Why addressing coffee’s generation gap could create opportunities for farmers

  • Across the world, less than 5% of farmers are under the age of 35
  • A growing generational gap among coffee producers threatens the sector’s future
  • Finding ways to retain young people in coffee farming will be crucial

COFFEE PRODUCTION faces challenges on a number of fronts. It’s therefore no surprise that the next generation of prospective coffee farmers is displaying a level of uncertainty about following in their parent’s footsteps.

Climate change, a volatile market, and rising production costs are just a few factors driving young farmers away, and contributing to a growing generation gap in coffee production.

Increasingly, these farmers are migrating to urban areas in search of better economic opportunities, or they are motivated to switch to more profitable and reliable crops. Ultimately, many young people hold concerns about the long-term viability of coffee farming.

And this is a feeling held by older, more seasoned coffee farmers. Having been subject to years of volatile prices and increasingly difficult growing conditions, parents may encourage their children away from coffee farming to pursue a professional career outside of agriculture – not wanting them to face the same stress and uncertainty they have experienced.

Additionally, an ageing farmer population has resulted in inadequate knowledge transfer to the next generation. As farmers grow older and ultimately reduce their involvement in farming, there is a risk of losing valuable knowledge, skills, and experience if it is not effectively passed down to successive generations – which is happening more and more as young farmers move away from coffee farming.

This in itself drives young people away as the resources and support they need to succeed are diminishing, but it also creates a rift between the ones who stay and their older counterparts – as both groups often display different values and approaches to farming.

Among other things, this has an impact on innovation in coffee production – as the younger generation that could drive technological and economic development across the sector is leaving to seek more stable livelihoods; or they are meeting resistance when attempting to implement changes.

More broadly, this situation can potentially lead to reduced coffee quality, lower production yields, and difficulties adapting to shifting market dynamics and sustainability requirements.

Collaboration is key

Ricardo Pereira is the COO of Ally Coffee. He says an important part of his job has been recognising this generation gap and finding ways to bring the two sides closer together.

For example, he says young farmers can benefit from what he calls “generational handoff” – where the wisdom of generations of farming knowledge can be passed down given the appropriate channels and frameworks.

Ricardo believes that collaboration between the two distinct generations can not only mend broken or dysfunctional systems, but can improve upon them and be a real key to the industry’s future – and he notes a real willingness to make this happen across a number of coffee-growing regions.

“It’s not the younger producer versus his dad or grandfather because they don’t believe it’s us versus them – it’s actually us, all together,” he explained. “It’s leveraging an older generation’s wisdom and a younger farmer’s drive for innovation and proficiency with  technology, and moving this forward.”

Ally Coffee works with young producers from across the globe. According to Ricardo, Colombia is particularly interesting to watch in this sense. The average age of producers Ally Coffee works with in Colombia is 42, which is young compared to the rest of the country’s farmers.

“There’s probably a 15-year gap between the average age of producers we work with in Colombia and the average age of producers in Colombia in general,” he said. “We have to find ways to bridge this gap, create a support system, and expand upon the foundations that we have built over the years.”

As part of this support system, older farmers play a vital role – much like in other industries where training and mentorship are critical for transferring knowledge and responsibilities over time.

“Taking time for mentorship is important because many young coffee farmers don’t know what they’re doing,” says Ricardo. “Recognising that you don’t know what you’re doing, and that you need help, is a huge step forward.”

panellists discussing coffee's generation gap

Keeping young people in coffee farming

While they lack the experience of older generations, it’s critical to find ways to keep young people in coffee farming because the future of the industry is on their shoulders. Furthermore, they are the lifeblood of farm level innovation.

Sometimes this is because young people simply have the energy and motivation to make significant changes. However, as a Brazilian coffee farmer who is arguably a member of the “new” generation, Julia Peixoto Peters notes that pushing for innovation can be a strategy to move away from the whims of the commodity market while continuing a sense of family legacy.

“Watching my parents work really hard to produce coffee and then seeing them at the mercy of the ups and downs of the commodities market was difficult,” she said. This experience pushed her and many like her to change focus from producing quantity to quality.

Julia received support and training from Ally on how to manage this transition, and on issues such as cupping and quality assessment. “I didn’t just want to keep the legacy alive, I wanted to do better,” she says.

A significant part of this transition was the need to have difficult and balanced conversations. This means introducing new ideas while recognising older generations’ thoughts and opinions as being steeped in experience.

“As a young person coming in with ideas, innovations, and different experiments, it can be really difficult to have those conversations with older generations that have been farming the same way their whole lives,” says Ricardo.

Part of this shift is how producers of different generations interact with consuming markets.

“The older generation of farmers were really disconnected from the consumer market, they were isolated,” says Julia. “Bridging the gap by connecting the two sides of the supply chain is really important – it will give the incentive younger generations need to have more desire to work in coffee.”

“Honouring producers on the consumer side by putting their names on the package is really important because younger farmers should know they’re reaching a specialty market and reaching brands that are desirable. Making coffee producing cool again is critical.”

Indeed, young producers tend to be more consumer-oriented and market-savvy. As a part of this, developing a brand has become an important part of being a farmer for young people – giving them a more tangible presence in consuming markets, and potentially being identified with a product that is having a positive impact.

“As the younger generation we want to feel that everything we do is adding value, having a positive impact on our communities and the environment,” says Nick Castellano, creative projects manager at Ally Coffee. “If we can deliver this through a brand that has a presence in consuming markets, that can be very rewarding.”

Job diversification

Finding opportunities for young farmers to diversify their roles within the value chain can be a powerful incentive for remaining in the coffee sector; for example, encouraging them to explore different aspects of coffee production, such as processing, roasting, and marketing.

Ricardo suggests that, if young people want to become more than coffee growers, they often need effective and targeted support.

“Find ways to create platforms, find opportunities for producers to have a voice,” he says. “Find ways to help them understand their business beyond producing coffee, find outlets and opportunities to do more than grow coffee.”

Whatever the strategy, it has become evident that the coffee industry must urgently address the generational gap in coffee production. While fostering collaboration between generations is important, it’s arguably more crucial to find incentives to retain young farmers – ultimately re-establishing a solid foundation for a more sustainable coffee sector.

As Ricardo says: “If we find a good blend of wisdom and experience, with innovation, energy, and young blood, then we will keep moving forward.”

Bridging the age gap in coffee production | Panel | PRF Colombia

Ally Coffee is a Bronze Sponsor of Producer & Roaster Forum.

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