February 1, 2018

The Reality of Producing Specialty Coffee on Tiny Farms


Imagine owning a farm so small that you cannot receive practical help – even though, with the low profit margins and high costs of coffee production, you probably need it even more than bigger plantations.

For many producers around the world, this is their reality.

In fact, I’m one of those producers – I like to call us “microscopic coffee farmers.” I’m a 60-year-old Canadian but I’ve lived almost half my life in Panama, where I now own a small farm. And I’ve been working with neighboring farmers to improve our situation through access to the specialty market. Read on to discover a microscopic farmer’s perspective of our challenges, and how we’re trying to overcome them.

Learn more! Read about The Main Challenges Faced by Coffee Producers

Coffee cherries

Ripe coffee cherries in a basket. Credit: Finca de Dios

The Two Faces of Panama Coffee

Panama may be famous for its exquisite Geisha coffee, but in the isolated region of Barreta, Coclé, things look very different.

Most exported specialty-grade coffee comes from Chiriquí, with its well-established farmlands, tall mountains, and cloud forests. It’s here that you’ll find the big names within Panama’s coffee industry: Hacienda La Esmeralda, for example, which brought Geisha to the world’s attention and just last year sold a lot for US $601/lb in auction.

Learn more! Read Panama Geisha – The Reality of a Fantasy Bean

In Chiriquí, many farms are thirty to fifty hectares in size but, of course, you will also find smallholder farmers. Farms usually start at around five hectares in size; even at ten hectares in size, they can be considered small.

Many of these small farms are family-owned, passed down from generation to generation. The coffee trees are often wonderful to look at; the producers are a credit to all coffee farmers. Some of them have been producing fantastic coffee for over 100 years.

Despite that, due to their small size, they may struggle to grow enough coffee to compete on their own, nationally or internationally.

Yet here in Barreta, it’s even harder. Farms aren’t small; they’re microscopic. The average producer owns one to three hectares, and most of this land doesn’t produce anything. The largest farms are no more than eight hectares, with perhaps just 50% of that used for growing coffee.

In my work here in Barreta, I partner with a Panamanian named Alvaro. At the time of our project’s beginning, his average annual income was just US $400 – less than US $35 a month. And while I cannot find any official data on this, Alvaro tells me that many others didn’t earn as much as him.

Coffee flower

Coffee flowers. Credit: Bird Friendly Coffee

Poor Prices, Low Investment: A Spiralling Situation

Much of Barreta’s coffee has historically gone to large national coffee companies who would combine lots from multiple farms and then sell them on. The result of this is extremely low coffee prices; before I arrived, I’m told it was only US $1/lb in the region.

And remember, the people in Barreta are not producing much coffee. They still have all the farm expenses, but without any hope of profiting. Many producers couldn’t afford to maintain their farm, so had to let them go. The area produced less and less each year. And in turn, the farmers earned less and less, creating a downwards spiral.

Coffee leaf rust, a fungus that infects the leaves of coffee trees and slowly destroys them, became a huge problem. I would say that, in our area, it wiped out about 90% of the plants.       

leaf rust

 A farm slowly dies as a result of coffee leaf rust. Credit: Damian Reed

The people here live in extreme poverty. The area is isolated with poor infrastructure. The only road in and out has been badly neglected. It’s been four years since a road grader last passed over it.

Read more! How Poor Roads Cause Problems for Papua New Guinea’s Coffee

A medical team comes to the area once every two months. We’ve had babies die because their families couldn’t get them to the hospital on time. I know one family whose ten-year-old boy was bitten by a poisonous viper and didn’t get to the hospital until three days later. Fortunately, he recuperated well. My partner’s wife gave birth to their son at the coffee mill, with no one present except for my partner and her. Happily, their son was a healthy bouncing baby boy who loves coffee.

