Coffee to get more expensive, hard to find as COVID-19 decimates production in Colombia

  • Coffee crops in Colombia are flowering now, but the workers needed to pick those crops are affected by stay-at-home orders to battle COVID-19.
  • It is not just coffee. Other fruits like watermelons and blueberries cannot make it to market. They are rotting on the fields or in transit.
  • The lack of manpower could hurt the industry for a long time as many seasonal workers return home to Venezuela.

BOGOTA. That cup of joe that gets you moving in the morning could soon become much more expensive, and maybe even impossible to find, as Covid-19 decimates coffee production in Colombia. 

As the pandemic deepens across Latin America, there are growing fears of widespread crop failures that could limit access to food in a region already struggling to feed people and affect supply chains globally. 

As much as any other crop and due to a bad alignment of timing and how it is produced, coffee could be deeply impacted by the pandemic. Coffee trees flower twice a year, and one of those flowerings is happening right now. The 2019 harvest was the largest in 25 years, according to the National Federation of Coffee Growers, the guild that brings together all coffee growers in the country.

But now, Covid-19 is making picking the coffee beans “a very labor-intensive process that is generally done manually by tens of thousands of pickers” difficult. Colombia went into a full lockdown on March 25

The agricultural sector is exempted from the lockdowns, but the coffee sector has still been severely disrupted. Coffee beans are generally picked by people and many of these people live what amounts to nomadic lives, travelling from one part of the country to the next working in coffee plantations. They often travel hundreds if not thousands of kilometers twice a year to move from one coffee growing region to the next. These migrant workers help growers pick up the fruits and sell them to national and international markets. Those pickers are at the base of the complex and rather long coffee supply chain that ends up in that all-important morning cup.

In Colombia, there are 930,000 hectares of coffee plantations spread across half the rural towns of the country. About 555,000 Colombian families depend directly on coffee farming for their livelihoods. 

“We’ve got a huge challenge and a very large harvest highly concentrated on this month, May and early June,” Roberto Vélez, general manager of the National Federation of Coffee Growers, told a local radio station earlier this month.

According to Vélez, about 5 million coffee sacks (each weighting 60 kilograms) should be collected during the mid-year production, which is now at risk from a couple of factors. The first challenge is a lack of fruit pickers. The second challenge is the transportation and logistics issue created by the stringent shelter-in-place orders that have now been extended until at least May 11.

Not only coffee is at risk

Coffee is not the only product at risk in Colombia right now. Fields of watermelons, blueberries and strawberries are ready to be handpicked but most of the country’s manpower is under full lock down since March 25. Agriculture is exempted and sectors like manufacturing and construction will be exempted under strict bio-safety protocols but the shortage of manpower pose a significant hurdle. 

“We are taking a gradual step forward that we want to be firm but safe. And within that firmness and that safety, there will be the security protocols,” Colombia’s President Ivan Duque said on April 21. “It is important to recover productive life, hand in hand with the protection of health and life.”

Duque’s words brought some hope to many industries that have been hard-hit by the lockdowns but the shortage of manpower that fruit growers are facing is a more insidious challenge. There are simply not enough workers travelling the country to harvest fields. And that means that crops are being left to rot. 

This lack of manpower has already caused the loss of hundreds of hectares of fruit crops in Colombia. 

What happened with watermelons in the northwest region of La Mojana is informative. In La Mojana over 1,600 hectares of watermelons were harvested but it was impossible to transport the fruits to markets due to traffic restrictions and logistics issues. And a lack of buyers has hit fruit sellers as well. 

Less than 50 kilometers north from Bogota, the country’s capital, blueberry growers in a nearby town sent a dramatic SOS over WhatsApp:

“At this moment, the main inconvenience is the mobility of the fruit and of our workers,” they said. “It is not easy to take the fruit out [of the plantation] and some employees are unable to come. For shipments to cities other than Bogota, there’s no transportation available, and with so many checkpoints on the routes, it is hard for the fruits to make it in less than a week to other cities.” The fear is that the blueberries will simply rot during the long trips to other cities.

In an effort to help micro, small and medium companies, Colombia’s national government launched three credit lines that add up COP$16 billion ($4 billion) with guarantees of 80 percent and 90 percent for those companies that can keep people employed until the Covid-19 crisis is over. However, many entrepreneurs across the country complain that it is hard to access those credit lines at the banks.

Manpower flying away

And the lack of manpower is likely to get worse, further straining supply chains. Many companies are running short of cash (as they cannot get their product to market) but also the workers willing to work on the farms may disappear. 

Over the past few years, about 2 million Venezuelans have fled the regime Nicolas Maduro’s regime and moved to Colombia

These Venezuelan workers are key for the coffee sector by harvesting plantations at relatively low wages. Thousands of those migrants that were living in Colombia, set foot in North direction since the outbreak began in Colombia on March 6, and are marching back to their home-country through the country’s roads, escaping economic uncertainty in Colombia, while defying the shelter-in-place orders that don’t allow them to find a way of making a living on a daily basis.

According to Felipe Muñoz, presidential advisor for the migratory crisis, more than 35,000 thousand Venezuelans have moved back to their home country despite the fact that the borders are officially closed. The border between Colombia and Venezuela is 2,200 kilometers long and it is not hard to find a spot that is not surveilled. 

And with no rural workers from Colombia or Venezuelan migrants to do the picking, coffee growers like those in Planadas, Tolima, are desperately trying to convince neighbors in the town to help pick coffee beans.

“We are a little bit worried about the shortage of manpower for handpicking the coffee harvest,” Willington Gutiérrez, a coffee grower, told RCN Radio. “We have tried to create awareness with the people. For example, the one that was food-seller on the street, or the one who had a micro or small business, that now has no other alternative, could come and give us a hand, since we are going to really need it here in the land.”

Coffee growers estimate that between three and four people are needed to pick one hectare of coffee. Planadas alone needs some 40,000 workers to get coffee beans to markets, markets that are now paying about US$2.50 per kilogram of coffee.