The extraordinary diversity of coffee growers means there’s no such thing as a stereotypical grower.
Coffee is grown by a huge range of enterprises, from subsistence farmers in Africa and the Americas producing a few bags a year to giant Brazilian plantations of up to 10,000 hectares (40 square miles).
Of course, there are benefits and challenges at both ends of the spectrum.
Big coffee producers
By far the biggest producers are to be found in Brazil where high-tech, industrial techniques, the development of new coffee varieties, and transport infrastructure are all a long way ahead of any other coffee producing country.
The huge volume of coffee produced on plantations means that Brazil is responsible for a third of the world’s coffee. A single Brazilian plantation can produce more coffee than the entire output of a small coffee-growing country, such as Panama or Bolivia.
There are several reasons for this;
- The tradition in Brazil has always included big estates, which have developed from the colonial coffee plantations set up in the country in the early Nineteenth Century.
- Brazil also benefits from its geography. Around the world, most coffee is grown on hilly or mountainous land. In Brazil, much of the coffee is grown on huge stretches of flat ground, making access for machinery much easier.
- Because of this, coffee in Brazil is commonly grown in rows. Elsewhere, coffee farms can look like a well-kept jungle; a big Brazilian plantation looks more like a patchwork of corn fields. Once the harvest is in and processed, Brazil’s advanced infrastructure make transporting the huge crop possible.
The methods and volume require some compromises, however. To maintain this scale, harvesting is done either by machines which shake the fruit off the branches or by strip picking, in which the entire branch is stripped of its cherries in one go. Neither method takes ripeness into account, and quality suffers as a result.
Also, much of Brazil’s plantation coffee grows at lower altitudes and in full sun. This increases the speed of growth and yield. However, both factors also affect overall quality, significantly reducing the acidity levels in the final cup. The first coffee variety, known as ‘Typica’, grew high up in the mid-level, partial shade of the East-African jungle, and this kind of environment is still where most coffee varieties are happiest.
To counter this, Brazil is leading the way in laboratory-developed new varieties that suit their specific growing conditions.
As with much industrial-scale agriculture, there is a growing awareness of the impact on biodiversity of this farming method. It is also true that currently without this well-grooved, high-volume production, coffee around the world would be far more expensive, the market more volatile, and global production would struggle to meet demand.
Medium coffee producers
In the context of a Brazilian plantation, every other coffee producer is small, even if they are considered large in their country.
In Tanzania, for example, while the majority of the coffee is produced by smallholder farmers, larger estates do exist and are over fifty times the size. Nevertheless, these big farms are still only roughly 1% of the size of plantations in Brazil.
These medium-size producers are generally large private farms, with significant resources and income, permanent and seasonal staff, and a high level of technical sophistication. They often have the facilities to process their own coffee on site after harvest.
This means that these farms can control more aspects of their production, resulting in high quality, traceable coffee. Increasingly, they can also establish direct relationships with their customers.
Small coffee producers
The smallest commercial coffee producers are smallholders: self-employed farmers often growing coffee on less than a hectare of land, alongside other commodities which help top up their income and protect them against crop failures. Smallholders tend to be very hands-on, doing much of the work themselves.
This is by far the most common type of producer: there are 25 million smallholders worldwide producing coffee, and together they still produce the majority of the world’s coffee.
Often these growers have less access to technology and machinery, or the credit to buy these things. One solution to this infrastructure challenge is that they increasingly work in regional cooperatives, taking their harvest to collectively-owned processing stations that can serve hundreds of local farmers. The cooperative then sell the combined crop on behalf of its members, including directly to customers.
Because of the small scale and relatively low-tech production, consistency can be a challenge, and fluctuations in global coffee prices and yield can make a smallholder’s livelihood precarious.
In recent years, organisations such as The Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade Foundation have been working to make coffee smallholders more secure, promoting diversification, and championing the positive impact on biodiversity that these traditional farming methods have.
Buying at Caffè Nero
We like to develop relationships with our coffee growers, and we are committed to supporting sustainable initiatives at the origin.
Most of our coffees are certified Rainforest Alliance. We mainly source from small-to-medium-sized farms and cooperatives.