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Harvesting Coffee at the Height of a Pandemic

Summer marks the time of the year when green coffee buyers and coffee roasters eagerly anticipate the arrival of fresh coffee from Central America and East Africa.

It’s the time of year that radiates both a positive and nervous energy as people in the coffee industry await the coffees they purchased to land stateside. Coffee roasters are excited to add fresh coffee to their menus from the ‘big four’—Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Kenya. Coffee from these origins is considered the gold standard based on coffee history, clean and orderly processing methods, and consistent, complex varieties. In a typical year, containers of coffee arrive between May and June, and coffee roasters become well supplied with fresh coffee.
Summer arrivals are the most exciting time of the year for coffee. But, what happens to coffee harvesting during a pandemic?
COVID‑19 is hitting coffee‑producing countries hard. During a typical harvest season, coffee producers harvest, process, dry, and mill cherries to be sold and exported, but during pandemics, each node of the supply chain is adversely affected. Coffee arrivals are delayed for two or more months. This pandemic is also affecting the most vulnerable people in the supply chain—coffee producers—at peak harvest, which is the time of year when coffee farmers earn the bulk of their livelihood.

Coffee Harvesting During COVID‑19

Harvesting: Lockdowns Limit Labor Supply and Prevent Access to Fields
Harvesting cherries is the most labor‑intensive component of coffee production and has become increasingly more challenging to navigate as countries are enforcing lockdowns and curfews in an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID‑19. These restrictions make it difficult for producers to access their fields, find seasonal labor, and transport coffee. For example, Peru implemented a country‑wide lockdown from March 16 to June 30, which made harvesting coffee very difficult. The lockdown restricted producers’ access to their fields, which forced producers to leave many crops unharvested, decreasing the potential production of this year’s harvest.
Additionally, at some origins, like Colombia, where producers operate on more land, coffee farmers rely on hiring outside seasonal workers to fill out their coffee crop workforce, which has become increasingly more difficult with travel restrictions. Without the ability to find sufficient labor, producers fear they will lose product as cherries rot on trees.
Milling: Safety Protocols Slow Operations
COVID‑19 has required coffee farmers to navigate new health and safety guidelines, social distancing protocols, and staggered shift schedules during the milling process. Coffee milling is not a highly mechanized process. It requires products to be weighed and sampled and jute bags to be passed back and forth throughout the process, which makes it challenging to stay socially distant. At some origins, mills are required to operate at half capacity while still processing the same amount of coffee. Other origins, like Peru, have implemented even stricter regulations, requiring mills to apply for new licenses to operate, which has undoubtedly created a lag in the milling processing time.
Transporting: Government Restrictions Cause Huge Delays
After the coffee is milled, coffee must be transported from mills to warehouses to ports to be shipped overseas. In response to COVID‑19, governments have implemented restrictions on the transportation sector, adding complexity to the coffee supply chain. In Uganda, for example, the government is requiring truck drivers to provide a negative COVID‑19 certificate to enter the country. This new protocol has put enormous pressure on the transportation sector and resulted in outrageous traffic jams at border crossings, adding weeks to the coffee production process. At other origins, coffee has not been deemed an essential business, and transportation has even been closed entirely at times.

Producers Remain Resilient Despite Challenges

On top of navigating all of the difficulties of harvesting and processing coffee during a pandemic, the majority of coffee producers live in developing and middle‑income countries that are ill‑equipped to cope with COVID‑19. Coffee producers live in areas without access to adequate healthcare and have few resources to contain and mitigate the spread of COVID‑19. In Planadas, Colombia, for example, the local hospital is only set up to treat minor health problems and is equipped with two respirators in a town with a population of 35,000 people.
Despite COVID‑19 jeopardizing producer’s livelihoods and health, they have not let these unprecedented times stop the summer harvest season. Instead, even during a pandemic, coffee producers continue to prove their resiliency across the globe.

Our Recently Launched Tip the Farmer™ Program Sent a Producer Partner $3,000 for COVID‑19 Relief

At Bellwether, we build partnerships with producers and have stayed in active communication with our importing and producing partners to keep our finger on the pulse of how coffee producers are navigating the COVID‑19 pandemic. We are committed to sourcing quality, traceable coffees, and maintaining our contracts and relationships with coffee producers to support them during these unprecedented times.
In fact, through our Tip the Farmer™ program, Bellwether was able to distribute nearly $3,000 to ASOPEP (Asociación de Productores Ecológicos de Planadas), a cooperative in Tolima, Colombia. This money supported the launch of two campaigns: one targeted at hiring local labor to help with the harvest and one to deliver essential services to producers to mitigate the risk of spread of COVID‑19. ASOPEP was also able to purchase 110 units of Personal Protective Equipment to support the municipality’s healthcare workers, and shared coffee and chocolate produced by the cooperative to show support.
While fresh coffee will be delayed this year, we can’t wait for you to learn more about our producer partners and try the beautiful new coffees we have arriving soon in our Green Coffee Marketplace.
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