Latin American farmers team up with U.S. coffee firms [video]

Some farmers in Colombia are turning away from growing coca, the plant used in making cocaine, and instead growing coffee.

They participate in one of several projects the U.S. government and major U.S. coffee companies have undertaken with farmers in Mexico and parts of Central and South America.

The reason is simple: Big coffee companies in the United States need a steady supply of coffee beans, and small-scale coffee farmers need a sustainable market for their product. The projects enable the countries involved to increase the number of stable jobs in their economies.

“Our investment in supporting small farmers overseas comes back to help the U.S. economy and build U.S. jobs,” says Curt Reintsma, a specialist at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which leads the U.S. effort with these projects.

In the United States, the coffee industry supports nearly 1.7 million American jobs. And USAID provides support for 25 million coffee farmers in 19 countries around the world.

Here’s a look at a few of these projects.


Woman carrying bag of coffee on her back (Neil Palmer/CIAT)
Farm workers carry sacks of coffee beans in Colombia’s southwestern Cauca department. (Neil Palmer/CIAT)

Farmers often grew coca during the 50-year conflict between the Colombian government and rebels, who threatened the farmers’ lives if they stopped.

Now with Colombia’s peace agreement in place, Starbucks Corporation and USAID recently announced a plan to provide agricultural training and new technology to 1,000 farmers in post-conflict zones. “To say ‘we are going to quit growing coca leaves and produce coffee’ — that’s huge,” said Alfredo Nuño, who leads the Starbucks Farmer Support Center in Manizales, Colombia.

Starbucks also will work with the Inter-American Development Bank in a loan program focused on smallholder women coffee farmers.

By partnering with organizations like USAID and the Inter-American Development Bank, “we can be even more intentional about ensuring that young men and women get more advanced technology and financial assistance to create a future for their families for generations to come,” said Kelly Goodejohn of Starbucks.

Nicaragua and El Salvador

Discolored, spotty leaves against a blue sky (Root Capital)
A leaf of a coffee tree affected by the fungal disease known as coffee leaf rust (Root Capital)

Some 6,000 smallholder coffee farmers in Nicaragua and El Salvador are getting help countering the destructive effects of “coffee leaf rust,” a fungal disease that destroys crops, through an initiative of USAID and the J.M. Smucker Company, which has headquarters in Ohio.

The project, called the Better Harvest Project, also provides farmers training in farm management and access to loans.

Rebecca Ott from J.M. Smucker said the project helped address the worst coffee rust outbreak in history, which occurred in 2012-2014. The fungus reduced production by 2.2 million statistical bags of coffee (one statistical bag is about 60 kilos of green coffee beans) and resulted in a loss of more than 450,000 jobs in the Central America region.

“This lack of jobs in countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador create[s] higher potential for migration to the U.S. as people look for jobs,” Ott said.

She said the project improves yields generally. “[These] multi-generational farmers … have experienced many farming conditions over the decades,” Ott said. “The collaborative approach of learning builds off the best of both tradition and new insight.”

From Mexico to Peru

Two farmers pouring coffee beans into a machine (Greg Kahn for USAID)
With support from a USAID project in Guatemala, workers use a machine to separate the outer cherry-colored shell from coffee beans. (Greg Kahn for USAID)

The Coffee Farmer Resilience Initiative also tackled leaf rust. This three-year effort, which ended September 2016, reached more than 430,000 farmers across Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru.

Keurig Green Mountain Coffee, with its company headquarters in Vermont, partnered with USAID and Root Capital, a nonprofit social investment fund, to provide loans and financial management training.

“We’ve already won, because while we have to pay back the money, the knowledge — as long as we put it into practice — is ours,” said Marisol, a participant from Honduras. “That remains with us, and it’s not a loan,” he said.

Colleen Popkin of Keurig Green Mountain said, “Our successes and challenges are inextricably linked. When we build close relationships with small coffee producers, we better understand the conditions on the ground and how we can work together to overcome barriers that put farmer livelihoods and coffee supply at risk.”

Check out these partnerships in action in the video below.