Are roasters gentrifying Colombia’s coffee farms?

colombia's coffee farms
  • Sourcing specialty coffee has become increasingly difficult
  • The purchase of ailing coffee farms has become a long-term solution for those with the resources to invest in them
  • Some warn that it could lead to a loss of culture; but when approached tactfully it can benefit the industry

PROCURING HIGH-QUALITY coffee never used to be a problem for roasters. With few competitors and a wide array of producers all eagerly searching for buyers, the idea that specialty coffee would ever be in short supply was remote.

Yet today, a devastating combination of global unrest, climate change, container shortages, poor harvests, and an ever-growing number of market players means coffee roasters have started to struggle to find a regular supply.

Adding to the problem is rising costs of production for farmers, who have had to spend more on products such as fertiliser and labour. This has driven up costs, putting previously affordable specialty coffee out of reach. Late last year, some coffee roasters complained that profit margins were already being squeezed to breaking point.

For some, the solution has been vertical integration in the form of buying coffee farms. The world’s largest coffee companies have practised this for years – for example, Starbucks purchased Hacienda Alsacia, a 240-hectare coffee farm in Costa Rica, in 2013.

As the difficulties sourcing high-quality coffee continue, smaller players now also see it as an increasingly viable business move. But while it has benefits in terms of providing a ready supply of coffee to roasters, some worry that it could lead to a loss of knowledge and the widespread “gentrification” of coffee farming.

colombia coffee farms

Refurbishing farms

The upkeep of coffee farms is no simple task. Not only do they demand constant attention, from pruning to fertilising, they also require considerable resources and human capital.

Chronically low coffee prices and rising costs of production mean many coffee farms have fallen into disuse in recent years. According to recent estimates, around 5.5 million smallholder coffee farmers globally struggle to hold onto their land, while many have already abandoned them for more profitable ventures. For families who have lived and relied on the land for generations, this can be devastating.

However, while every effort should be made to enable the farm to continue, sometimes this isn’t feasible. Selling to roasters who have the right intentions to keep the farm going and provide a sustainable income for those who work on it can be a good solution.

This is what Johan Ekfeldt, CEO of Gringo Nordic Roasters, a specialty coffee roaster based in Sweden, found when he purchased Finca La Tierra, a 10-hectare farm in Cauca, Colombia. While visiting a friend who owned a number of farms in the region, he was taken to one that had been neglected and fallen into disrepair. He quickly decided to buy it.

“The owner at the time lived in Cali and he wasn’t really invested in the farm,” Johan explains. “It was all very commercial varieties. It had a lot of trees – more than 30,000 – but the farm itself was pretty worn down. It had been neglected the last few years. We had to cut down a lot of the trees and plant new varieties.”

Johan went on several trips to acquire some of the best varieties from Kenya, Ethiopia, Panama, and other parts of Colombia, which he planted at Finca La Tierra. However, he has kept an open mind throughout, intending to learn more than to impose his own ideas.

“I have worked in the coffee industry for more than 25 years and have been to farms all over the world,” he says. “It was time to get my hands dirty. It’s so much more complex than you could ever imagine. Even just paying the pickers in cash involves a lot of logistics.

“There are so many other things to consider. If I didn’t have someone who was there all the time and who I trust 100%, then it would never work.”

colombia coffee pickers

‘It would be a total disaster’

Johan admits that as a roaster with a farm so far from his base in Sweden, his role is predominantly advisory. He cups and scores the coffees, and ensures everyone who works on La Tierra is paid a sustainable income. Otherwise, he leaves the day-to-day management of the farm to those on the ground.

However, there is still some concern that if the purchase of coffee farms becomes the norm, it could push out not only the generations of knowledge that farmers bring, but could also lead to a loss of the culture inherent to many coffee-growing regions.

For example, in Colombia, Green Coffee Company (GCC), which is based in the US, owns 14 coffee farms and claims to be the “world’s largest arabica producer”. Although its mission is to help rejuvenate ailing plots, it has also been accused of removing diversity in place of a homogenous, albeit well-functioning, portfolio of farms.

There is also the risk of perpetuating a neo-colonialist dynamic in the coffee supply chain, in which rich, Western businesses dictate terms to the producers. This is something Johan has considered and says that without his business partner, who is the son of a coffee picker, he would struggle to make the farm a success.

“My business partner is from that community,” he says. “The reason it all works is because he is so respected. But if I worked there, it would be a total disaster. They would never, never respect me. It took three to four trips before I felt that they even listened to me. So it’s important that if roasters are buying farms, they work with those who understand and have respect within the community.”

Yet Johan’s role is also important. As a vastly experienced roaster, he has intimate knowledge of consumers and their preferences that he can feed back to the farm to improve quality. For example, while his business partner knows how to grow coffee, he doesn’t know how to cup it. In this way, Johan can fill in the gaps.

That said, roasters who do buy farms shouldn’t automatically expect the perfect cup. Instead, it should be seen as a way to share expertise and resources, allowing the roasters to learn as much about farming as producers can learn about cupping and roasting.

Starbucks claims that this was the reason for buying Hacienda Alsacia – to better understand the challenges smallholder coffee farmers face such as rising production costs, weather changes and disease outbreaks – rather than telling them what to do. Let’s hope Starbucks and people like Johan will serve as examples for others.