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Organic Coffee: Enriching Soil is Beginning to Pay Off

By Dan Shryock

Sales of organic coffee are on the rise across the United States and there are no indications the trend will slow. Producing beans worthy of organic certification, however, is a challenging process that predominantly falls on coffee farmers.

It is incumbent, organic roasters say, that farmers are paid a higher, fair price for their crops and are supported in every way possible to make sure they don’t carry the financial burden alone.

“The idea behind organics is that chemical farming and pesticides diminish the soil’s and plant’s ability to stay in balance with their ecosystem,” says Tripp Pomeroy, c.e.o. of Café Campesino, an American roaster-distributor of organic coffees. But, “organic farming is hard. We’re learning that organic, natural cultivation goes hand in hand with maintaining and restoring soil. And with climate change, it requires a lot of innovation.”

Market demand for good coffee is expanding to more segments of the industry, including organically farmed coffee. It takes at least three years to bring a coffee farm to full organic compliance. Once the crop can be labeled certified, it becomes a valued commodity.

Recently published numbers from the Organic Trade Association show continued growing interest among American consumers. Sales in organic coffee jumped 11.8% in 2017 over the previous year and up another 10.3% in 2018 totaling $1.55 billion in sales. The group’s research indicates organic cold brew and strong interest in single-origin coffees helped push sales.

The growth was not limited to coffee. The association reported in May that all drinks within the organic beverages category saw a combined 8.5% sales increase. Coffee led all types. None of this comes as a surprise to Pomeroy at Café Campesino in Americus, Georgia.

“Yes, it’s trending up. It’s steadily climbing each year,” says Pomeroy, who also oversees the company’s Sweetwater Organic Coffee Co. in Gainesville, Florida.

“Customers are becoming more savvy about where their products come from. They are asking questions. They are enlisted,” Café Campesino marketing director Nema Etheridge adds. “People are interested in sustainability. They want more information on climate change and the impact of healthy soils on cooling the climate. They’re learning organics can help.”

And consumers are looking for the label on each bag of roasted coffee – the stamp of approval – indicating the product was organically produced.

“People are looking for something that says this coffee is better than another,” says Karen Lickteig, marketing and sustainability director at Nossa Familia Coffee in Portland, Oregon. “I think they look for that label because they think that organic is better for them.”

Strong consumer interest means higher sales, yet the cost of roasting, packaging and marketing organic coffee is not significantly different than any other beans. The spike in expenses falls to the farmers. Roasters like Café Campesino and Nossa Familia pay higher prices for green organic coffee, often more than double the standard rate. Still, farmers must shoulder both the cost of farming and the fee to obtain the official organic certification, as much as $1,500 or more.

“We were told $2.20 per pound is the minimum they need, so we’ve committed to using that as our baseline, adding on additional premiums for fair trade, organic and quality,” Pomeroy says.

Café Campesino and Sweetwater Organic Coffee combine to buy about 300,000 pounds of green beans each year through its participation in the 23-member Cooperative Coffees, an importing organization that maintains fair or alternative trading between roasters and farmers. The Cooperative works closely with smallholder farmers in several countries to help them develop and maintain organic practices and ensure the farmers receive deservedly higher payments for the beans. Many farmers take a holistic approach to organic cultivation so all aspects – soil science, biodynamics – work together.

“The idea is that healthy soil, healthy shade, and natural environment are conducive to allowing coffee trees to better to withstand attacks,” Pomeroy says. “I’m learning from our teachers, the farmers down in origin, that there will be pests and leaf rust. But the whole point is that over time a healthier environment can withstand the onslaught of nature.”

Dealing with nature

But practicing holistic farming methods is not always the panacea, some farmers discover. Not all pests and diseases can be avoided, and farmers still must find a way to deliver their crop.

“We have seen reduced yields,” says Rob Hoos, Nossa Familia’s director of coffee. “One of the cooperatives we buy from saw that when they switched to doing organic coffee there was about a 50% decrease in their yield so their volume was down.”

One problem, Hoos says, is with the formal organic certification. It’s expensive, a cost often borne by the farmers themselves.

“They may not be able to afford the (natural products) to fight off roya or insects or any of these various issues that can happen with coffee. So, they might actually see a pretty strong decrease in their coffee crop. The organic (price) premium just doesn’t cover it at all.”

About 20% of Nossa Familia’s roasted coffee is certified organic but they also buy from farmers producing conventional coffee who are dedicated to Earth-friendly techniques. “A lot of our conventional farmers essentially are all about organic practices but they stay far away from the certification for a few reasons. We’ve met coop farmers who don’t use chemicals, who are all about organic practices. They just don’t have the money to certify.”

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