January 6, 2017

Producer Insight: Is Organic Coffee Farming Worth the Risk?


Going organic isn’t a decision to take lightly. Coffee farming requires a long-term vision, a thorough understanding of coffee trees, and creativity. Organic coffee farming requires the same things – but in greater doses.

We spoke to Oscar Omar Alonso, a small-scale coffee producer from Honduras who has been working with Café Orgánico Marcala (COMSA) to go organic. It’s not been easy – in fact, he’s seen devastating losses – but he believes it was worth it. Here’s what he had to say.

Spanish Version: Perspectiva del Productor: ¿Vale Arriesgarse Producir Café Orgánico?

Oscar Omar Alonso

Oscar Omar Alonso in front of drying coffee. Credit: Oscar Omar Alonso

A Challenging Industry

“Coffee production does not generate enough in our region, and we have to invest a lot in order to produce. So we have to constantly innovate. We have to invent new ways of increasing our coffee quality,” Oscar says (translated from Spanish to English by A. K. Molina Ospina).

According to The Telegraph, 92% of Honduras’ 110,000 coffee farmers are smallholders. These are particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in the market or bad harvests.

“I grew up in a tough situation. My dad was killed when I was 5 years old and I grew up with my grandmother. It was difficult to make money go far enough, so my family and I had to struggle a lot… We had to practically start from scratch.”

“In 1994, I met Rodolfo Peñalba, [who is now] the General Manager of COMSA.” COMSA is an organic coffee cooperative working towards soil and water conservation, as well as the preservation of local fauna and flora. Soil erosion and water pollution can be serious issues for coffee farmers and for the environment, while biodiversity can provide protection from pests.

“He motivated me… I followed his advice. We need ideas, not money. If we only look for money, not ideas, we get used to spending instead of creating.”

Rodolfo Peñalba of COMSA and Henry Wilson of PDG

Rodolfo Peñalba (left) and Henry Wilson (centre) meet at COMSA.

Moving to Organic

“When I was 6, I planted my first 25 coffee trees,” Oscar tells me. “When I was 25, in 1997, I  planted 1,500 coffee trees in my farm. At that time, I was using chemical fertilizers.”

Then Oscar decided to go organic. He had a deeply held conviction that it would improve his coffee and protect the environment. So, with support from Rodolfo Peñalba, he made the transition.

But the results shocked him.

“I produced 850 quintals [approx. 39,100 kg] of coffee in 2000. But then when I went organic, my crop dramatically decreased to 80 quintals [approx. 3,680 kg]!”  

Decreased production is common with organic coffee farming, but Oscar had lost over 90% of his typical yield. He thought he could not survive – it could never be profitable. He tells me he started to drink and even thought it might be better to die.

coffee plant

Organic farming can lead to lower yields. Credit: Federico Bolanos via Cafe Tuxpal

Finding the Motivation to Continue

It would have been easy for Oscar to give up on organic farming. Instead, he looked for new motivation. He found it in the image of a bicycle.

“When you ride a bike, you’ve got to pedal to move forward. You’ve got to keep going and think about how to maintain your balance, since a bike has no reverse. A bike was my inspiration during the hardest moment of my life,” he says.

Cual bicicleta, “like a bicycle”, became his motto. In fact, he renamed his farm Cual Bicicleta, and feels proud whenever he sells coffee with that label.

cual bicicleta

Cual Bicicleta on the label of a coffee bag. Credit: Oscar Omar Alonso

Trying Experimental Methods

“I am the  first producer in Honduras to use coconut husks, which are rich in minerals, for organic fertilizers,” Oscar says. And it’s this technique that he credits with the great profiles of his coffees.

He produces high-quality micro lots, and tells me that the coconut shells provide them with important minerals and moisture. He will gather the empty husks and bury them at the foot of the coffee trees in the dry season, when the trees need that extra moisture the most.

It took him a long time to discover this technique. Over the years he experimented with different fruits to see what would have the best effect on his crop. But it was coconut shells that, he felt, had the strongest impact.

Oscar Omar Alonso

Oscar Omar Alonso in front of the coconut shells he plans to plant. Credit: Henry Wilson

SEE ALSO: How the Ixil Guatemalans Are Fighting La Roya Organically

Was Going Organic Worth It?

Oscar achieved Fairtrade and Organic certification in 2001. And since then, he says he’s noticed a significant increase in both the quality and price of his coffee over the years. Today, he gets US $325 per quintal, plus an additional 15-25 cent per pound for quality. It’s sold in Taiwan, Korea, the United States, and more, through companies such as Royal Coffee.

This did not happen overnight. It’s taken Oscar 15 years and a lot of hard work to achieve this success. But despite the difficulties, he says that organic coffee production is the best thing he ever did.

Interview conducted by H. Wilson, CEO & Founder of PDG, and A. K. Molina Ospina. 

Royal Coffee is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind. Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the other individuals or bodies mentioned in this article. This interview was conducted, written, and published independently of Royal Coffee.

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