Colombia Coffee sees labor shortages

JARDIN, COLOMBIA | BY PETER MURPHY
As Colombia cheers a return to its biggest coffee harvest in eight years
after beating off a disease epidemic, farmers are running into a
potentially more serious problem: a shortage of workers to gather swelling
volumes of arabica beans.
Some regions have turned to town criers and loudspeaker bus-station
announcements to find candidates for the arduous, cash-in-hand work, but
the meager response means more and more farmers are leaving some of their
crop unpicked.
The labor shortages are a side effect of economic growth that has cut
unemployment to historic lows. Experts say it will be tough for the world’s
top grower of mild arabica to expand far beyond Colombia  million 60-kg bags a
year now. They say that will eventually push Colombian coffee prices
higher.
“There is talk of reaching 15, 18 million bags but the big question is who
will pick it? I think we’re approaching the ceiling,” said Marcelo Salazar,
head of the central Caldas branch of the farmer-funded National Coffee
Growers’ Federation.
In Colombia a key turn-off for coffee pickers, beyond exposure to the
elements and the physical challenge of working on steep inclines, is the
job’s informality. Growers say they cannot afford to pay for pensions or
other fringe benefits.
“Gathering coffee is for crazy people. It’s a very hard job. I’m waiting to
get into the army,” said picker Alejandro Hernandez, 17, walking home in
rubber boots on a wet Saturday in Fredonia, Antioquia, a collection bucket
slung over his shoulder.
He currently earns 200,000 pesos (around $80) a week, about a quarter more
than the minimum wage. Colombia’s construction boom and $24 billion highway
building program are soaking up labor on top of a steady rural exodus
shifting workers to cities.
Poorer areas like the southwest can still expand coffee output a little
with land and hands to spare. But experts say Colombia, which has seen its
global market slide to an 8 percent share, will be unable to claw back the
15 percent it enjoyed two decades ago.
The labor squeeze will likely raise Colombian prices in the longer term
once steadily growing demand for its high-end beans exhausts production
capacity. This could spur Central American rivals to boost output in
response.
Fewer hands to carry out farm maintenance would also heighten the threat
from coffee-eating berry borer pests. Infestations can decimate crops
unless kept in check by scrupulous sweeping up of infected fruit.
The worker shortage is part of a broader human resource problem. The
average age of coffee farmers is now 55, and their offspring are turning
away from a business where financial volatility is one of the few
certainties.
Colombia has about 600,000 coffee pickers. The coffee federation estimates
that the biggest coffee areas need 20 to 40 percent more pickers to ensure
quality by picking each berry when it is at its ripest.
QUANTITY VS QUALITY
Colombia’s high altitudes that enhance flavor allow the country to produce
large quantities of quality coffee. Traders and analysts said that with no
other origin able to match these conditions, Colombia’s coffee will
eventually get more expensive. Central America, prestigious but lacking
high altitudes, is the best alternative, they say.
“Colombia is considered top shelf and cream of the crop … Buyers will
have to pay higher premiums for Central American and Colombian coffee to
get what they want,” said Florida-based coffee analyst Shawn Hackett.
Beans from Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala would be options for
roasters seeking to replace Colombian, although fungal roya disease has
decimated crops in those countries, where it will take years for new trees
to start producing.
Hackett said growth in the high-end coffee segment could increase
competition for Colombian beans in as soon as three years.
When similar factors caused shortages of pickers in Brazil in the last five
years, the world’s top grower mechanized. But Colombia’s mountainside
farms, tricky to access on foot let alone with machines, rule out that
solution.
Farmer-funded coffee researcher Cenicafe has studied everything from
mechanization and alternative varieties of trees to hand-held gadgets that
can strip beans from branches faster to boost productivity, but none have
proven viable.
Growers say cutting corners on quality is the only way volumes can be
increased, by stripping all the fruit in one labor-saving sweep and
separating ripe from unripe afterward.
Some large farms, now forced to do that, have to discard unripe beans or
sell them locally since they fall short of Colombia’s export standards.
“It’s a critical situation now. All the boys are going to the city. They
don’t want to work the land. There are no incentives,” said farmer Conrado
Antonio Marin, in Jardin, a town in Antioquia province, one of the biggest
coffee regions.
He has hiked wages more than 50 percent in three years but to little avail.
He can find only two pickers and must join in himself to harvest his own
2.5-hectare farm.
It’s a familiar story for Fredonia coffee buyer Juan Saul Parra, 32.
“There are people with trees to produce 1,000 arrobas (11.5 tonnes), who
harvest only 800 because they don’t have anyone to pick it all,” he said,
sifting through a bean sample while a farmer awaited a price.
“As the years go by, this will get worse and worse.”
(Reporting by Peter Murphy; Editing by Helen Murphy and David Gregorio)

 

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