What rural migration means for the long-term future of coffee production

  • Coffee production in many countries relies heavily on migratory labour during harvest seasons
  • In Costa Rica, almost two-thirds of the labour force for harvest come from Nicaragua and Panama
  • At the same time, a growing generational gap means more young would-be farmers are heading to urban areas

FOR DECADES, the movement of people has been a key discussion point in coffee production. But rising levels of rural-to-urban migration mean both potential farmers and pickers are leaving.

“Both internal as well as cross-country migration has been a big part of the coffee industry for a long time,” says Janina Grabs, Assistant Professor of Business and Society at ESADE Business School.

Coffee farming has seasonal labour requirements. This demand is usually served by temporarily hired pickers that move onto the farm during the harvest season. Typically, agricultural labourers like this migrate to farms within their country. However, cross-border migration can occur when other countries are able to pay higher wages.

“A good example of this is Costa Rica, which relies on migration from both Nicaragua and Panama for almost two-thirds of its labour force during the harvesting period,” says Janina. “It tends to be more poor, marginalised communities that come to work for those who own the land, who tend to be a little bit wealthier.”

As such, seasonal migratory patterns have been an inherent part of the coffee supply chain for decades.

But in recent years, permanent migration has started to become more of a discussion point. Increasingly, pickers in some Central American countries are migrating to cities to secure sustainable, long-term employment.

At the same time, more young people (and potential farmers) from coffee-growing communities in places such as El Salvador and Honduras are moving away from rural settlements in favour of studying or working in cities – either domestically or further afield.

what rural migration means for coffee production

Young farmers and pickers are being driven away

Departures from coffee-growing communities have occurred in parts of Central America for a number of reasons. Most of these points start and end with income stability. Many pickers and farmers are simply more attracted to the prospect of more stable income in an urban environment.

But there are some specific examples in recent years that have driven people to move.

Natural disasters are one such example. Hurricanes in Central American countries (such as Hurricane Eta and Tropical Storm Iota in late 2020) can cause irreparable damage to coffee farms and plants.

Among other factors are crop diseases like “la roya”, also known as coffee leaf rust. This causes plants to be less productive before eventually killing them.

In 2014, it was estimated that more than half of Central America’s coffee crops had been affected. It was largely brought under control until 2020 when it resurged as a result of the humidity brought about by hurricanes across the region.

In Honduras, for instance, 2021/22 yields were down 12% as a result of coffee leaf rust and other factors. As a result, there has then been a swathe of migration from rural to urban Honduras – as well as some migration further north.

In addition to climate change and the increased risk of crop diseases, coffee prices are another driver of instability. Despite meteoric rises in 2021 and 2022, coffee prices have now fallen again. The sheer unpredictability means that more young people are abandoning the prospect of coffee production in favour of more stable and lucrative employment in cities.

“Coffee takes a lot of work – if you neglect it for a moment, the coffee dies,” says Eduardo, a coffee farmer from Huehuetenango, Guatemala. “It’s the reason that many sometimes decide to abandon coffee farming. They invest a lot of money in it and when selling it, they receive so little from the coffee they grow.”

Coffee is a major source of income for many in the Guatemalan Highlands. But for smallholder farmers specifically, income security has been a consistent issue in past years. In some cases, larger farms are now selling off parts of their land, while some smaller producers are uprooting their families and abandoning coffee production altogether.

Human capital

As can be expected, a lack of labour causes plenty of problems for coffee farms and coffee-growing regions.

For farmers that struggle to find sufficient workers for coffee picking, each tree may only be visited once rather than multiple times. Consequently, all cherries are picked at once, regardless of ripeness. This compromises quality and can affect a farmer’s reputation in the long run.

Migration abroad also has a longer-term socioeconomic effect on coffee-growing communities. Encouraging young people to grow coffee is crucial for both the longevity of the industry and driving innovation.

At the same time, it is only natural that people abandon farms if they can’t secure a reliable income stream for themselves and their families.

rural migration drains human capital needed for coffee production

Retaining skilled workers in coffee production

The generational gap in coffee production is a complex issue which is centuries in the making. Overturning it will not be easy – but several things could be focused on to protect coffee farmers and incentivise young people to remain within the industry.

Farmers are no longer able to get cheap credit from banks and roasters are often unwilling to commit to pre-financing arrangements, leaving them with few options to fund production. More affordable finance would alleviate this, but that is easier said than done. In addition, buyers who commit to buying a greater percentage of a farmer’s harvest can offer greater protection.

Furthermore, providing technical assistance to producers could improve the efficiency of their farms. This could also help farmers make the changes needed to adapt to regulatory changes as buying markets introduce more policies regarding sustainability, for instance.

Incentivising seasonal labourers to stay in coffee production if there are more appealing alternatives is more difficult. Working conditions are one area to focus on. 

Janina suggests improving existing farm certification procedures, highlighting the need to prioritise smallholder farms that are often overlooked when it comes to enforcing working condition standards.

“Although many of the certifications do care about labour conditions on very, very large plantations, they don’t necessarily impose the same requirements for smallholder farms,” she says.

However, the cost of such a certification would most likely be at the farmer’s expense and could affect their profitability.

Ultimately, it’s going to be difficult for farmers to encourage people to stay in a line of work which is by its very definition inconsistent if they have more stable alternatives. Less interest in coffee production is to be expected if the industry can not provide better income security.

The increase in young farmers and pickers moving away from coffee-growing regions in Central America is evidence that more could be done to incentivise people to stay. But this is just one example – if instability continues, this may happen in other coffee-growing countries.