Is hand-picking coffee actually the best option for the future?

  • Hand-picked coffee is often sold as something beautiful – but the reality can be very different
  • It requires five times more workers than harvesting sugar cane – putting a labour strain on coffee farmers
  • As seasonal, migrant workers move away from coffee farming, does this make a case for mechanisation?

FOR MANY, “hand-picked coffee” represents the pinnacle of quality. It gives the impression of a boutique product cultivated and produced with exceptional care.

It is often considered an essential characteristic of specialty coffee – ensuring only the ripest cherries are chosen to achieve the highest quality possible. Research from the Bonga Agricultural Research Centre supports this, showing that selectively picked cherries generally meet higher quality standards than methods that use machinery.

“Hand-picked” certainly has a ring to it. Across the consuming market, there is a widely-held belief that it will be higher in quality than coffee that has been harvested using more industrial methods.

And consumers didn’t get there by themselves. It is often marketed as something beautiful – a way of harvesting that is in harmony with nature, and that pays respect to what coffee can be. While there are other factors at play, this puts demand-side pressure on farmers to pick cherries in this way.

But despite the prevailing idealism surrounding hand-picked coffee, the reality can be very different.

The reality

It’s estimated that about 125 million people across the world rely on coffee for their livelihoods, with a large portion of this engaged in manual labour jobs like hand-picking, sorting, and preparing coffee for export.

Given coffee farming’s season labour requirements, the bulk of this is usually served by temporarily hired pickers that move onto the farm during the harvest season.

Of these, many travel undocumented across borders in order to undertake work – which makes them vulnerable to social issues such as poor working conditions, child labour, and a general lack of financial security – problems that can be exacerbated in rural areas.

In many producing countries, migrant workers travel with their families for seasonal work, often for months at a time, and often lacking access to basic necessities. They are typically employed under a temporary work contract, offering no social security, and paid according to the weight of the coffee they pick – sometimes no more than $3.80 a day.

“Hand-picking can lead to a financial burden because in many situations farms only offer cherry-picking jobs to the workers for 3-4 months,” says Diego Baraona, a coffee producer and CEO of Finca Los Pirineos in El Salvador. “This creates a huge financial problem for these families, forcing them to migrate, or look for another more stable job.”

“Seasonal work is not sustainable and attractive, and this can lead to an unhealthy personal financial situation.”

The strain on farmers

In recent years, violence, poverty and resurging waves of coffee diseases such as la roya have led to the loss of approximately 500,000 coffee-related jobs in Central America. More often than not, it’s the coffee industry’s seasonal workforce that is the most affected.

And as they migrate elsewhere to find more stable employment, this causes problems for farmers left behind. Indeed, hand-picking coffee is labour-intensive, requiring approximately 50 workers per 100 hectares, whereas rice and sugar cane require only 15 and 10 workers per 100 hectares, respectively. With a dwindling migrant workforce, farmers are put under increasing strain when harvest season comes around. 

“While it is a very beautiful and romanticised method, hand-picking has become expensive for producers and also harder each year because of immigration and lack of generational relay,” says Diego.

“Lots of cherry pickers are leaving coffee origin countries and the younger generation are not interested in working in coffee as well.” 

Hand-picking coffee isn't as beautiful as it appears

A case for mechanisation?

This doesn’t mean that hand-picked coffee is inherently “bad”. Indeed, there are many instances where pickers aren’t left socially isolated.

“Some of this assistance can be payment above what the local law requires, access to food, transportation to and from the farm, in some cases I am aware some farms offer housing and food,” Diego explains. 

“A solution that many farms do is offer a job after cherry-picking, such as farm maintenance, in the dry mill, and other areas in the farm in order to offer a full-time job.”

However, such cases are becoming increasingly rare. Coffee producers face challenges across the board as they battle climate change, a volatile market price, and rising production costs. This has created a situation where they have less capacity to provide pickers with additional support.

Given the growing challenges associated with hand-picking coffee – both for the workers and those employing them – is there a case for mechanisation?

Despite its challenges, hand-picking coffee is still the most accessible harvesting method. Mechanising the harvesting process requires substantial upfront investment in machinery – a barrier for the majority of coffee farms worldwide. While the labour associated with hand-picking coffee drives up production costs, this is operational and often much more manageable.

Additionally, not every coffee-producing region is blessed with the relatively flat terrain that Brazil benefits from. For instance, Diego’s farm is located on steep slopes in El Salvador, making mechanical harvesting basically unfeasible. This is far from being an isolated case; this is a very common problem in mountainous areas – where lots of coffee is grown.

“The issue with this is that the majority of coffee origins don’t have the geographical features to mechanise their picking,” he says. “Brazil, for example, is completely flat and its terroir lets them do that. But in Central America at least it’s all hilly and volcanic terrain.”

This doesn’t rule out mechanisation altogether. For example, hand-held mechanical “shakers” have been introduced across farms in Colombia to “alleviate labour woes” and reduce production costs. But while this may benefit the farmers, it could put the country’s estimated 60,000 to 90,000 coffee pickers at risk.

As such, the challenge will be to implement mechanical harvesting methods in a way that supports pickers. Indeed, the coffee industry doesn’t need fewer farmers and pickers; it just needs to create better outcomes for them – and mechanisation could play an important role in achieving that goal.

For the time being, it’s worth recognising that the industry’s portrayal of hand-picked coffee as something beautiful is an idea that is irreconcilable with reality. And as long as this reality persists, it shouldn’t be an ideal we strive for.

Coffee Intelligence

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