Researchers are only scratching the surface of the long term harm pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and some fertilizers can have on our health, but there’s an even bigger problem with agricultural chemical products: they work.
Coffee treated with several applications of the above produces reliably and produces a hearty crop. But using chemicals to aid production is not without labor. Managing bugs with pesticides means that someone has to walk up and down (often miles worth) of coffee fields/forests spraying them with a wand attached to a backpack pump. Fertilizer comes in 50 lb sacks. It needs to be purchased from some sort of supply store and somehow taken from that store to the farm, which can mean a 45 minute drive (each way) on muddy, rocky, uneven roads, across precarious bridges, and always up a mountain. Depending on the size of the farm and number of fit laborers, applying all that fertilizer individually to the base of each plant- somewhere between .5 to 3 pounds per plant- can take several weeks. Most farms apply fertilizers multiple times. Even though agrochemicals generate higher yields, their use still involves quite a bit of work. When you finish pruning you start setting traps for bugs; when you finish setting traps, you start fertilizing. When you finish fertilizing, you start herbiciding; when you finish herbiciding, you start pesticiding, when you finish pesticiding, you fertilize again. There’s already a lot of work going on in chemical (what’s known as “conventional”) coffee management.
So when someone mentions organic, the first thing producers think is, “more work.” The second thing they think is, “less to show for it.” Both are true. “Organic” does not mean the absence of chemicals; it means the presence of creative solutions. Without pesticides, farmers have to manage pests using natural concoctions or additional traps. For example, leaf cutter ants, who can strip a coffee plant to its bones, are managed with pesticides on conventional farms. When you take away the pesticides, farmers now have to spend time making their own anti-ant treatments, often involving weeks of fermenting and repeated applications to anthills before the damage to crops ceases. In the absence of herbicides, farmers have to manage weeds by hand (machete or weedwhacker) and plant ground cover that will prevent weeds from appearing in the first place. But not all ground cover species grow in all conditions, so the process of finding the right weed-control plant for a specific farm can take years.
The most significant increase in work that comes with organic coffee is a result of the change in fertilizer. Chemical fertilizers are commercially viable because so much is packed into so little. Fertilizers are designed to pack the most nutrients (the standard trifecta of phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium in addition to micronutrients) into the least amount of material. Manmade fertilizers are concentrated, organic fertilizers are not. The coffee cherry fruit cast off as “waste” during the production process can be composted- with worms or without- along with other organic material to be used as fertilizer. But because nutrients aren’t as concentrated, the volume of this rich, natural organic compost that needs to be applied per plant is twice that of “conventional” chemical fertilizer. Twice the volume means twice the time or twice the manpower to give plants the same amount of nutrients.
Another source of bolstering for coffee plants comes from the interplanted trees, infamous for making the shade of trendy shade-grown coffee. Arabica coffee does need some mitigation from the sun, but the leaves from shade trees are actually far more useful to coffee plants when they fall and start to decompose than when they’re on the tree producing shade. Coffee plants love the nutrients from the breakdown of leaves, but this process is slow, and therefore the coffee plant takes in nutrients at a much slower rate than when it absorbs manufactured fertilizers. Think lapping water from a saucer versus sucking it up through a straw. One of the most valuable components of fertilizer is nitrogen, and nitrogen-fixing trees and ground cover can be planted to fix nitrogen in the soil for use by coffee plants. But these species then have to be managed too. The oft-used Poró tree does an awesome job of fixing nitrogen, but it grows incredibly rapidly, which means that it quickly provides too much shade if not pruned regularly and carefully. Pruning 100s of 6ft trees is another task that requires significant time and manpower.
Because coffee plants on organic farms aren’t relying on chemical assistance to produce fruit, they need more TLC. On organic farms coffee plants are pruned after each harvest based on the needs of each plant. All this individual attention, again, takes more time and more hands on deck to do the work done by agrochemicals.
