The Coffee Industry is Bad for Farmers, But Here are Some Things You Can Do to Help

By Jason Woods

August 30, 2019

The Coffee Industry is Bad for Farmers, But Here are Some Things You Can Do to Help

In This Article

  • It's nearly impossible for small-scale farmers to make a living growing coffee because market prices are so low.
  • Changes need to be made in the coffee industry to support farmers.
  • Many consumers want to support coffee farming families.
  • The question is, what can be done?

Since 2018, market prices for coffee have stayed mostly under $1 per pound, and low coffee prices, among other factors, make it nearly impossible for farmers to make ends meet. For coffee farmers to escape the cycle of poverty, coffee companies must pay more for the product. Recently, Heifer International CEO and President Pierre Ferrari wrote about the exploitative relationship the coffee industry has with coffee farmers, and that the way to ensure farmers are receiving a just price is to change the system.


The Popularity of Coffee

More than half of U.S. adults drink coffee daily, and the average consumption for coffee drinkers is a bit more than three cups a day.

The U.S. consumes the most coffee overall, but Finland drinks the most coffee per capita, at 26 pounds per year.

About 44 percent of coffee in the U.S. is consumed by people age 19 to 34.

In the long term, Heifer is outlining a pathway to change. It’s obviously a complex issue, as we can attest from 12 years of working with coffee farmers around the world. Right now, we’re determining the right areas of action while working with farmers to understand where and how best to proceed.

coffee cup
Despite coffee's popularity, most small-scale coffee farmers simply can't make ends meet. Photo by Emre Gencer on Unsplash.

In response to that piece, we received a number of emails from coffee-drinking readers, saying they were disturbed by the situation and wanted to find a way to support coffee farmers but didn’t know how.

Do I need to stop drinking coffee? 

Boycotting coffee overall could hurt farmers more than help. A boycott of large-scale brands that don’t pay a fair price to farmers might help apply pressure, though.

Then where should I buy my coffee? 

Transparency is important, so buy your coffee from those who share how much they pay. Roasters that emphasize equitable prices generally publish those prices, so that’s a good place to start. 

We believe an appropriate starting price is $3-4 per pound for commodity-grade coffee, although this is unfortunately rare to find on shelves. If your preferred brand or shop isn’t paying fairly, tell them so and consider shopping elsewhere.

Ask your barista or email your favorite company to find out what farmers are being paid. You can also visit Transparent Trade Coffee for a list of specialty roasters who voluntarily disclose prices. 

Is Fair Trade the answer? 

While certification programs do often raise the bar in terms of social and environmental standards, that doesn’t necessarily mean farmers earn enough. For example, Fair Trade’s minimum price of $1.40 per pound falls short of what most small-scale farmers need to be profitable.

What else can I do? 

Talk about unfair coffee prices with friends and family. Share news articles about the coffee economy on social media, and tag major coffee conglomerates when you do.

This isn’t the last you will hear of this issue, and we know consumers will play a critical role in our next steps. We greatly appreciate your support.