September 17, 2020 – by Andy Gaertner
Editor’s note: Farm Table purchases coffee from Farmer to Farmer. Located in western Wisconsin and founded in 1989, Farmer to Farmer is a solidarity-based organization. They work directly with family coffee farmers, buying their organic coffee directly for an above fair trade price.
Andy will be teaching a class for Farm Table on Tuesday, November 10, on coffee and climate change. Learn more and register here.
It all comes back to clean water.
Coffee is grown in mountainous areas in tropical countries. The best coffee grows at an altitude of about 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) above sea level. In central Honduras, wide valleys divide the region’s many mountain ranges. Rivers flow down those mountains, bringing water to the valleys, where millions of people use the water for irrigation, to meet household needs, and to provide hydroelectric power. Without the mountain water, central Honduras would be uninhabitable. With the water, it is an oasis for humans, agriculture, and wildlife.
When clouds come in off the north coast of Honduras, they encounter the mountain ranges which block their advance; the moisture from the clouds condenses on the mountain forests’ leafy surfaces: on the trees, ferns, and mosses. These forests are known as cloud forests because they capture so much of this horizontal precipitation. The water sinks down into the aquifers and exits the mountains through springs, forming the rivers which are the country’s lifeblood.
Farmer to Farmer buys all of our Honduran coffee from a co-op called COFEACOMA, which grows coffee on Comayagua Mountain; seven major rivers flow off of the mountain. Its upper reaches, at above 1,800 meters, have been designated a national park in order to protect the cloud forest. Without that forest, the clouds would pass through the area without dropping their precious water, which in turn would dry up the springs.
When communities do not protect the surrounding forests, their springs become seasonal. Worse still, when it does rain, the forests are no longer there to slow down and absorb the rain; the water runs off and causes landslides and floods. A few years ago, a COFEACOMA member lost her daughter and son-in-law to a landslide caused by a freak storm.
Climate Change and Coffee Farming: The cloud forests of central Honduras are vibrant green jewels within a landscape of dry pine forests and semi-desert valleys. Full of wildlife and rich in biodiversity–plants, birds, and insects–these ecosystems are at risk due to climate change which is increasing temperatures in the tropics. As temperatures rise, diseases, once held at bay by the mountain’s cooler temperatures, are beginning to cause problems for coffee growers. As temperatures rise, insects, which used to only be able to cycle through one or two generations in a season, now cycle through three or four generations in the longer, warmer seasons. As temperatures rise, both droughts and floods increase in severity.
Climate change is putting coffee farms at risk in many ways.
One of the ways that farmers are responding to climate change is to move up the mountain, cutting down cloud forests to plant more coffee, even in protected areas. Farmers are planting coffee higher and higher, in places where it used to be too cold to grow. In the end, there may be nothing left to capture the clouds and refill the aquifers. Honduras is already experiencing power outages during the dry season, as the hydroelectric dams receive increasingly less water. Towns in the valleys are rationing potable water, and irrigation canals are drying up.
There is another way. When I and other representatives from Farmer to Farmer visited COFEACOMA farms last January, we saw farms where coffee is grown beneath shade trees, in the forests. The farmers are protecting the springs on their farms and creating cool, shady microclimates. Rather than cutting down the cloud forests above their villages, these farmers actively protect their wildlands which in turn protects their own water sources.
It really does all come back to this precious water. Plants cool themselves by transpiring and releasing water into the atmosphere to create a microclimate around them. Where coffee is grown organically under shade trees, the air nearby is cooled by this transpiration effect. Those same shade trees can fulfill some of the functions of the cloud forest, by slowing down rainfall, catching vapor from clouds, and allowing it all to sink into the aquifer and then be recycled through transpiration. Coffee farmers in COFEACOMA plan their farms so they mimic a natural forest. Every time Farmer to Farmer members visit one of their farms, we notice how cool it is in the coffee plots, compared to the open air nearby. Their work imitating nature also yields a better tasting coffee.
COFEACOMA farmers are also teaching each other organic growing methods in order to keep their plants healthy and better able to resist disease and insect pressure. Growing coffee organically can help them resist the worst impacts of climate change.
Pressures on Coffee Growers: Coffee prices worldwide have been at a standstill for the last twenty years. Even as growers’ expenses have increased, and as climate change has affected yields, prices have stayed stubbornly low. To combat low prices, and make up for decreased revenue, farmers worldwide plant more and more coffee. Wherever possible, big coffee farms invest in mechanized harvesting equipment. While this might be a solution on the scale of a single farm, it has been a disaster for prices globally, keeping prices low even as worldwide demand rises. It has also been a disaster for the remaining cloud forests of Central America and all the clean water those forests provide.
Decreased coffee prices, combined with increased pressure from disease and insects, often force small farms to sell to big farms. Low coffee prices can depress an entire region’s economy. As a result, families move to the cities. Honduran cities are dangerous, so many people try to emigrate to the United States. These people could be accurately called “climate refugees;” had the climate been stable, the wealth earned from coffee might have kept them on their farms. The climate refugee situation will only get worse, because most of the mountainous areas in Honduras are not high enough to allow farmers to continue to move to higher elevations. Some predictions have suitable coffee land in Honduras shrinking by 40 percent by 2050.[i]
Farmer to Farmer’s Work: Farmer to Farmer is committed to paying above fair trade prices. We can do so because we purchase directly from the farmers who hand-pick their coffee on steep hillsides which will never be able to be machine harvested. These farmers select only the best beans and dry them in hoop houses on screens to maintain the best flavor profile. Each farm’s coffee is kept separate in microlots, because each part of the mountain yields a coffee bean with its own unique flavor.
In addition to paying farmers a premium, Farmer to Farmer is a nonprofit organization. We return income from our coffee sales to these farming communities through supporting young people’s educational needs.
People in the United States can do more. We are responsible for a disproportionate amount of carbon emissions. We drive a lot. We live in big homes that we heat and cool primarily by burning fossil fuels. We consume food that is grown using chemical fertilizers made using natural gas. We eat a lot of meat and dairy, which has a large carbon footprint. We travel by airplane. Our recreation often involves burning fossil fuels. We are causing global climate change, affecting people in Honduras and other tropical countries. They are experiencing more droughts, more floods, and unpredictable growing conditions.
We can do more. What will you do?
Farmer to Farmer is a 501(c)3 nonprofit. For more information, and to purchase their coffee, click here. Located in western Wisconsin, with members throughout the U.S., Farmer to Farmer has worked in Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador, and Guatemala. Their current work is focused in Guatemala and Honduras. The organization works directly with family coffee farmers, buying their organic coffee directly for an above fair trade price. The profits from the coffee sales go back to the farmers and help support various projects, including school scholarships for students in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.