,000 bags of coffee from 5,000 hectares (ha) of land – an amount equivalent to a quarter of Kenya’s total annual coffee production – and the largest coffee cooperative in the world, spanning 14,500 members who trade six million bags of coffee per year (or the total productions of Mexico and Costa Rica combined). And, yes, 90% of the Brazilian coffee fields are made up of coffee varieties and lineages developed by the pioneering Instituto Agronômico de Campinas, Brazil’s main coffee research institute – which has accumulated a huge volume of scientific knowledge during its 132 years of operation.
Knowing this, it’s hard to avoid building a stereotype about Brazilian coffee production, isn’t it? Doesn’t it help to reinforce a mental image of endless mechanically farmed coffee land? But, if we look closer, the numbers don’t support the stereotype: 84% of the members of that giant cooperative grow coffee on fewer than 20 ha. A recent survey by the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, Brazil’s Institute of Geography and Statistics, supports this alternative narrative: 64% of Brazil’s 300,000 coffee farmers are “small” farmers with fewer than 20 ha, 19% are considered “medium” (farming 20–50 ha), and only 17% own more than 50 ha coffee.
The same survey found that 73% – three-quarters! – of Brazil’s coffee is harvested by manual or partially mechanized technique, with only 27% of the cherries harvested entirely mechanically. The image of those endless mechanized fields doesn’t fit so easily now, does it?
A Hundred Shades of Coffee
Between Brazil’s large size and coffee’s migratory journey across the country, there are now hundreds of producing regions, each with different levels of technology and agronomic knowledge. Across these, farmers have developed unique techniques adapted to their local resources and varieties. Between these different cultivational techniques and the 159 registered coffee varieties, it’s possible to taste countless different coffees.
Over the past 25 years, farmers in Brazil ’s mountainous regions have experienced problems with investment and profit. The juxtaposition of high costs of labor and inputs (plant stock, fertilizer, etc.) with low coffee prices has created three different approaches to solving the problem of profit: some sold their land and moved to flat, mechanizable areas, including the Cerrado of Minas Gerais and other lands in Bahia state (removing labor costs); some invested in mountainous areas, changing their processes and technologies to grow profitable coffee (altering input costs); and some, mostly mountainous farmers with little access to capital, have worked to maintain traditional, “old” ways of production.
These “traditional” coffee growers have a long history of coffee production, some with 100 years of family expertise across six generations. These farms use mainly family labor, have little budget control or technician support, but benefit from an enormous amount of empirical coffee knowledge. These growers are strongly connected with their land and coffee trees; they didn’t leave their farms, even in hard times. As the most recent coffee price crisis has unfolded, it has most severely affected this “traditional” group – the past two decades of coffee price fluctuations have resulted in their decapitalization, making it impossible for them to invest in their farms in ways that might otherwise improve the prospects of profitability: they’re unable to purchase and plant new plant stock, implement a modern plantation grid, access new pest- and disease-resistant varieties, or buy more efficient fertilizers.
Faced with all these issues, some farmers have drastically reduced or eliminated their coffee crops. Others have found new ways to survive, racking their brain to find ways of adding new value to hand-picked coffee. As you might expect, manual coffee growing is more expensive than mechanized: Data from several recent surveys in Brazil show that it’s between 30–50% more expensive. And what does this mean? Less profit.
Reinventing the Wheel
In the mid-1990s, coffee was an excellent business – it was profitable, even produced manually in mountainous areas. Farmers could sell their green coffee anywhere for fair prices. But 2002’s price crisis changed everything: Certification companies started to offer their standards and premiums for sustainable practices in Brazilian coffee farms. The popularity of organic practices grew, too, with several farms implementing good practices – and adding some value to their green coffee – but over the years, the premiums paid decreased as the production of certified coffee increased. This led many to abandon the certifications, leaving farmers to start all over again in their search for improved coffee prices.
