Story by Beth Krietsch
Photography by Michael Medoway (for Chameleon Cold Brew)
Thirty-three-year-old Edilmer Rojas Suarez’s coffee farm sits 1360 meters above sea level in San Ignacio, Peru—one of thirteen provinces that make up the Cajamarca region, a lush, mountainous area in Peru’s northern highlands where coffee farming is an important economic driver and supports the livelihoods of thousands.
In certain pockets of the world, climate, elevation, and other factors align to form the perfect recipe for coffee production. Cajamarca is one of those places, a region where it seems specialty coffee is meant to be grown. With high altitudes, fertile soil, ideal temperatures, and a climate that’s been historically semi-dry, coffee farms known for producing high-quality Arabica coffee dot the hillsides, each doing its part to contribute to the region’s status as Peru’s leading exporter of coffee in terms of value.
But though the land is fertile and dense with coffee producers dedicated to the art and science of their craft, climate change has made coffee farming in the region significantly more challenging in recent years. Unexpected rains and warmer temperatures are now the norm, which make the drying process more challenging and detract from the quality of coffee that farmers produce. Leaf rust, known in the region as la roya, and problems with pests are also increasingly problematic as temperatures rise. Frosts are a concern, too.
For these smallholder farmers who invest so much in their coffee crop, a sudden rainstorm or a brush with la roya can have devastating consequences. When coffee crops are wiped out, so is a farmers income. When quality goes down, so might a farmer’s pay. Living in one of the poorest regions of Peru, these farmers rely on their income from coffee sales not only to sustain their farms but also to feed their families, send their children to school, cover transportation costs, and other essentials that fall far closer to needs than wants.
To understand what coffee farming brings to the local community, consider Jose Garcia Moreto, who started farming after buying a piece of land in the region. At first, he farmed cocoa in addition to coffee, and would sell his coffee in very small amounts. Once his farm matured and he became involved in Cenfrocafe, a well-regarded local cooperative, his farm has became profitable enough to allow him to do things like send his son to school and employ others in the community.
“I feel happy because when my friends come over I can give them work,” Moreta said. “It’s how we earn money. It’s the way we make a living.”
Coffee farming is always risky. Even in the best conditions, there’s plenty of room for error. But as the climate changes and seasonal weather patterns become less consistent or altogether different, a farmer’s ability to produce a quality product is even less of a guarantee. Suddenly, plenty of new variables are thrown into play and navigating them is far from straight forward.
When the dry season gets wetter
Cajamarca’s coffee harvesting season in years past was mainly dry, allowing farmers to lay their coffee beans out to slowly and evenly dry under the hot sun for weeks at a time, giving each bean time to reach the correct moisture level needed for storage and shipping. But changing weather patterns mean rain storms are now common during the times of year when coffee must be laid out to dry—and a sudden rainstorm can have devastating effects. The point of drying is to allow the coffee to achieve a certain moisture content, which is closely tied to the coffee’s quality. When drying coffee beans get wet, moisture content changes, quality is affected, flavor can be lost, and cup defects are more likely.
But that’s not all. Excessive rains during the harvest can cause the coffee cherries to take on too much water and eventually burst, or fall to the ground, which, again, can drastically reduce quality or even make the fruit unusable.
Suarez knows the effects of changing rain patterns all too well. “It has been nothing but rain during the harvest season,” he said, adding that the climate and temperature have made it harder to dry coffee in a way that maintains quality. He is able to use a dryer that’s owned by Cenfrocafe, but the dryer is shared among many members of the cooperative and therefore not always accessible. Yet he’s still grateful that the dryer is available through Cenfrocafe, which helps its members produce the best possible organic and fair trade coffee by providing various mechanisms of support like technical assistance, loans, farm inputs, economic and leadership training, and professional development.
Like many in the region, Suarez’s farm is a family affair. He tends the land on a parcel that originally belonged to his father, who is now in his eighties. Suarez finds joy in producing a quality product that provides income to support him and his family.
