Why coffee farmers worldwide are facing a 'mega emergency'

Fertiliser prices have been soaring amid supply snags and production woes

A worker collects coffee cherries during harvest in Colombia. Russia and neighbouring Belarus are among the world’s top suppliers of crop nutrients. Bloomberg
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In Nicaragua, coffee farmers are slashing fertiliser purchases to make ends meet. In Guatemala, growers are diluting nutrients to stretch scarce supplies. And in Costa Rica, producers are betting that their soil holds enough lingering nutrients to carry them through the next planting season.

Small-scale farmers in some of the world’s richest coffee-producing regions are struggling to find alternatives to counter soaring fertiliser costs that threaten their livelihoods, even considering desperate measures that could ultimately undermine a much-needed global rebound in supplies.

Some are considering organic waste as a cheap substitute to nitrogen, phosphorous and potash fertilisers, even though such a move could significantly reduce yields.

Fertiliser prices have been soaring worldwide amid supply snags and production woes, with Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine only exacerbating matters. Russia and neighbouring Belarus are among the world’s top suppliers of crop nutrients.

Higher prices add to the burden of the rising cost of agricultural materials that are squeezing farmers as food inflation soars to new heights.

With coffee prices lagging behind the costs of agricultural inputs, smaller coffee producers have become particularly vulnerable.

“The situation represents a mega emergency for our members,” said Fatima Ismael, general manager of the Nicaraguan coffee co-operative Soppexcca in Jinotega.

The co-op has 650 small growers, more than a third of them women, including many single mothers. Members typically buy about 800 tonnes of fertiliser each year, which helps them grow enough coffee beans to produce about 17,000 bags. A bag equals 60 kilograms. Soppexcca now expects its nutrient purchases to be cut in half.

The co-op has a programme to help women develop orchards as a supplement to feed their families and sell excess production at local markets, but that’s at risk, with costs for crop inputs and fuel more than doubling since last year.

“This is a big setback for our strategies,” Ms Ismael said. “Producers are very anxious, there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Guatemalan growers are considering tapping organic compost materials — including chicken manure, household waste and coffee-cherry pulp — to cut back on fertilisers, said Juan Luis Barrios, a grower and president of the country’s National Coffee Association.

Others are considering the use of faster-acting water-soluble nutrients, which may have smaller economic benefits and outcomes that vary from grower to grower, he said.

The situation represents a mega emergency for our members
Fatima Ismael, general manager of Nicaraguan coffee co-operative Soppexcca

Costa Rica’s coffee industry is scrutinising soil content in the main producing regions in hopes of reducing the need to apply nutrients on the ground, said Xinia Chaves, executive director of the Costa Rican Coffee Institute.

Even so, insufficient inputs will reduce some growers' yields and their competitiveness while raising the odds for plant disease that thrives in tropical climates, she said.

Soaring costs are inflicting “a mental and economic blow to everybody”, said Rodrigo Vargas, president of Doka Estate in Costa Rica.

His company needs 1,400 tonnes of fertiliser to produce about 40,000 bags of coffee each year. He mixes seven components together for his fertiliser, which he applies four times a year.

The price for his formula has doubled since last year, so he’s now considering a less complicated mix, even though he knows it could hurt yields.

Global coffee production will fall 2.1 per cent to 167.2 million bags for the current marketing year, pulled down by a 7.1 per cent decline in arabica beans, the latest outlook from the International Coffee Organisation reported.

Futures for the high-end arabica favoured by coffee chains have risen 78 per cent in the past 12 months, though prices are little changed since the start of the year.

Updated: March 24, 2022, 3:30 AM