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Column: Central America’s Smallholder Farms Too Reliant on Coffee Income

by Michael Sheridan of CRS Coffeelands Blog

The coffee leaf rust crisis in Central America has gotten people talking about diversification.  At the First International Coffee Rust Summit in Guatemala last month, participants advocated passionately (and persuasively) for diversification of coffee genetics and coffee farms.  There is a third type of diversification that wasn’t discussed in depth but remains critical to the long-term financial viability of small-scale farms in the coffeelands: diversifying income beyond agriculture.


There are certain data points related to the social and economic impacts of coffee leaf rust that have gotten a lot of play in the news media, including these: $548 million in missed income opportunities for coffee growers and 441,000 jobs lost. 

The most important data point no one is talking about in Central America?  77 percent. 

That is the percentage of smallholder farmers in Central America covered by a recent CRS survey who are completely reliant on coffee for income.  Only 23 percent reported having access to another income source.  Given this staggering dependence on the income they generate through the sale of coffee, these families should ensure they are minimizing their vulnerability to epidemics like coffee leaf rust.  This means diversifying the genetic stock of their coffee fields and planting more rust-resistant varieties.  They should also begin working to generate more of their income from other sources, both on and off the farm.


Central America’s coffeelands are planted mostly with traditional cultivars that are descended from the Typica and Bourbon lines–cultivars whose genetics help make so many of the region’s coffees so extraordinary but also make them highly susceptible to coffee leaf rust.

Researchers have pointed to  F1 hybrids as a promising direction in Central America’s quest for coffee’s holy grail–cultivars that marry disease resistance with cup quality.  F1 hybrids are bred to achieve resistance to coffee rust and other production threats using only Arabica genetics.  These cultivars, however, are still years away from being commercially available on the scale needed now in the region.

smallholder coffee farms should diversify with leaf rust crisis

Creative Commons photo

In the meantime, there are rust-resistant alternatives available in Central America whose resistance to rust comes from Robusta genetics.  Catimors, created through crosses between the Caturra and the Timor Hybrid (itself a cross between Typica and Robusta), are in wide use throughout the region.  Locally developed hybrids in the Catimor line, such as IHCAFE 90 and Lempira in Honduras and ICAFE 90 and CR 95 in Costa Rica have effectively resisted coffee rust.

I have written here (and here and here) about the allegations that the Robusta genetics that give these hybrids their resistance to coffee leaf rust also make them inferior in the cup.  The verdict in that debate may still be out, but many of the farmers who renovate their coffee this year will look to these resistant varieties to minimize their production losses, taking their chances with quality-focused buyers who prefer the taste of susceptible varieties.


The 77 percent figure mentioned above speaks to the screaming need for farmers to change production patterns on their farms in ways that make them and their families more resilient.

This may involve producing more food–with coffee production and income down in Central America, strong maize and bean harvests will be more important than ever in keeping families free from hunger.

It may involve producing more nutritious food–diversifying beyond staple crops to include small livestock, leafy greens and fruits and vegetables that provide the animal-source proteins and micronutrients so often deficient in the coffeelands of Central America.

It will almost certainly involve generating more income from farming activities other than coffee growing.  For me, the most exciting complementary income sources are the ones compatible with coffee-based agroforestry–activities that allow farmers to create financial capital and without destroying natural capital.  Bananas, citrus, beekeeping, cacao and spices are just a few of the leading options we have explored to good effect in our efforts to help coffee farmers diversify income sustainably.

But the income potential for a 2-hectare farm is limited, even under the best circumstances.  The long-term viability of smallholder farms may depend increasingly on income generated from non-farming activities.


There is an excerpt from the excellent volume “Confronting the Coffee Crisis” that has haunted me since I first read it years ago, precisely because it exposes the intellectual poverty of an approach to diversification that stops at the farm’s edge.

It is important to move beyond the conventional agronomic response to coffee crises, which has sought to support farmers by diversifying the crops within coffee plantations. Examples of this include intercropping bananas, oranges or timber with existing coffee and shade trees. This response has been continuously repeated through cyclical coffee price crises since the 1930s, with very limited success. To move beyond crop diversification and into livelihood diversification it is necessary to start with a deeper understanding of the current farm household characteristics and strategies.This knowledge forms the basis for a process, which is led by farmers and their organizations, to seek diversified livelihood strategies that go beyond coffee production.

There are good reasons why most efforts to strengthen the livelihoods of coffee farmers are limited to crop diversification.  It is what most people hanging out in the coffeelands know best–farmers, coffee institutes, roasters and importers, non-profits working on agricultural development.  And non-agricultural rural income generation is a tough nut to crack.  But the most resilient households in the coffeelands over the long-term will likely be the ones whose non-agricultural income insulates them from the increasing threats to production in an era of climate change and the volatility of global agricultural markets.



Nick Brown

The following comment comes from reader Jeri Idso:

Great points! Supporting coffee farmers to diversify their crops and grow traditional foods and perennial fruits and vegetables may seem counter-intuitive, but it will be the key to long term sustainability of coffee. Considering the fickle nature of the market and delicate nature of the coffee tree, coffee never should have been treated as anything other than a cash crop, grown as a supplement to other income in the first place. Intercropping is really the only thing that makes sense, especially for small farmers with families who need to eat.


I would love to make contact with Michael if possible. I have been working with coffee farmers in the province of Loja in Ecuador, and will be retiring to Ecuador next year. My website, www dot ecuador-wonders dot com is heavily focused of the coffee sector in Loja.

So I would be very interested in more in depth information on non-coffee and agricultural sources of income


Thanks for this Michael. This is exactly what Coffee Kids has been saying for its 25 years of existence – just talk to Elisa & Carolyn & Jose Luis & Bill. Productivity and quality enhancements are great – for the buyers (granted it helps those lucky farmers who can make it work), but overall it’s that dependence on a single crop.

It’s kind of selfish to launch more programs in coffee and say we’re interested in livelihoods. Crop diversification could help food security/sovereignty, but we really have to address living, breathing communities making sure there are more options than just coffee.

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