“It’s arduous work that has to be done, but we are getting it done,” Suarez said. “We are doing what’s possible to reach expectations and better ourselves.”
Yet the weather worries him. Each harvest season seems to get wetter and wetter. “There is hardly a timeframe of continuous heat in regards to the drying process of the coffee,” Suarez said.
He is optimistic that access to a mechanical dryer will allow him and his family to maintain the quality and taste of the coffee they produce. “That is what we are trying to accomplish as a family from here on out.”
San Ignacio coffee producer and agronomy student Jawin Robinson Garcia Guaman has felt the impact of changing weather patterns as well, particularly in terms seasons that aren’t as predictable as in the past and the lower quality coffee that often results.
“Today the client asks us for quality in the cup of coffee, physical quality,” he said. “So, then with this, we can no longer achieve that. Why? Because the months of August and September are supposed to be summer. But now we have rain.”
That’s not the worst of it though. Producing at lower altitudes, those somewhere around 1000 meters above sea level or lower, is increasingly less plausible due to the threat of droughts that can wipe out an entire crop. To continue farming, producers in these regions need to relocate to higher altitudes.
La roya: A constant concern
La roya is an ever-present concern for Arabica coffee producers not only in Cajamarca, but throughout the world. Once this dreaded fungus strikes, it spreads unsparingly from plant to plant, sometime’s wiping out a farm’s production entirely. Even when la roya doesn’t destroy all trees on a farm, it’s not uncommon for it to degrade the quality of the beans produced.
As one would assume, the impact on a producer can be nearly immediate. When the coffee disappears, so does the income it generates. The results are even worse for farmers who borrowed money at the start of the season to help finance things like food for their family and farming inputs they hoped would allow them to produce higher quality coffee, because the income needed to repay their loans has been cut off. Further, how is a farmer to buy new coffee plants to start over, if all their income has been lost?
Previously, many coffee varietals were immune to la roya and other fungal problems because they were grown in mountainous regions at altitudes that were too cold for the fungus to live. But as global temperatures rise, so do temperatures in Cajamarca, and many coffee varietals are no longer immune to leaf rust. This includes catimor, a varietal grown by many of the region’s farmers. Now, really only the highest altitudes are safe.
Guaman had no issues with la roya until sometime around 2012, but since then it’s been a problem. At one point the damage got so bad his family didn’t have a crop to sell for two years. They had to replant coffee trees and saw a significant loss in income that added up to 20,000 soles, or $6,000 in U.S. dollars.
On the whole, leaf rust hasn’t devastated Cajamarca as badly as many other countries and regions, but it’s still an issue and no farmer is immune. Perched in the foothills of the Andes, many of Cajamarca’s farms sit at an elevation that’s high enough to be out of harm’s way, for now at least. And producers and farmer groups are doing their best to prevent future outbreaks by growing varieties like Marsellesa, Parainema, and H1 that combine rust resistant properties with high quality and yield. There’s also a deliberate focus on reacting quickly when la roya is detected. For example, from the moment it’s spotted, Cenfrocafe works with farmers to keep the leaf rust from spreading to other trees.
Unseasonal rains, coffee leaf rust, and the stress of making enough money to support their land and their families aren’t the only problems for these farmers—pests, such as the coffee borer beetle, are a concern too. Guaman said the borer beetle was particularly problematic in 2015, especially in the warmer lower altitudes. It degraded quality immensely on some farms, to the point where producers had to sell their coffee at extremely low prices. In some situations, cooperatives wouldn’t even accept the coffee because the quality was too low, Guaman said.
He worked with Cenfrocafe at the time to help trap and reduce the number of coffee borer beetles with the help of sex attractants. “One week later these containers were full to the brim,” he said. “They were full of borer beetles.” The cooperative set out to continue trapping the borer beetles on other farms, but ran into trouble when not all farmers participated. But still, they saw their efforts as a start nonetheless, and the crop the following year was much more successful. Cenfrocafe has continued to support farmers by helping them access ecological controllers when needed.