Growing organic coffee requires all this extra work, and the yields often don’t reflect the increased effort. Athletes who do everything humanly possible are still beaten by the guys and gals on steroids. Farmers use all these chemical products not to make life “easier;” they use them because agrochemicals give farmers more for the work that they do. Organically managed coffee farms can, and often do, eventually, offer higher yields. Farms have to have a complete absence of chemical use for 3 years to even think about calling themselves (or having any agency call them) organic, and beyond that it can take another 5-10 years for harvest yields to meet or best those of “conventional” farms. The conversion to becoming a productive organic coffee farm takes time. And any businessman can tell you time is money.
Organic coffee farmers save money by not buying all those agrochemical products, but what they save is insignificant compared to what they don’t make by having minimal harvests for up to the first 10 years of organic management. Day laborers also make less picking on organic farms. They’re paid not by the hour, but by the volume of ripe fruit they collect. If the trees are producing less, there’s less for them to pick. The going’s also slower on an organic coffee farm because the trees, for all that individual attention, are irregular and pickers can’t employ the same conveyer-belt-at-factory-speed approach that they employ on “conventional” farms.
Organic coffee often costs twice as much non-organic, so most organic consumers hope that the difference makes it to the farmers. It is true that farmers are paid more by coffee mils for their organic cherries, but the difference is slight. Imagine, instead of getting paid time and a half for working months of overtime, weekends, and holidays, you got paid and extra $1 an hour. You were in fact paid more, but ‘more’ in no way compensates for the additional work done. Farmers can’t even get this pay increase unless they’re certified, and audits for such certification can cost them the equivalent of the entirety of several months’ earnings.
Farmers are also only able to get this higher price if the mill they sell to processes organic coffee. Many mills buy from well over 2,000 producers, and the standard practice is to collect coffee fruit from these producers every day and literally dump it all into the first of many processing machines. Coffee from all the farms in the area is mixed together the second it hits the mill. If a mill also wants to process organic coffee, it has to keep it in separate bags (or even send separate trucks to get it). Once it arrives at the mill it has to run through the entire depulping, washing, drying, and quality sorting process separately. Because this means mills have to adjust their entire operation to accommodate organic coffee, not all mills process organic coffee to sell separately. So if a producer goes organic but the mill doesn’t run a separate process, he’ll be paid the non-organic rate and his organic cherries will get mixed in with every one else’s conventional ones.
And yet, even knowing all this, more and more farmers are choosing to go organic. They don’t do it for the money. All but one of the organic producers I’ve met is still in that first 10-year window where they’re loosing money in a big way. They can only hope to see future returns, but the plata isn’t the reason they made the switch in the first place. Many organic farmers are older (beyond US retirement age) and have seen with their own eyes the long term affects of managing coffee farms with so many agrochemicals. One farmer told me how he had lost many friends and family members, lifetime coffee workers, to lung diseases and cancers. He said he knows these chemicals aren’t good for people to be working with at such close contact for so many years. He obviously isn’t a medical researcher, and who knows if all his friends were heavy smokers and his family has a history of cancer. For him, the correlation and first hand evidence of having worked with agrochemicals his entire life is compelling enough. He wants to leave his sons and daughters with a farm that is free of anything that could do them and their children harm.
Organic coffee costs more because it’s harder to cultivate, the yield is less than its conventional counterpart, and farmers have to pay out-of-pocket to get a stamp of recognition. But if the cost of organic coffee reflected the additional costs incurred to produce it, it would cost easily 2 or 3 times more than it does. The organic Costa Rican coffee farmers I’ve met have not received money or assistance from any of the many charitable sustainability initiatives that exist to help farmers make the sustainability switch. For them, there is no safety net. Some make the switch thinking of their families. Some wouldn’t use chemicals if you paid them; they believe the land the farm is God’s gift and they should care for it with only the materials at hand and appreciate its bounty without causing any harm.
All over Costa Rica people jokingly refer to growing coffee as, “a good way to go broke quick” and to organic coffee as, “a good way to go broke even quicker.” Organic coffee growers are often considered to be half (or more than half) crazy, since they elected to take the tougher lane road of an already tough road. Maybe that’s why I like them.