Cane is King

This week Isabel and I continued to survey coffee producers and visit cafetales (shade coffee plots) while we also began interviewing ex-coffee producers (people who planted coffee but either have stopped harvesting it or never did) and conducting more conversational, open-ended interviews with coffee producers. Additionally, a baby cow was born on the farm and we have officially started to become sick of rice, beans, and soup.

Last week I wrote about the technical problems with shade coffee. This week I’ve learned much more about the social elements constraining it. One of the most common things we heard people say this week was that they don’t have time to work on their cafetales. By this they mean that they don’t weed it, fertilize it, or spray it to control pests and diseases. All they do is simply harvest it when it’s ready. It also means that they’re not willing to give up time from their other crops to dedicate to coffee. “Si carga, carga. Si no carga, no carga.” If it produces, it produces. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. This attitude shows a serious lack of commitment and is also preventing people from seeing the true economic potential of this valuable crop. In our interviews we’ve been asking what people’s main sources of income are, and not one person has mentioned coffee.

Why is this the case? Largely, because of subsistence agriculture and sugarcane. Here in Barrio Nuevo, cane is king. If you look at the valley from a vantage point like I did yesterday, you’ll notice that the landscape is composed almost entirely of three land uses: forest patches, cattle pasture, and sugarcane. Income source is extremely undiversified here. With cattle ranching becoming decreasingly profitable, selling trago (a crude and technically illegal alcohol produced from sugarcane) is virtually the only economic activity here other than working for daily labor. Furthermore, it’s been that way for decades. Sugarcane is what farmers are most familiar with here and for making money it’s their go-to crop. But it’s also a very labor-intensive crop that leaves time for little else. Combined with the high time demands of growing their own household food, people do not have time to experiment with a new crop. Hence, most farmers, including small-scale coffee producers, are not willing to make this leap of faith. People here definitely view sugarcane as more profitable than coffee and complain that coffee takes three years to start to produce, while sugarcane only takes up to two. There is no doubt that shade coffee, with dedication from the farmer, can produce more money per area than sugarcane and is immensely better for wildlife and soil fertility, but currently there are very few farmers willing to give more than a half-hearted effort.

I think that part of the reason for people’s hesitation isn’t just coffee’s weaknesses, but the lack of a perceived problem with conventional agriculture. While as an outsider, the negative ecological effects of sugarcane and cattle ranching are painfully obvious to me, not to mention it’s failure to lift people out of poverty, the farmers here do not seem to perceive these issues. Perhaps if they did, they would be more inclined to transition to an alternative crop system. For now, they seem content to continue farming the way they are.

To wrap up, here’s a quick summary of what we’ve learned so far. Coffee itself is a delicate and needy crop that requires more farmer dedication than is currently being offered. There were definitely flaws with the project that initiated shade coffee in Barrio Nuevo, and the foremost appears to be inadequate preparation and training of the farmers. It seems that they expected to be able to make a lot of money with little work, and therefore were disappointed with the results. Last, there is a strong lack of motivation to switch from the conventional form of agriculture, despite their side-effects. These problems are all large and somewhat discouraging in the sense that one person can only do one thing to change them. Still, it’s important to remember that it’s necessary to understand the problems before attempting solutions.

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