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Research analysis: Farm labor in the Borderlands

Over the past two days, I published this summary of a peer-reviewed study based on data from our Borderlands project in Colombia and this interview with the study’s lead author. Today, I extract its key insights on farm labor, which include a characterization of farmworkers in the coffeelands as poorer and less educated than certified coffee growers, with larger families and smaller farms set farther from the nearest cities.



The research was designed to examine the impacts of coffee certification on household livelihoods strategies.  Specially, it looked at how families allocate their own resources—principally their labor—across five different kinds of income-generating activities: (1.) coffee, (2.) farming activities other than coffee, (3.) self-employment outside of agriculture, (4.) agricultural wage labor, or farm work, and (5.) wage labor outside of agriculture.  This post focuses on the factors that the study shows to drive families to allocate labor to the fourth category, farm work.  It includes both positive (+) and negative (-) relationships and cites key passages of the study to support each finding.



Income (-)

This graph shows clearly the negative relationship between income and reliance on farm work (and the positive relationship between income and reliance on wage labor in other, higher-paying sectors that likely have higher educational requirements).  There is likely a self-perpetuating dynamic at play here: the poorest farmers depend most on low-paying farm work because they have low levels of education and few other opportunities; the poorest farmers have low levels of education and few other opportunities because they depend on low-paying farm work.


Coffeelands - Income and Reliance on Farm Work


Education (-)

“Education reduced the likelihood of participation in agricultural wage labor.”

“The negative effect of education on agricultural wage labor is most likely due to the substitution of labor away from this activity” to other activities with higher returns.

Land holdings (-)

Farmers with more land earned less from farm work than farmers with less land.  The authors argue that the negative relationship between land holdings and farm work are suggestive of “push diversification”—farmers seek opportunities for wage labor on other farms not because they want to, but because they need to; their farms aren’t large enough to provide a living.  And this even though the returns to that allocation of labor are notoriously low.  The authors write, “Households with land holdings too small to generate sufficient income have to work on other farms, even if obtained wages are low.”

Household size (+)

“Household size was positively related to engagement in…agricultural wage labor.”

This finding is perhaps intuitive, as smallholder farming families with little land of their own are less likely to provide full employment on their own farms to all family members if those families are large.

Distance from nearest city (+)

“Households living further away from cities are more likely to be involved in agriculture, both on- and off-farm.”  In other words, the farthest-flung families are most likely to be farmers who also sell their labor on neighboring farms.

Coffee certification (-)

“Coffee producers with farm certification were…less likely to participate in agricultural wage labor.”



The study generates a characterization of farmworkers in the coffeelands that isn’t pretty: they are the people in the coffeelands who are poorest and least educated, with the biggest families and the smallest farms, living farthest off the beaten path.

It also suggests that farmworkers are not likely to be the same people as the specialized coffee farmers who participate in specialty coffee supply chains—a group of farmers who are more likely to be working on their own farms than the farms of other people.

Taken together, these insights suggest that the farmworkers on which specialty coffee depends are more vulnerable than smallholder farmers in specialty coffee supply chain.  They also suggest that unless we have made a concerted effort to encounter coffee farmworkers in our trips to origin, we probably haven’t had much contact with them.

Michael Sheridan


  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this post and the previous two about the article Michael. I’ve read the full journal article and these were my takeaways:

    1. It’s a refreshing and useful contribution to the literature because it’s one of the few that explicitly open up the discussion on ‘sustainable coffee’ to more than just coffee to the whole farm. Too often coffee is treated as the end point of the analysis.

    2. Implicit in the design of the research is also an interesting political provocation against the mainstreaming of certifications and the power they hold in sustainable coffee research. A decade or so ago there seemed to be much debate as to which certification delivered the best ‘sustainable’ outcomes. This article bypasses this debate entirely in its silence on the matter and I am wondering how programme directors of different standards will read this article and internalise the implications for their own work.

    3. I think it’s interesting to refer to the influence of material quality attributes on purchasing practices without referring to the spectrum of quality that now defines the material quality segment of the specialty coffee market (for example, the spectrum between the buyers who cupped for the CRS Caturra sensory trial and Nesprresso buyers).

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thank you for your post and your considered comments on this matter.

      On the first, thank you for your kind comment! Indeed the focus of the article was the whole farm as an economic unit, because that is how the people we refer to as “coffee farmers” live. While it IS true that there is something magical and seductive about coffee (a colleague in the U.S. specialty market believes plants have spirits and coffee’s casts a uniquely powerful spell, but that’s another topic for another day), and there ARE many smallholder farmers around the world who identify themselves primarily as coffee farmers, most smallholders—as you likely know well from your work in Burundi—engage in a range of activities to generate income and meet the needs of their families. What is often missing is this more holistic perspective. There has been work done on diversification—how smallholders can complement coffee income with other activities that are compatible with coffee-based agroforestry systems—but little consideration of what coffee might displace or the unintended ways that specialization in coffee (being a “coffee farmer” rather than a smallholder farmer who grows coffee) might impact other dynamics at the household level.

      On the second, I can’t speak to the motivations of the researchers, but I do share your curiosity as to how it might be read by certifiers, sustainable sourcing managers or folks who measure the impacts of corporate codes of conduct.

      Regarding the third, I think I understand your point, but would welcome more clarification. I would point out that Nespresso’s supply chain WAS represented in the Colombia Sensory Trial cuppings by members of the coffee quality team at the Colombian National Coffee Growers Federation. And the other dominant supply chain in Nariño—the Starbucks supply chain—was also directly involved in the cuppings. What I read your comment to mean is that: (a.) the five “specialty” companies represented in the Trial—Counter Culture, George Howell, Intelligentsia, Red Fox (the still-newish importer run by ex-Stumptown, ex-Coffee Shrub buyer Aleco Chigounis) and Stumptown—are very different from the three companies we referred to in our analysis as “high-volume specialty companies,” namely Keurig, Nespresso and Starbucks, three of the world’s largest roasters and leading specialty brands; (b) while none of these smaller-volume specialty companies uses certifications or formal sourcing codes to manage quality like the ones referenced in the article (Starbucks C.A.F.E. Practices and Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality), they do have clear quality standards; and (c.) these smaller-volume specialty companies may generate different kinds of outcomes for growers based on the exceptional price premiums they pay for quality that meets their standards, which are often more stringent in terms of cup quality than those of Nespresso or Starbucks, and are certainly weighted more heavily at the local point of purchase. Is that what you were getting at? If not, please clarify! If so, I am pretty sure the failure of the researchers to explicitly explore this segment of the market is that there simply weren’t any data on it. At the time we collected the data on which the research was based, we estimated that 98 percent (98 PERCENT!) of all Nariño’s coffee went to the local exporters for Nespresso and Starbucks. There weren’t enough farmers in our sample who were participating in the quality-differentiated segment of the specialty market to analyze the possibility that the impacts of participating in those supply chains. Increasing participation in this segment of the market has been the principal thrust of our Borderlands project, and as more growers are selling to these smaller-volume specialty companies focused relentlessly on cup quality, we are measuring outcomes carefully and comparing them to averages throughout the region. We hope to have something to report back as the project closes next year.


      • Hi Michael!

        Oops! thanks for pointing out that high volume specialty companies were involved, I overlooked this in my reading of the blog posts of sensory trial. Yes, you understood me correctly in terms of point #3 and it was EYE OPENING to read about where nearly all of Nariño’s coffee goes. I very much look forward to reading future reports on whether this changes and how it does and what farmers perceive of these changes.

        I’m grateful for the work and insights the CRS Coffeelands team provides, keep it up!


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