For centuries, coffee has been harvested by hand in the hills of Antioquia, Colombia. Yet due to the COVID-19 pandemic, laborers may be prevented from working the harvest. It’s another blow to the Colombian coffee industry, which is the third largest in the world.
According to an in-depth report from Daily Coffee News, the annual harvest of Colombian coffee beans has already been delayed due to the onslaught of the pandemic, as coffee farmers and their employees adhere to shelter-in-place orders. Climate change adds another complication: Colombia’s rainy season didn’t come until late April this year, which pushed harvest back even further — a shift that could cause small farms to lose up to 15 percent of the harvest, according to Daily Coffee News. The one-two punch of a smaller workforce and weather means lost portions of the Colombian coffee harvest for farmers who are still recovering from last year’s price drops.
The current situation led Roberto Vélez of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation to tell Financial Times that “there is a shortage of washed arabica coffee.” Stockpiles from previous years will help satisfy demand, but this is happening in the same year that stocks of arabica beans were already low.
The workforce safety issues on coffee farms is a sadly familiar story in the COVID-19 era. Seasonal workers typically live together in communal houses, which are rightly considered a health hazard right now, and public transportation is limited, making it difficult for workers to find a way to get to their old jobs. Some farms are adapting by recruiting out of work retail and hospitality workers from neighboring towns to take over the harvest, and increasing wages in order to tempt people to join the effort. The result of a decreased workforce means perfectly viable coffee cherries will be left to rot on the vine because there simply aren’t enough people to pick them. Not to mention the logistical challenges of transporting the picked coffee when the shipping industry is limited, as well.
One upshot is that the prices for Colombian coffee have reached an all-time high, which might not make sense given that restaurants and bars where coffee is served are closed, but can be in part explained by the fact that roasters and suppliers are stockpiling coffee for the inevitable reopening of the world’s restaurants. Some of that price increase will go to higher wages, and the prices are a rare bright spot. If demand for coffee remains high once restrictions on restaurants are lifted, Colombian coffee farmers might be able to weather this storm after all.