Coffee farmer

Alvaro and his son Alex on the coffee farm. Credit: Damian Reed  

The 7 Biggest Challenges Facing Microscopic Farmers

When Alvaro and I started working together, we realised that we had seven main challenges to overcome:

1. The Quality Challenge

Our goal, since 2008, has been to convert Barreta into a specialty coffee region. Not everyone believed it was possible. I reached out to other producers in other regions, including those from The Best of Panama auction and awards. Yet some of the people I spoke to felt that my goals weren’t possible, not here in Barreta. Only Chiriquí, I heard again and again, could produce specialty-grade coffee. Fortunately, we were able to prove this myth wrong.

2. The Farmland Challenge

I would say that the average farm here produces coffee on approximately 50% of its land. Producers need to help their plants recuperate, both in terms of health and number. However, all this costs money. A farmer who has an average income of US $400 a year doesn’t have much spare for farm investment. On top of that, it takes years for plants to produce at maximum yield.

Basket of coffee

A basket full of coffee cherries.

3. The Training Challenge

Although many local producers have worked their whole lives in coffee, they haven’t been trained in the most up-to-date and recommended farming methods. Information has been hard to access. However, the US-run volunteer programme Peace Corps and government initiatives have helped local producers to learn about best practices.

In our case, we arranged for Alvaro, my partner, to receive training in Costa Rica. We also hired consultants to come and inspect the farms and impart instruction. Now, Alvaro passes on his training to everyone who is willing to learn. We strive to teach by example.

4. The Trust Challenge

There is little local trust in initiatives and companies. People feel that government initiatives have been too short-term and ineffective. The low prices offered by commodity buyers have left producers disillusioned.

5. The Marketing & Sales Challenge

This is perhaps the most difficult challenge of all. If the producer cannot sell their coffee at a sustainable price, everything else is for nothing. Yet many organizations and government agencies fail to mention marketing.

As for sales, when operating on such a small scale, we need to be creative. I do not believe that producers with land as tiny as ours can profit when selling green coffee or even roasted coffee in supermarkets. The most feasible method of making a sustainable income is to sell by the cup – but that takes serious planning and investment.

Red coffee cherry

Coffee cherries ripen on the branch. Credit: Carmen Estate Coffee

6. The Infrastructure Challenge

Specialty-grade coffee requires proper procedures, especially during processing. When it comes to building a good mill, you need to find the right piece of land, construct the building, get the equipment, obtain the permits, and train employees. For microscopic farmers, these are hard to afford.

Similarly, there’s the issue of good roads. Even once you have a mill, some farms can be as far as a two-hour walk away from it. Many farmers carry sacks of soaking wet coffee beans on their backs in the mud and rain across the mountains after harvesting coffee all day. This is not how you produce good-quality coffee and it’s certainly not how you produce sustainable coffee or a good quality of life.

7. The Organizational Challenge

One of the first things we tried to do was create a cooperative. A good cooperative can solve a lot of problems: producers can band together to create mills, market their coffee, and negotiate prices. Unfortunately, our attempts didn’t succeed. Like any team or group, running a cooperative is hard work and relies on the cooperation and shared goals of all members.

Coffee bean

Washed coffee beans dry slowly on raised beds.

What Does The Future Hold for Barreta?

Microscopic farmers like myself can produce an exceptional product – but we often need support or the right resources to do so.

Barreta is proof of that. Alvaro and I have seen great progress: our coffee has been Q-graded at 85.5, 86, and 87 points for the past three years, respectively. Producing specialty-grade coffee on an extremely small farm is possible.

Q grader results

Q grader results on one of Damian and Alvaro’s lots; the overall score was 86.

The only challenge is making it profitable. Our marketing strategies are varied. We sell our coffee in packages at fairs and through friends in different towns and in restaurants. We also sell it by the cup in vending machines. In this way, we’re gaining recognition for our product.

We don’t yet earn viable wages, but we are able to maintain our farms. As quality continues to grow, as we can invest more in infrastructure, and as we find new ways to market and sell our coffee, we hope to see this improve.

We constantly strive to find an opportunity to market our products effectively. And at the very least, we get to drink great coffee.

Many organizations do wonderful work helping smallholder farmers earn a better living. But we mustn’t overlook the producers who are even smaller and whose challenges are even harder.

Liked this article? You might also enjoy The Complicated Role of Money in Specialty Coffee

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