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Meena & Raina – coffee farming in Kutta

written by Nandini Agarwal

This is a story of two women from the Indian rainforest coffee region of Kutta, Coorg in the southern state of Karnataka. A short visit to the region during the coffee cherry picking season is enough to realise that life brings an ironic combination of beauty and hardships for the coffee farmers in Coorg. 

The organic struggle

Ms. Meena’s coffee journey started over a decade ago as she and her family migrated from an urban life in Delhi to a 40-year old coffee plantation in Kutta. Enthusiastic about pursuing organic farming, Ms. Meena decided to convert the conventional estate to an organic plantation despite many warnings from her expert neighbouring farmers.

Certification challenges: Five years into the organic transition, her coffee produce plummeted consistently. With no returns to sustain the organic farm, she was forced to give up the dream of a certified organic farm. Years later into coffee farming, Ms. Meena realises her mistake of converting the entire plantation into organic at once. However, this transition faced another challenge – most farmers in the region use Urea and other chemicals in large amounts. With their run-offs entering her horse-shoe estate, an organic certification would have been impossible to attain. However, she tried to remain true to her principles and continued to use organic sprays and avoid use of any chemicals on the farm. Luckily for her, regaining land productivity was not as arduous as expected, as the region grows Robusta coffee which is a more robust variety (as the name suggests) than its popular counterpart Arabica.

Farm to Cup: One acre of land usually yields 2000 kg coffee cherries. This amount of coffee cherries need to be handpicked to get 500 kg coffee beans. Every bag of coffee (containing 50kg beans) needs to be cleaned before it can be sold to the wholesalers. Upon seeing any leaves or twigs in the bag, the buyer cuts 0.5 kg worth in return. Moreover, coffee needs to be dried to the perfect moisture level (14-15%). For this, the cherries need to be well scattered on the ground. As most farms do not have the land to do this, many shift to washed coffee. The beans loose volume upon getting washed and require less space to dry. The process is however a water intensive one. Washed coffee has a higher return than sun-dried coffee in the market, as the former is susceptible to fungal infection and apparently gives a lower cup quality. The process of bringing the coffee from farm to cup is evidently a long and laborious one.

Labour-intensive work: From preparing the land and soil which includes tree pruning, irrigation, tilling, pest management, mulching, manuring, cleaning to harvesting and drying the coffee beans requires manual labour. Common practice is to hire tribal families and forest dwellers as temporary or permanent labour to do all this work. It is getting increasingly challenging to find labour in the area as most tribal workers are migrating to urban areas or to more remunerating jobs such as construction. A combination of cultural differences and diminishing labour forces Ms. Meena to pay a higher daily wage to her temporary labour. She also understands that daily expenses are becoming higher for everyone, and labourers’ returns need to justify the hard work they do.

A message from the farm: As Ms. Meena’s continues her journey as a farmer, the former urban dweller in her has an important message for us: Its time that urban consumers start visiting the farms and bring their children to the farms. Its time to actively re-learn about our food and appreciate the labour behind it. Its time to reconnect to nature!

Large estate, low returns

Increasing costs: Ms. Raina’s story presents a similar yet different set of challenges as she sustains her livelihood through the land. Ms. Raina Cariappa, an owner of a large coffee estate in Kutta looks after the operations of the coffee farm from end-to-end. Her main struggle is that the returns from coffee have remained the same since the last 15 years in Karnataka, while input costs have multiplied. She can’t afford to pay a higher daily wage to the labourers as it would substantially add to the expenses.  “The issue at hand is the lack of Minimum Support Price or any other support system by the state government of Karnataka for coffee farmers. If this continues, her family might not be able to sustain her farm in the future. She highlights that Coorg produces 52% of Karnataka’s coffee and accounts for 40% of the country’s production. Despite this, coffee farmers are constantly being ignored by the State. She believes that the recent agri reform bills will enable the farmers to sell their produce at a competitive price to private players and finally bring a sigh of relief.

Paddy to coffee: Despite these challenges, farmers in Coorg have converted their paddy lands (rice cultivation) to coffee. Paddy farming has become more expensive in the region for several reasons. Firstly, to work a paddy land requires even more hard work and specialised skill set – this is diminishing with the emigrating labour; secondly, paddy gives only one harvest a year in Kutta while other paddy growing regions get two harvests a year. The transition from paddy to coffee is a difficult one. As paddy is usually grown on low-lying areas, the land is prone to flooding and water collection. One way to deal with this challenge is to make channels on the land to direct the water and plant leguminous crops to restore nitrogen in the soil. An interesting practice is to not harvest the first fruit from the new coffee plantation as it allows the plants to flourish and grow stronger.

Stop ignoring the coffee farmers: Ms. Raina stresses that the Government of Karnataka must to do more to support the coffee farmers. As a coffee farmer, she feels ignored by the government. She banks on the voice of social media to harness public support for her community.

Further information:

Environmental challenges Both the interviewees highlighted that coffee production has declined by 30-40% in the last few years. This year Coorg has seen unpreceded rainfall during the summer which has made the coffee flowers bloom for the third time this season. A premature bloom poses a challenge to the agricultural cycle: there will be a surplus in coffee production this year and a disruption in the timeline for the next. At the same time, the local biodiversity is under threat. With Silver Oak (a non-native variety) being used by farmers to give optimum shade to the coffee plants. Its leaves do not easily degrade, cannot be used for mulching and are usually burnt by the farmers.

Some more facts: 

* Men and women do very similar works on a coffee estate with the exception of tree lopping and pruning. Work that requires climbing up the trees and harder labour is usually done by men for which they get a higher daily wage than women. When asked about the reason for this disparity, Ms. Raina said that usually tree lopping involves a higher risk and thus higher returns for those who do it. 

* Cycles of Kutta: flowering starts in end Feb/March, blooms in November, picking is from December to January.

Coffee farmers often use this kind of ponds to irrigate their plantations
Woman handpicking coffee cherries