High coffee prices inflict unexpected consequences on Colombian coffee farms

Colombian coffee prices
  • The price of coffee jumped to a high of $2.58/lb this year
  • Most pickers in Colombia are paid in cash, which poses a risk when wages rise
  • Criminal groups target vulnerable workers when more money is circulating

WHEN THE price of coffee is high, many see it as cause to celebrate. But for coffee farmers in Colombia, it can lead to a number of unwanted consequences, putting their livelihoods and those of their workers at risk.

The price of coffee is notoriously volatile. Between February and March 2022, it fell from a high of $2.58/lb to a low of $1.91/lb, before jumping back up to $2.36/lb just a few days later.

According to Elvia Molina, who owns three family-run farms in the coffee-growing region of Antioquia, the upshot of these fluctuations are often unseen in the industry – but can have both long and short term impacts for coffee communities.

“Paradoxically, high coffee prices come at a high cost to producers,” she says. “It changes the dynamic because more money is circulating.”

One of the issues concerns the nature of payments on Colombian coffee farms. Most pickers receive their salaries in cash, which means, when prices and, in turn, wages, rise they end up carrying around substantially more money on their person.

Efforts to switch to electronic payments have been largely unsuccessful due to the status of many pickers, who are yet to claim permanent residency in the country.

“When their weekly wages jump from 20,000 pesos to 30,000 or 40,000 pesos, of course, it becomes more dangerous for them,” Elvia says. “But while we have tried to introduce electronic payments, the pickers don’t usually accept them because they don’t want to legalise the transaction.”

And it’s not just paranoia – criminal groups in different regions have increasingly taken advantage of price rises to target the most vulnerable.

According to Elvia, in the southeast of Colombia, many of the pickers have a dependence on illegal drugs. When wages are higher, they can afford to buy more, which has encouraged these criminal groups to cash in on the additional money by dealing around the farms.

The cost of labour shortages

Scarcity of manual labour is a day-to-day problem for Colombian coffee producers.

Very rarely are there enough workers to operate across all farms. In most cases, they have to travel from one farm to another in a single day to ensure that the cherries are collected on time. When the price of coffee rises, it only adds to the challenges.

“I’ve been into the local towns to search for people who can help us pick coffee,” Elvia says. “But it’s impossible to find sufficient manual labourers to work on all the farms. I have farms with their own microclimates, which means the coffee has to be collected at different times.

“This involves transporting all the workers in a truck at the crack of dawn, taking them to the farm, collecting the coffee, and returning.

“On top of the higher wage demands, this significantly drives up the costs – not just financially, but emotionally and physically.”