November 25, 2016

Specialty or Commodity? How Brazilian Farmers Choose

“I want to farm specialty coffee,” Eder says. “But my brother doesn’t want to.”

We’re driving up a bumpy road in the Caparaó region of Brazil. Squashed in the car with me are several coffee champions – Tetsu Kasuya, WBC; Lem Butler, USBC; Todd Goldsworthy, US Brewers Cup Champion, and more. It’s the Ally Coffee Champion’s Tour, a trip around twelve different Brazilian farms that Ally Coffee works with.

The majority of the farms we’re visiting produce specialty coffee. But as we explore the different regions of Brazil, we hear more and more about how difficult it is for producers to choose between commodity and specialty. And some have no choice at all.

Spanish Version: ¿Especialidad o Convencional? Cómo Eligen Los Productores Brasileños

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A worker at Ninho da Águia rakes coffee cherries.

Why Take The Risk?

Eder has two jobs. Cris Mourão of Ally Coffee tells me that most farmers in the region do. Profit margins are low and farms are small. “This area has a lot of potential,” he adds, “but it’s difficult to do specialty.”

Farmers are wary. Land here is expensive, as is labour. Cris explains that minimum wage works out to R$800 ($230 US, €223, £190) a week. With such a high labour cost, selective picking or hand-sorting cherries is a hefty investment.

The one-hectare farm we’re driving to see, Fazenda Serra, belongs to the Marquinhos family. They don’t hire any pickers; they can’t afford to. Instead, the husband-and-wife team work alone. They start at 7 am and finish at 7 pm during the harvest. The land is steep, at 1,050-1,200 m.a.s.l., so they have to go slowly.

Is it worth it? For them, yes. They harvest 20–30 bags which Ricardo Pereira, Ally Coffee’s Director of Specialty Coffee, tells me received a cupping score of 86 last year.

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Red Catuai dries on raised beds at Fazenda Serra.

Yet others worry that it’s not worth the risk. They need money quickly. And even if they invest in farming specialty, who knows if it will pay off?

Cris tells me that there aren’t many specialty buyers in Caparaó. Farmers in the past have tried growing high-quality coffee but nobody turned up to buy it. After investing so much of their time and money in their crop, they had to sell it at commodity prices.

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Bagged coffee cherries at Fazenda Serra.

Early Specialty Adopters Lead The Way

However, Cris tells me that more and more farmers are choosing specialty. Ally Coffee leads workshops and promises to bring clients, which helps the movement.

So does Clayton Barossa Monteiro. He was one of the first in the area to adopt specialty practices, and the decision paid off for him. His farm, Ninho da Águia, won Coffee of the Year Brasil in 2014 and 2015. He’s seen great growth. And he wants to encourage other farmers to make the change.

Clayton is well-respected in Caparaó. When Ally Coffee held a producer party at a local restaurant, they invited him to give a speech. After loud applause, he spoke about adopting practices like raised beds and selective sorting. Cris tells me that when other producers see his increased profits, they realise that specialty can work for them.

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The trophies Ninho da Águia has received.

Paul owns farms, all of which focus on commodity-grade coffee. He produces 6,000–10,000 bags a year. But when he takes us to see his coffee drying, there are a few lonely raised beds at the far end of the patio. It’s an experiment.

“He was very resistant to change,” Ricardo explains. “We’ve been talking to him about it for a year and a half. But when he heard about Clayton, he was more open to it.”

Eder, our driver, has come to a similar arrangement with his brother: they are setting a small area of their farm aside for specialty farming practices. If this test patch proves to successful, then maybe they will start adopting these methods for their entire farm.

SEE ALSO: Interview with James Tooill: Brazil Is the Future of Specialtydrying-coffee-2

Coffee drying on Paul’s experimental raised beds.

Specialty: The Only Safe Choice?

For some producers, however, specialty isn’t a risk. It’s the only option they have.

Fazenda Tres Barras is a small farm of 1,500 trees. The producers, Sandrinho and his mother, are the only people working there. They invest heavily in producing high-quality coffee, and although they cannot afford organic certification, they choose to farm organically anyway. Doing this, Sandrinho believes, increases his coffee’s quality. The farm uses raised beds, and Sandinho wants to build twice as many for next year.

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Raised beds in use at Fazenda Tres Barras.

It sounds brave, but they have no other choice. At 1,275 m.a.s.l. with a steep incline, building raised beds is cheaper than creating a concrete patio. And when the farm only produces 30–50 bags a year, commodity-grade prices wouldn’t cover the costs of cultivation.

Fortunately, the farm sees a strong profit. Last year’s coffee had a cup score of 88. Ally Coffee pays premium prices for 84+, 86+, 88+, and 90+ coffees – meaning that Sandrinho and his mother earned twice as much as they would have for commodity-grade coffee.

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Coffee dries on Sitio Colina do Alto, a farm run by two brothers, Manolo and André.

For us, the choice between specialty and commodity coffee is simple. We know that specialty tastes better and consumers are willing to pay more for it. Yet for producers, it’s a far more difficult decision.

And every farmer has different concerns.

Smaller farmers know that there is more to gain but more to lose. Specialty can work for them – but if it doesn’t, they are extremely vulnerable. Seeing other farmers succeed, working with an importer who is invested in long-term relationships: these are the things that can persuade them it’s worth the risk.

When I speak to Ricardo about the C market, on which commodity coffee is traded, he’s vehement. He wants every farm to be specialty. So long as people still want to buy cheap coffee, that remains impossible. Yet for now, more and more farmers in Caparaó are choosing specialty.

With thanks to Ricardo Pereira and Cris Mourão of Ally Coffee and all the farmers who hosted us on our trip.

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