Managing coffee sales in a changing climate
Typically, cooperatives and farmer groups project how much coffee they will have available to sell at the end of the harvest, and coffee roasters book the coffee they want to buy months in advance. But the area’s irregular weather patterns make it difficult for a cooperative or farmer to project how much coffee they will have to sell. This leaves them vulnerable to potentially under-selling or over-selling their crop, says Kevin Sullivan, who leads North American sales at Falcon Coffees. Falcon is a sustainable coffee trading company that facilitates the exchange of coffee between farmers, cooperatives, and exporters who are located inside a coffee producing region and roasters on the receiving end. They do a lot of work with Cenfrocafe and other farmers in Cajamarca, and are committed to supporting ethical and transparent supply chains.
Abnormal weather patterns also make it hard to project supply and demand and challenge producers who constantly need to respond to weather patterns and alter their approach to caring for their farms. “This can negatively impact quality, and thus the price can be reduced,” Sullivan said.
Growing coffee amidst a climate in peril
Many of Cajamarca’s farmers continue to persevere and produce high quality organic and fair trade coffee despite these challenges. In fact, this region is known for producing quality coffee for speciality roasters and corporations from Chameleon Cold Brew to Counter Culture and Pret a Manger.
But as far as research goes, the outlook isn’t the most optimistic. A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that by 2050, Latin America will see a 73 to 88 percent reduction in the areas that are suitable for coffee growing due to warming temperatures and the troubles they bring.
And recent research from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) projects that all aspects of the coffee value chain in Peru’s Northeastern coffee producing region, including Cajamarca, will be vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The researchers estimate that production systems will need to change across more than 30% of the current producing areas of this region or farmers may no longer be able to grow coffee by 2030. Maintaining production levels in areas where the coffee tends to grow best, which fall between 1000 and 2000 meters above sea level, will require resilience and adaptability, the report said.
Along with adaptability, researchers say success will depend on specific factors including farmers’ access to seeds, information, and technology, along with implementation of agroforestry techniques.
Moving forward with coffee sustainability in mind
When it comes to the livelihoods of these farmers—the people who produce the coffee that so many of us rely on to make it through each day—sustainability needs to be top of mind for all involved, from the producer to the consumer to the roaster and everyone in between. WIthout a focus on sustainability, there may be no more coffee to sell, to buy, to drink, or to support a future for those dedicate their lives to growing it.
But there’s reason to be optimistic. Lots of projects are happening on the ground in Cajamarca so that farmers can continue to produce high quality coffee even in the face of climate change. Since unseasonal rains are posing some of these farmers’ greatest challenge, implementation of improved drying systems is crucial.
Many local farmers have expressed the need for solar drying beds, which basically consist of a flat wooden platform where coffee beans can be laid to dry, with an arch of plastic tarp that hangs above to let the sun through while protecting the coffee from rainfall’s damaging effects. Some producers have these solar dryers on their farms already, but they’re expensive, costing hundreds of dollars each, and therefore not attainable for many farmers.
One of Cenfrocafe’s biggest areas of focus right now is helping more farmers get access to these drying beds on their farms. They’ve prioritized these drying beds above other needs, knowing how important well-dried coffee is to maintaining the region’s reputation for producing high quality Arabica coffee that scores high enough to be eligible for purchase by specialty roasters.
Some roasters are getting involved too, knowing the sustainability of the region’s coffee production is closely tied to their future. Chameleon Cold Brew, for example, is in the development phase of a project to fund a low-cost, high efficiency drying bed to distribute in partnership with Cenfrocafe, who they work closely with. This project came about after Chameleon leadership met with local Cenfrocafe-affiliated producers and were told that the farmers’ biggest needs are assistance with the dryers and additional food security options.
The project is about helping the farmers maintain their livelihoods while also trying to preserve the future of a crop that roasters rely on to sell to consumers in search of their daily energy boost. If farmers can no longer produce quality coffee, they may stop farming it altogether. And for a company like Chameleon that relies on high-quality organic coffee, ensuring coffee is available to purchase is important.
