Global Coffee Farming

Keeping the
Fields Alive

Global Coffee Farming - Keeping the Fields Alive
Global Coffee Farming - Keeping the Fields Alive
In Brazil and Vietnam – the world’s leading coffee­ pro­ducing countries – farmers face un­pre­cedented challenges. Through dedication, and willingness to learn, they can still succeed.
Expedito Alves Oliveira, 72, kneels down on his mountainside farmland in Santana da Vargem, in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil. Like a scientist in his lab, he scoops and sifts the field’s dark soil, examining its condition – just as he has for the last fifty years. Born on this farm, at age eight Oliveira began helping with simple tasks. By 22, he took over, cultivating an array of Arabica coffee varieties such as cauaí, mundo novo, topázio and rubi.

Since he manages 26 hectares, Oliveira is considered a large-scale farmer within his community. And, as a life-long coffee farmer, he’s been tested many times and is usually unfazed by challenges – but recent climate changes are unprecedented. “Sometimes it rains a lot, sometimes there is no rain, or there is frost,” he says. “We got lucky with hail this year. There was fierce hail in some places.”

Santana da Vargem lies in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil.
Santana da Vargem lies in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil.

Increasing threats

His observations – and his concern – are understood by other coffee farmers. In 2016 alone, severe droughts in Brazil and Vietnam – the world’s leading coffee producers – left many farmers with drastically lower yields and profits. The Climate Institute, an international NGO, suggests that over the next half-century climate change could result in coffee production decreasing by half.

In Brazil and globally, the coffee bean’s importance is undisputed: it is the world’s second most valuable commodity, second only to oil. Today, farmers around the world depend on coffee to survive, particularly in the “bean belt” around the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn – a region that includes Brazil, Ethiopia, India and Vietnam.

The Bean Belt – and the World’s Leading Coffee Producers

Coffee fruit grows best in an area known as the Bean Belt – the equatorial region or band around the Earth in between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer – which is located from latitude 25 degrees North to 30 degrees South.This region has special qualities, including rich soils and mild temperatures, with abundant rain and shaded sun.

A drop in coffee yields is particularly devastating because coffee farmers are typically smallholder farmers: 25 million of these smallholders produce 80 percent of the world’s coffee. Smallholders in Brazil produce 40 percent of this total, with Vietnam smallholders producing approximately 16 percent. During a September 2016 meeting of the International Coffee Organization (ICO) – the world’s main intergovernmental organization for 77 coffee producing and consuming nations – financial experts warned that coffee farmers are already experiencing “dangerously low profits.” Drops in harvests, even for one season, can destroy lives, particularly in developing nations.

Yet in Brazil and Vietnam, some farmers are improving their yields, and even thriving. A closer look reveals how some smallholder farmers accomplish this.


Due to multiple factors, including levels of stored coffee, Brazil’s 2016 coffee exports dropped 33.1% from the year prior. The September 2015 to August 2016 total was 1.9 million bags: 1.6 million bags of green Arabica (down -26.3%), 300,000 bags of roasted and soluble (-10.3%) and less than 40,000 bags of Robusta (-90.9%).

Source: International Coffee Organization, August 2016 Coffee Market Report

A lifetime in the Brazilian hills

There are 25 farmers in the deep green mountainside community of Santana da Vargem, Brazil, and every one of them produces coffee. Expedito Alves Oliveira explains that to grow coffee here is his life’s mission – and to grow great coffee here commands honor from the community.

Oliveira has the greatest respect for the land that raised him. “The region has very good soil which yields a high-quality coffee.” Their work, however, is particularly hard – hillsides mean they have to work by hand. And wild fluctuations in weather can make their work even harder. “We have to give special care to coffee with high load (more grains). This year, there were heavy rains from May onward – just before harvest. Some of the farms lost, on average, 30 percent of their young coffee grains.”

Most farmers in the region are content with producing 50 bags per hectare. In recent years, Oliveira has been averaging 70 to 80 bags per hectare. This year, he beat his own record. “On ten of my hectares, we got around 120 bags per hectare.”

Expedito Alves Oliveira cultivates Arabica coffee

The region has very good soil which yields a high-quality coffee.

Expedito Alves Oliveira cultivates Arabica coffee.

The field detective

So how does he achieve these incredible results? Constant and extreme attentiveness: “I monitor production closely. I analyze the ground and the leaves twice a year, as the experts recommend.” He also keeps a close eye on potential trouble. “We notice that what’s happening more often is hail in the plantation, particularly in the spring, when the grains are beginning. It knocks the young beans off the plants. The hail batters the plants, breaking stems and shaking the plant’s foundation. It also leaves the plants battered and rot can begin in the wounded stems. If there are any changes in the plants or any leaves start falling, I immediately contact the agronomist.”

Specialists from public and private institutions, including Bayer, provide Oliveira with technical and educational support – something he welcomes, despite his decades of experience. “We follow exactly what they tell us in the crop management sessions,” he adds. As a result, local farmers see Oliveira’s plantation as a model. “They come to check, look at the coffee plants, ask what we are doing and using.”

Bayer specialist Bruno Polonio and Expedito Alves Oliveira
Bayer specialist Bruno Polonio and Expedito Alves Oliveira
Specialists like Bruno Polonio from Bayer provide Oliveira with technical and educational support.

