When walking into a meeting of the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), a research collaborative based at UVM, it is likely you will be greeted by the sweet, familiar aroma of freshly brewed coffee. But for some members of the collaborative, ensuring a sustainable future for coffee – and the farmers who produce it – is central to their work.
Co-directed by Ernesto Méndez, professor of agroecology and chair of the Plant and Soil Science Department, the ALC engages in research both in the Northeast and internationally, with a focus on understanding and seeking solutions to issues facing our food systems using agroecological approaches. In 2017, the group began working with smallholder coffee farmers in Nicaragua and Mexico to study diversification strategies to help them become more resilient to the growing impacts of climate change and a volatile global coffee market, which leave many farmers unable to make ends meet.
“Coffee is not just a commodity that came from a crop – it’s a lot more complicated than that not only ecologically, but also socially and economically,” said Janica Anderzén, PhD candidate in the Department of Plant and Soil Science and member of the collaborative. “Diversified, agroecological farms are key to strengthening coffee farmers’ resilience in a system that keeps changing.”
The three-year project involved concurrent studies at both research sites. As the projects come to a close, the findings have not only informed real on-farm decisions, but show how meaningful, transdisciplinary collaboration can create lasting impact.
In Chiapas, Mexico, Anderzén, Méndez and team partnered with the Campesinos Ecológicos de la Sierra Madre de Chiapas (CESMACH) co-operative, which includes 663 smallholder farmers for whom coffee cultivation is their primarily livelihood. The region, a biodiversity hotspot with ideal conditions for coffee production, is known for producing high-quality, specialty coffee, yet despite having Fair Trade and Organic certifications, many farmers do not earn a livable income and face seasonal food insecurity.
June marks the start of the ‘thin months’, the period between coffee harvests when much of the household savings from previous coffee sales, along with maize and bean reserves, become depleted. Working collectively with the CESMACH co-operative, the local community and the research team, Anderzén conducted a survey to evaluate what types of on-farm production activities, in addition to coffee cultivation, have been most effective at helping farmers develop multiple streams of income and become more resilient to various shocks and stressors.
The results, recently published in the Journal of Rural Studies, showed that a combination of coffee production, beekeeping and staple crop production was associated with greater income and food security for farmers. While the optimal diversification combinations are dependent on specific communities and contexts, the findings offer important insights for building a more sustainable and just global coffee system.
With the help of Stephen Posner, director of policy outreach with the UVM Gund Institute for Environment, the research team has been working to engage NGOs, funders and companies in broader policy discussions to address systemic inequity across the coffee value chain.
Doña Amalia Guzmán Velásquez in her traditional milpa. Corn and beans are important staple crops that contribute to the food security of coffee farmer households. Photo: Alejandra Guzmán Luna
“What’s unique about this project is the way we work and how we approach doing research,” said Méndez, senior author of the study. “It’s not just about academic publications, but how we can really make an impact on the ground and support the people we work with.”
The ALC’s philosophy to conducting research “for farmers, with farmers” is not just a commitment, but a guiding principle that informs every decision, conversation and step of the research process, says Méndez. Utilizing a participatory action research (PAR) approach, the process centers around the co-creation of knowledge and places equal value on Western scientific ideologies, as well as indigenous, traditional and other forms of knowledge. The process begins with – and depends on – establishing deep trust with community partners and working collectively to identify problems and work towards solutions.
In Chiapas, a team of five community facilitators within the CESMACH coffee co-operative have been integral to this research process. As young smallholder coffee farmers themselves, the facilitators serve as part of the core research team and act as liaisons to the smallholder coffee families. Through their experience co-designing the research instruments, surveys and evaluations with the UVM team, the facilitators have developed technical research skills they are now using to continue the implementation of accompanying projects.
“Our ongoing dialogue with the community facilitators is not only about the scientific research, but also an opportunity for human development. We have personal conversations about hopes, dreams, fears, issues relating to gender equity and other topics that enable us to see each other as human beings, not as facilitator, researcher or student,” said Alejandra Guzmán Luna, a postdoctoral fellow in the ALC and Gund Institute for Environment.
ALC members Janica Anderzén (3rd from left) and Alejandra Guzmán Luna (2nd from right) with the team of community facilitators and their coordinator.
“The process is not just about gathering this information, but about giving this information back to generate change,” said Rigoberto Hernández Jonapá, the local coordinator for the CESMACH co-operative who oversees the facilitators. CESMACH is using the research findings to design its first strategic plan on on-farm diversification and has successfully secured additional grant funding to help their members implement diversification strategies that have come out of the research, which will become increasingly important as the challenges facing farmers continue to grow.
An Increasingly Challenging Coffee Market
While coffee prices have been steadily rising in the U.S., the price to farmers is at a historic low. One major contributor is overproduction, which has created a glut of medium to lower-grade coffee, explained Martha Caswell, co-director of the ALC. Demand for high-end, specialty coffee continues to grow in many countries such as the U.S. and Japan, but has left many coffee producers with warehouses full of coffee that they can’t sell. Skimming off the best isn’t a viable business plan for coffee cooperatives that produce coffee across a range of quality profiles.
“When talking about this challenge with a co-op manager they explained it by saying - ‘I don’t want you to just buy the filet mignon, I want you to buy the whole cow’,” said Caswell.
Market speculation has also created extreme price volatility in the coffee market. Fair Trade and Organic certifications set a price floor minimum for producers, but the prices have not kept pace with rising costs of production and inflation. A lack of transparency in the coffee supply chain can make it very difficult for roasters to know the price that was paid to the farmer, said Nate Van Dusen of the Burlington-based Brio Coffeeworks, which imports beans from the CESMACH co-operative in Chiapas.
Specialty coffee primarily grows between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, where many coffee producers are faced with the growing impacts of climate change, such as warmer temperatures, intensifying pests and more severe weather patterns. Because coffee is a perennial crop, a seasonal disaster can set a coffee producer back three to five years. Add on new complications from the Covid-19 pandemic, such as supply chain disruptions and workforce challenges, this year may be particularly challenging for specialty coffee producers.
“Research has shown that many traditional coffee growing regions may not be suitable for coffee in the future due to climate change. If we want to continue to have specialty coffee, supporting the wellbeing of coffee farmers is really key,” said Anderzén.
Méndez, Anderzén and Caswell are also fellows at the Gund Institute for Environment. Additional research partners not mentioned above include the Community Agroecology Network (CAN), El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Chiapas, Mexico, Santa Clara University, and the PRODECOOP cooperative and Universidad Nacional Agraria in Nicaragua.