Today, that search has evolved, leading to exciting and interesting developments. To illustrate what I mean by this, I’d like to share an example from a “traditional” region in the Sao Paulo state. Known as “Circuíto das Águas Paulista,” which means “Sao Paulo State Water Region,” this area has been growing coffee since the eighteenth century, and is known for the unique chemical properties of its mineral water – a fact that led a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, Marie Skłodowska Curie, to visit the region in 1926.
Mr. Roberto Marchi is the fourth generation of his family to farm their land in this region, located in the city of Serra Negra – he used to be a “traditional” coffee farmer, growing 17 steep relief hectares of 100% hand-picked Coffea arabica, planted 1,100 m above sea level, and selling only to the commodity market. As you may have guessed, Roberto saw his profit margins decreasing over the years. In 2015, seeing the need to stay in business, he moved from traditional commodity management to specialty coffee practices: New standards were implemented, and now working directly on the coffee farm’s management, he begins to understand how it will influence the final cup quality. With his wife’s help, Roberto studied green-grading, cupping, and roasting – and now his farm sells roasted and packaged coffee directly to customers, cafés, and small groceries.
The act of processing and roasting the coffee at origin brings a unique experience to customers, packaging all of the farm’s expertise into a singular sensory experience. We recognize this in wine – how flavors change from farm to farm, and from season to season – but now there is an opportunity to showcase this in coffee, too. Most importantly, much of the profit of the coffee remains with the grower’s family, and the money will be spent on the farm and a better quality of life for the coffee family farmer. The idea of on-farm roasting is not particularly new – some Brazilian cooperatives started to roast and develop their own brands for domestic consumption around 10 years ago – and many others soon copied the idea, but after a few years, most abandoned their new microroasting facilities after realizing they didn’t know enough about roasting techniques, packaging standards, logistics, or market demands to achieve the profits they needed to achieve.
But Roberto has an advantage: his region is home to nine cities and is mainly made up of small and medium-sized coffee producers. They have recently formed a local association of specialty coffee growers, Associaçao dos Produtores de Cafés Especiais do Circuíto das Águas Paulista (ACECAP), and they’re now working to be recognized as one of Brazil’s Geographical Indication of Origin for their coffee.
Most of the coffee growers of ACECAP already roast their own coffee, seeking this unique identity, and to grow the value of their work. The coffee market is very dynamic and complex, but this trend of on-farm roasting shows how it is possible to think and develop new models and ideas, inventing new ways to keep this beloved beverage profitable, fair, and transparent throughout all the coffee chain. The specialty coffee chain is not “specialty” only due to the quality of the coffee produced, but the people who produce it.
JONAS LEME FERRARESSO is an agronomist and specialty coffee professional working across coffee’s full value chain in the Regiao do Circuíto das Águas Paulista.
From North to South
Coffee’s journey in Brazil is not only marked by the number of years, but by a movement from the north to the south as conditions and markets shifted around it. Just after its introduction to the country in 1727, coffee began to be produced in the northern Brazilian states of Pará and Maranhao. A century later, by the middle of the 1820s, coffee production had shifted and concentrated in the southeastern state of Rio de Janeiro. Here, soil depletion – and a lack of consolidated fertilization techniques – pushed coffee to move to its next home, the bordering state of Sao Paulo, in the 1850s, where coffee enjoyed a second boom until the 1929 Wall Street Crash (pushing many farmers into bankruptcy) before culminating in a move of the industry to the more-southern state of Paraná in the 1950s. The region had good soil for coffee cultivation, but constant problems with frost and polar masses caused considerable damage to many farmers of the time, leading to the last major migration of the coffee crop to the slightly more northerly state of Minas Gerais in the 1970s. Today, Minas Gerais alone produces half of all Brazil’s coffee – in 2018, they harvested 33.6 million 60kg coffee bags. If Minas Gerais were a country, the state would be the biggest coffee producer in the world!
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