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358. Diversify, diversify, diversify.

The coffee leaf rust crisis in Central America has gotten people talking about diversification.  At the First International Coffee Rust Summit in Guatemala last month, participants advocated passionately (and persuasively) for diversification of coffee genetics and coffee farms.  There is a third type of diversification that wasn’t discussed in depth but remains critical to the long-term financial viability of small-scale farms in the coffeelands: diversifying income beyond agriculture.

The most important data point no one is talking about in connection with the rust crisis: 77 percent. That’s the portion of smallholder farmers responding to a CRS survey that is completely reliant on coffee for income.


There are certain data points related to the social and economic impacts of coffee leaf rust that have gotten a lot of play in the news media, including these: $548 million in missed income opportunities for coffee growers and 441,000 jobs lost. 

The most important data point no one is talking about in Central America?  77 percent. 

That is the percentage of smallholder farmers in Central America covered by a recent CRS survey who are completely reliant on coffee for income.  Only 23 percent reported having access to another income source.  Given this staggering dependence on the income they generate through the sale of coffee, these families should ensure they are minimizing their vulnerability to epidemics like coffee leaf rust.  This means diversifying the genetic stock of their coffee fields and planting more rust-resistant varieties.  They should also begin working to generate more of their income from other sources, both on and off the farm.


Central America’s coffeelands are planted mostly with traditional cultivars that are descended from the Typica and Bourbon lines–cultivars whose genetics help make so many of the region’s coffees so extraordinary but also make them highly susceptible to coffee leaf rust.

Researchers have pointed to  F1 hybrids as a promising direction in Central America’s quest for coffee’s holy grail–cultivars that marry disease resistance with cup quality.  F1 hybrids are bred to achieve resistance to coffee rust and other production threats using only Arabica genetics.  These cultivars, however, are still years away from being commercially available on the scale needed now in the region.

In the meantime, there are rust-resistant alternatives available in Central America whose resistance to rust comes from Robusta genetics.  Catimors, created through crosses between the Caturra and the Timor Hybrid (itself a cross between Typica and Robusta), are in wide use throughout the region.  Locally developed hybrids in the Catimor line, such as IHCAFE 90 and Lempira in Honduras and ICAFE 90 and CR 95 in Costa Rica have effectively resisted coffee rust.

I have written here (and here and here) about the allegations that the Robusta genetics that give these hybrids their resistance to coffee leaf rust also make them inferior in the cup.  The verdict in that debate may still be out, but many of the farmers who renovate their coffee this year will look to these resistant varieties to minimize their production losses, taking their chances with quality-focused buyers who prefer the taste of susceptible varieties.


The 77 percent figure mentioned above speaks to the screaming need for farmers to change production patterns on their farms in ways that make them and their families more resilient.

This may involve producing more food–with coffee production and income down in Central America, strong maize and bean harvests will be more important than ever in keeping families free from hunger.

It may involve producing more nutritious food–diversifying beyond staple crops to include small livestock, leafy greens and fruits and vegetables that provide the animal-source proteins and micronutrients so often deficient in the coffeelands of Central America.

It will almost certainly involve generating more income from farming activities other than coffee growing.  For me, the most exciting complementary income sources are the ones compatible with coffee-based agroforestry–activities that allow farmers to create financial capital and without destroying natural capital.  Bananas, citrus, beekeeping, cacao and spices are just a few of the leading options we have explored to good effect in our efforts to help coffee farmers diversify income sustainably.

But the income potential for a 2-hectare farm is limited, even under the best circumstances.  The long-term viability of smallholder farms may depend increasingly on income generated from non-farming activities.


There is an excerpt from the excellent volume “Confronting the Coffee Crisis” that has haunted me since I first read it years ago, precisely because it exposes the intellectual poverty of an approach to diversification that stops at the farm’s edge.

It is important to move beyond the conventional agronomic response to coffee crises, which has sought to support farmers by diversifying the crops within coffee plantations. Examples of this include intercropping bananas, oranges or timber with existing coffee and shade trees. This response has been continuously repeated through cyclical coffee price crises since the 1930s, with very limited success. To move beyond crop diversification and into livelihood diversification it is necessary to start with a deeper understanding of the current farm household characteristics and strategies.This knowledge forms the basis for a process, which is led by farmers and their organizations, to seek diversified livelihood strategies that go beyond coffee production.

There are good reasons why most efforts to strengthen the livelihoods of coffee farmers are limited to crop diversification.  It is what most people hanging out in the coffeelands know best–farmers, coffee institutes, roasters and importers, non-profits working on agricultural development.  And non-agricultural rural income generation is a tough nut to crack.  But the most resilient households in the coffeelands over the long-term will likely be the ones whose non-agricultural income insulates them from the increasing threats to production in an era of climate change and the volatility of global agricultural markets.


  • P Baker says:

    “But the most resilient households in the coffeelands over the long-term will likely be the ones whose non-agricultural income insulates them from the increasing threats to production.”

    Yes Michael, you get to the heart of the problem. There are a range of issues nested within each other like Russian dolls. There is the immediate outbreak problem, then inside this is the resistant variety problem. Inside that is the farming systems problem and then in the centre is a question of pure physics – in our thirst for coffee, are we ineluctably running down the ecosystem, aided and abetted by climate change?

    A 2006 paper (Emergy evaluation on the production, processing and export of coffee in Nicaragua by Cuadra & Rydberg) measured the total energy that is used to produce green coffee (sun, labour, inputs, processing, etc.). The authors found that Nicaragua exports much more embodied energy in the green coffee than it imports in terms of the money value received for the coffee, thereby depleting its local natural resources.

    As Einstein put it: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. But that’s probably what we are going to try and do anyway…

  • @ Mr. Baker: I had the privilege of attending your presentation at ASIC in November, and your (deliberately and delightfully) provocative discussion of the need for “systems thinking” vs. a few farm by farm bird sanctuaries in order to actually move coffee towards mitigating climate change rather than contributing to it has stayed in the back- but not too far back- of my mind for the months I’ve spent in the coffeelands since. It seems that in fighting seasonal hunger in the coffeelands the same drastic shifts in systemic thinking (and then acting) are necessary.

    @ Mr. Sheridan: Because generating non-ag income in agricultural communities is such a tough nut to crack, one shift I’m seeing here in Colombia is training growers to see coffee as a business. All tentacles of the FNC (Fundacion Manuel Mejia, partnerships with SENA, Solidaridad, local coops) are united in pushing this systemic shift towards helping growers think of their fincas as businesses. The FNC has a history of getting Colombian coffee growers to regurgitate what it says, and I’ve heard grower after grower claim his/her “finca as empresa.” Through workshops, new online platforms, and other outreach efforts, growers are calculating for the first time their cost of production per plant. While this doesn’t put food on the table the same way internal/external food and income diversification do, it does give growers tools to have a better idea of where the resources that they do have are going and plan accordingly.

    Diversifying the family roles seems to also have some potential; one son makes some money at job in the city, one daughter attends the coffee-as-business workshops. A little bit of money and education both come back to the farm to insulate against the impending climate and market volatility you mention.

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