In a context of extremely low coffee prices and uncertain weather conditions due to climate change, coffee producers take on risk with every investment in their farms.
One way to reduce this risk and increase stability is to diversify your crops. By choosing to grow other plants alongside coffee, you can better your chances of earning a living income even when coffee prices are low.
Read on to learn more about how to implement crop diversification and what benefits it can provide.
Lee este artículo en español Diversificar Cultivos: ¿Ayuda Contra Los Precios Bajos Del Café?
Beekeepers at Finca Vizcaya, in the Jalapa department of Guatemala. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
What Is Crop Diversification?
Crop diversification simply means growing additional crops or using additional cropping systems alongside the core crop. Intercropping is the practice of sowing complementary crops on the same land.
Coffee farmers have done this informally for a long time. Perhaps it’s even something you do without really recognising it as crop diversification. Martin Mayorga, CEO and founder of Mayorga Organics, highlights how producers often plant other crops when their coffee farms are young.
“In the first two years, a lot of coffee trees aren’t generating any income. People plant beans until the coffee trees really take hold,” he says.
But in the face of low coffee prices and unstable weather patterns, you may want to establish a more structured system of crop diversification.
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Healthy coffee trees at Finca La Labor in Guatemala. Credit: Ana Valencia
The Benefits of Diversifying Your Crops
Growing additional crops has a number of benefits for your bottom line and for the environment.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) states that “Through crop diversification, farming households can spread production and income risk over a wider range of crops, thus reducing livelihood vulnerability to weather or market shocks. Moreover, depending on the crop combination, crop diversification can produce agronomic benefits in terms of pest management and soil quality, among other things.”
In simple terms, by growing more than coffee, you can have an additional source of income. And because the additional crop is probably not traded in the same way as coffee, it may be more stable.
The variety of plants that come with crop diversity can also have benefits for your farm, including providing different nutrients to the soil and creating habitats for beneficial insects, which may reduce pests.
A Colombian farm with coffee and bananas.
Daniela Santos is a Guatemalan producer who received the Mayorga Scholarship to attend the 2019 Producer & Roaster Forum, an event that brings together coffee farmers and roasters in a different producing country each year. She tells me that in Guatemala, “many producers have implemented sowing banana and avocado plants that generate shade and organic matter to coffee plants. Others prefer to plant timber or fruit trees.”
If you grow fruit, vegetables, or grains that are in demand locally, or if you have access to an international market for them, you can supplement the income from your coffee production. Even when coffee prices are good, an extra fruit or vegetable harvest between coffee harvests can ease the stress of waiting for the next coffee payment.
“Producers who produce a single crop such as coffee are very exposed to price variations,” Daniela says. “Therefore, it’s important to diversify crops, since it is both an economic benefit and a source of food for the producers themselves.”
Some farmers choose to diversify with livestock such as chickens, cattle, or bees. Each of these has its own expenses and requires a good knowledge of animal welfare, hygiene standards, and the legal requirements of selling food products. But if you’re comfortable with these added responsibilities, they can provide additional income and stability.
Papayas grow on a tree.
Martin spoke about the benefits of crop diversification in a speech at the 2019 Producer & Roaster Forum. “It’s income diversification, which will give producers income stability and different income sources that will stabilise their livelihoods,” he said during the presentation.
In addition to helping you handle the impact of low coffee prices, this stability can potentially fund farm improvements and expansion. If you know you have an income each month from honey, avocados, or oranges, you can factor this into your cash flow and perhaps avoid taking out loans for improvements.
Crop diversification can also improve your yield because different plants provide different nutrients to the soil. A 2016 report on crop diversification and livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe states that “well-managed soils help lower pest pressure, optimize water use by plants, and improve overall crop yields.”
It continues to say that crop diversification has a “positive impact to climate change effects through the ability of local flora (as opposed to monoculture) to hold carbon thus generating less carbon dioxide.”
When new crops are introduced, you may also notice more wildlife, including insects and birds that feed on common pests such as coffee borer beetle.
Avocado trees at Fazenda São Francisco in São Paulo, Brazil. Credit: Julio Guevara
Obstacles to Crop Diversification
So, why don’t more producers diversify and what are the difficulties with growing several crops?
Martin says that it’s about access to markets and that smallholder producers often simply don’t have the capital to try new crops. “It’s a financial gamble. You have to have a financial backdrop to cushion anything that happens,” he says.
“I think you have to lead with the market, identify the market, the supply chain, and then take the risk, which will be much less once you have those other things… Unless you have a buyer in the conversation, be very careful about jumping into diversification,” he says.
So before making any significant investment in new crops, make sure you’re not only familiar with how to grow and harvest them, but with their market.
Is there a demand for the product and does the price paid leave you with a profit after your production cost? Remember to factor in hidden costs such as transporting your fruit or vegetables to the buyer and any additional labour needed to plant, maintain, and harvest the crops.
Cacao pods at San José El Real in El Salvador. Credit: Miguel Regalado
How to Introduce Crop Diversification
You don’t necessarily have to invest a large amount to introduce some diversification. Many producers already diversify on a small scale, but don’t look at these crops as potential income.
Martin says, “They happen to have bananas or oranges on the farm, but they don’t think of it as a commercial opportunity. [Producers often don’t consider] that they could harvest these and sell them, even just locally.”
Do you already grow fruit, vegetables, or raise livestock? Is there a local market for these products and can you expand your growth without making major investments? If you don’t already diversify, perhaps you could try new crops on a small scale. This can help you fully understand the efforts included and get to know the market without risking a lot of cash.
“Once you have a good model, then you can scale,” Martin says.
A beekeeper at Finca Vizcaya, in the Jalapa department of Guatemala. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
Evaluate your own strengths and the local environment, both in terms of physical features and climate and local culture and market. Martin suggests asking yourself “What are my assets?“ and “How do I best leverage those assets to maximise my income?”
He also advises developing unique and marketable products. What can your products offer than others can’t? A good example is honey made by bees that feed on coffee flowers. This is a natural extension of a coffee farm but is a unique selling point that may appeal to international buyers.
Martin also advises making use of the space you have without reducing coffee plantations or buying more land. “You already have your coffee. Within that [land] you could possibly grow ginger or turmeric,” he says, “…and then there’s external areas where you could grow beans or corn… or you could do a few colmenas [beehives] for bees to do honey… You’re really creating a portfolio for the farm,” he says.
Coffee and bananas grow on a Colombian farm.
Crop diversification is not a new idea, but it’s an increasingly relevant and sustainable way to operate a farm. By adding new crops, you can potentially increase your income, gain financial stability, and help create better biodiversity on your land.
Don’t rush into buying large amounts of new crops, but consider whether you can add small amounts of products that you have identified a market for and see whether it’s worth expanding outside of coffee.
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