Arabica versus Robusta

Side-by-side comparison of characteristics
Arabica versus Robusta

For Oliveira, willingness to listen and learn is vital. “I follow the instructions that the agronomists give me.” Following expert advice is sometimes not enough. Oliveira would like better insurance policies for crops, especially since the weather is so unpredictable. Yet through all the hardships, Oliveira’s life is bound to his plantation. “My father raised 15 children, and all of them live here. They have started their families and keep taking care of the land. Coffee keeps our family together.”

Uncertainty in the Brazilian flatlands

Almost 60 kilometers northeast from Santana da Vargem rest the flatlands community of Café Campinho. Among the 50 coffee farmers residing there is 38-year-old Hermerson Ferreira de Carvalho. Born and raised in the region, he has been a coffee farmer for 20 years.

With ten hectares of coffee farmland he cultivates alongside his brother and brother-in-law, de Carvalho is considered a small-scale coffee farmer and producer. But there is nothing small about the challenges he faces. “Although the Café Campinho area’s flat farmland allows for mechanized fieldwork, production and support labor are costly,” he says. But there’s something more troubling. “The irregular rain pattern, or the lack of rains, sometimes affects the plantation. Some years we’ve lost part of our production because of the lack of rain or due to the hail. It doesn’t happen frequently, but when it does, the production is ruined.”

De Carvalho and his family cope by developing many strategies. Preventive practices are a key. “We plan with engineers according to the weather and the season forecasts, and then we monitor the coffee. Consultants come to check the crops and apply the products when needed.”

De Carvalho and other farmers in the area participate in Bayer’s Demand Generation program, which provides training, technical advice and educational development. They collaborate, learning from each other as much as from the experts. “We work together. We share experiences, ideas, and ask questions,” De Carvalho explains. “The program opened our minds.”

Participant in Bayer

Increased profits mean we can produce better coffee. We can provide our families better lives.

Hermerson Ferreira de Carvalho participates in Bayer’s Demand Generation program.

Defying expectations

Ordinarily, a farmer in these flatlands would hope to produce about six bags of coffee per hectare, or 60 bags on a ten-hectare farm. De Carvalho says training and communication can lead to even better results, even with the unpredictable climate. “I’ve had an increase of up to 15 more bags per hectare since I began participating in the training.”

Higher productivity has changed his life, de Carvalho says. “Increased profits mean we can pay off our investments and have money left over, even in these challenging times. We make better coffee.” With much pride, he adds, “We can provide our families better lives.”

Survival for Vietnam’s coffee capital

This past season, the number of pests that Vietnamese coffee farmer Le Van Thong has had to manage seems like a page from a horticulture encyclopedia. “So far there have been mealy bugs, scale, branch borer and bean borer.” And that’s not all. “There are some problems such as rust disease, Anthracnose, pink disease, and others, which reduce the yield, quality and profit on a per-unit area.”

Drip irrigation reduces the amount of water needed, and I can apply fertilizers while watering. The crops will develop in a more uniform and sustainable way, despite weather conditions.

Vietnamese coffee farmer Le Van Thong has been farming Robusta coffee for 40 years.

Van Thong lives and farms in the city of Buon Ma Thuot (Ban Mê Thut), the capital city of Dak Lak Province, in the central highlands of Vietnam. With a population of approximately 300,000, it is the largest city in the region. Buon Ma Thuot is also known as the “capital of coffee,” with 200,000 hectares of coffee farms in the area.

Even in normal years, coffee farming is demanding labor, day in and day out. Van Thong has been farming Robusta coffee for 40 years. Like many other farmers in the region, his farmland is small; he has two hectares, entirely devoted to coffee crops. The good news is that as the demand for coffee increased over the last twenty years, Van Thong managed to increase production on his small piece of land through careful planning and complete dedication to his farm work.

But over the last 20 years, just as coffee demand increased, adverse weather has been a source of stress – and it makes his problems with pests and plant diseases more intense. When and how to treat these problems is difficult to know because the climate conditions are unpredictable. Van Thong also doesn’t see any short-term relief. “In my opinion, drought will become more intense because of climate change, and it’s very unpredictable.”

Map of Vietnam - Buon Ma Thuot
Map of Vietnam - Buon Ma Thuot

Drip Irrigation System

Efficient water use: Both water and crop protection agents can be distributed via the tiny holes in the hoses.

Efficient Water Management

In recent years, says Van Thong, lack of water for irrigation seriously damaged coffee farming here. However, one of Van Thong’s biggest allies is water management systems, such as drip irrigation.“It reduces the amount of water needed, and I can apply fertilizers while watering. The crops will develop in a more uniform and sustainable way, despite weather conditions.”

He is pleased by the Vietnamese government’s support for implementation of new technologies like water systems. “Farming technology will help increase yield and product quality, while minimizing the labor cost per area.”

Le Van Thong welcomes new technologies for farming. Producing coffee has helped him and other local farmers advance their quality of living. They have been able to afford good education for their children and improve the community’s resources and infrastructure. But for Van Thong, the greatest benefit of improved yields is, without a doubt, something else: “I have more time for my family.”

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joseph muita
July 04, 2018 - 03:54 PM

The challenge really is turn coffee from being a commodity into a higher priced quality product such as the wine grape is to wine. The paradox is that coffee is a product for which the price paid to the farmer is at the level of a lowly commodity, while the end-product often sells as a luxury item.

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Patrick Sharu
June 08, 2018 - 01:34 PM

A very informative piece.

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Patrick Sharu
June 08, 2018 - 01:34 PM

A very informative piece.

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