When producers can’t produce coffee at a certain quality level, or their production is reduced due to environmental reasons, then there is less available coffee to buy for roasters,” said Matt Swensen, Chameleon’s director of coffee. “Taking it a step further, if producers aren’t able to gain sufficient income from their harvest then they are at risk to switch crops to provide for their families.”
In another step to help producers preserve their ability to produce speciality coffee amidst environmental challenges, Chameleon and Cenfrocafe came together to fund a lab in Cajamarca that contains equipment can be used to help farmers obtain feedback on the quality of the coffee they’ve produced—things like processing and drying errors, cherry ripeness and maturity, flavor notes, and more—earlier in the process. So if a farmer is making a simple mistake in the way they are drying their coffee, this can be identified earlier and give them time to adjust rather than waiting for feedback at the end of the harvest, which is the norm for this region.
Meanwhile, a nonprofit research and development organization called World Coffee Research has included northern Peru in a large-scale research trial that spans thousands of farms across 23 countries looking to find which coffee varietals fare best in different parts of the world. Besides improving coffee quality and production, one of the driving goals here is to work towards more sustainable livelihoods for farmers and boost their incomes.
It’s not common for producers or cooperatives to do their own research at this scale, so the program has potential to significantly impact the lives of these farmers in a positive way. And WCR thinks it’s possible, noting that they specifically chose this region because of the high potential to increase its farmers’ coffee quality, yields, and profits.
“If we can show a farmer that they can make a higher profit by using more sustainable practices, that would be an excellent outcome,” said Danielle Knueppel, who is program director of the World Coffee Research’s Global Coffee Monitoring Program. “It is also important for the coffee industry to understand that if we want farmers to use sustainable practices that might cost them more to produce coffee, we will need to pay higher prices to the farmers. It’s the same concept as the organic food we buy in supermarkets. We pay higher prices because the cost of production is higher and we are choosing to support farmers that use sustainable practices.”
Incentivizing youth to stick around
Coffee farming in this region tends to be passed down from generation to generation, but not all young people want to stick around to work the land like those who came before them. In San Ignacio and other rural coffee growing regions, jobs and education can be hard to come by and many youth gravitate toward the pull of cities dreaming and hoping for increased opportunities.
But a recent project by Cenfrocafe has convinced increasing numbers of young people to stay involved in the region’s coffee industry—except their roles aren’t exactly conventional. The project trains youth 15-years-old and up in various aspects of coffee, from quality assurance and quality control to cooperative management and the technical sides of agronomy. As of now, 120 youth are involved in the program, with new members joining each year.
This means that now, even youth who don’t want to pursue typical field-based coffee production roles have the chance to develop specialized skills that let them play an important role in not only sustaining but progressing their local coffee industry.
San Ignacio resident Juan Pablo is the son of a coffee producer and through this program is now training to be a Q grader, which is a high level coffee industry certification awarded by the Coffee Quality Institute to individuals who can thoroughly assess coffee for several different factors like flavor, aroma, fragrance, body, and acidity. Juan Pablo will work in the new quality lab that was mentioned earlier, focusing on testing and sampling to help his community members obtain better feedback on the coffee they produce.
Hope for the future
With all these projects in the works and the continued dedication from the region’s local smallholder farmers, there’s plenty of potential for the future of coffee in Cajamarca. But still, in a time of tremendous climatary shifts and transformation, there really are no guarantees. Do global coffee prices need to rise to help farmers adapt to our changing environment and absorb some of the financial risk that accompanies their livelihoods? Possibly. Will farmers in Cajamarca still be producing coffee in the decades to come? Only time will tell.
About Beth Krietsch
Beth Krietsch is a food and health writer with a masters degree in public health nutrition. These days, she's most interested in how our changing climate is impacting our health and the way we eat. You can find her online at www.bethkrietsch.com and @beth_kri.