I received a call from a coffee farmer I have known for twenty years and for whom I have been the sole marketing agent for the last 11 years. Although his delivery was blunt, it hid a very difficult and emotional decision he and his father had to make to protect their families financial security. He called to tell me that as of that day, there was not a single coffee tree left on Terranova estate. Over a period of two weeks, they had uprooted 187 hectares of coffee. Greg Street told me that he had purposely chosen to call me after taking this drastic action as he knew I would do everything I could to convince him otherwise. He doubted his own resolve in facing me down as he knows I love that farm almost as much as the Street family do.
Terranova was one of my first ventures into building Collaborative Supply Chains and is easily my longest running success story. I began working with this farm in the depths of the Coffee Crisis in 2002 and over time we collectively took this farm out of over $1 million debt to a successful business.
Situated near the town of Mazabuka in southern Zambia, Terranova sits in a dry, rural part of a country that lists as one of the world’s poorest. The Streets have done so much more than build a coffee farm. They sectioned off a portion of their farm for breeding indigenous antelope and zebra for release back into the wild.
Over years, they built Terranova school, one classroom and one teacher at a time , to a nursery, primary and high school with over 600 students, a biology laboratory, a library and computer room. All for the children of the farm labourers and surrounding community for whom education is not possible. Houses were built for the teachers and headmaster and the children’s diet fortified by a school meal.
Between the Streets, ourselves and a roasting client that bought their coffee, we sponsored the first high school graduates through university. These children were chosen not on merit of their marks, but on the enormity of their disadvantages, mainly orphans of parents lost to HIV Aids while working on the farm.
Terranova was the first farm in Africa to obtain CAFÉ Practices Verification and went on to win the coveted Starbucks Black Apron Award. The $15 000 reward was used to build a clinic that still exists today, boasting both a pre and postal natal facility.
The Streets populate the many dams on their farm with Tilapia fish, allowing local communities to fish in order to supplement their diet with much needed protein. This is but one example of their ingenuity in recognising how close to the breadline many Zambians live.
In recent years Terranova achieved Rainforest Alliance certification and embarked on relationship with a very old, well established English coffee roasting company that paid excellent prices for the bulk of their crop each year.
High quality Arabica coffee, farmed with technology and dedication by two generations of the well-educated Street family, has paid for all of this, touching the lives of thousands of very rural Zambians.
This has come to an abrupt end. Why? The economics of farming coffee in a radically changing environment.
Like many farms in southern hemisphere countries, much of their machinery is powered by diesel due to unreliable national power grids. As we are all acutely aware, recent years has seen dramatic price increases. Due to rising copper prices, of which Zambia is a significant exporter, the local currency has increased value against the dollar, driving up all local currency costs like labour and fertilizer. Alongside fuel, food costs continue to rise. The government just announced a 35% increase in minimum wage for all farm workers in an attempt combat the effect of the rising cost in living.
Due to changing weather patterns, Terranova has recently experienced outbreaks of two new fungal diseases never before seen by them, driving up chemical costs while impacting on production.
For Greg and his retired father who still lives on the farm, the stark reality they faced was that with falling coffee prices, Terranova is losing money and slipping further and further into debt with each passing month.
The Streets still count themselves fortunate. They farm on flat land that is easily converted to grain crops, not in the mountains, as so many of our farmers do. With established boreholes and all the irrigation piping already in place for coffee, their investment requirement is minimal. They have robust credit lines and a bank that is all too eager to finance their switch out of coffee. Again, a resource that many coffee farmers lack.
Over 200 Zambians have lost their permanent jobs on Terranova coffee farm and the picking season that employed thousands of subsistence farmers, offering them the only cash income for the year, will never come around again.
Although farming coffee is land locked Zambia cost considerably more than most origin countries, I cannot help but think that their situation is most probably being played out on many coffee farms around the world and that this number is likely to increase.
Rising labour costs, a shrinking labour pool, rising fuel costs, rising food costs and climate change are common to farmers the world over. Beyond the threat to our industry, the potential humanitarian impact is staggering.