For ten years our goal has been to support the livelihoods of small and medium sized farmers across Latin America, As part of our anniversary reflections we thought we’d ask one of the farmers who took part in one of our projects to give us his thoughts on whats happening in the world of agricultural supply chains

When William Corrales took over the coffee farm from his father, the first thing he did was cut down the other trees that were taking up space. That year, the leaves on the coffee bushes burned in the tropical sun. It was his first lesson in sustainability

Now, as he walks the plantation with his 21 year old son Nicolas, the coffee bushes are shaded by guavas, plantains and bananas, as well as poro trees, a species that helps fix nitrogen in the soil.

William’s coffee is certified by Rainforest Alliance and he is also an AAA sustainable quality supplier to Nespresso. He’s careful in his use of chemicals and also abides by other social, environmental and quality standards. In return he gets a price premium that has helped increase his net income. “When international market prices are really low, the premium gives us a chance to make a proper living”, he says. “And Nespresso’s standards are more in harmony with the environment.”

We are 800 meters above sea level in Costa Rica’s cordillera, in prime coffee country. These days shade-grown coffee is all the rage in international markets, but farm economics remains tricky. Escalating input costs, volatility in world prices and unquantifiable issues such as climate change make it difficult for many farmers to make investments in soil conservation, fertilizer and the labour needed to improve crop management and therefore yields.

CIMS’ research work is focused on how small and medium sized farmers can make a decent living while farming sustainably. William was one of the participants in a three year longitudinal study carried out by CIMS on behalf of Nespresso looking at how farmers, buyers and the company itself can make improvements along the supply chain. “That report was really useful, it told me what I was doing right, but also what I need to do to improve. It’s given me a direction, something to follow, he says. “But I can’t afford to do it all at once. I don’t have the finance to make all the changes.”

The farm has been in the family for more than a hundred years but there are days when William wonders if it will pass on to his son Nicolas. “Producers love what they do, it’s why they stay farming,” he says. “But sometimes you think you’d be better off selling the land and doing something else, because there are years when you are not making money”. Nicolas is studying business at university and points out that his generation has other options. “Education is cheap here, Companies like Intel have set up in Costa Rica and kids from farms that are only 2 or 5 hectares know that they are too small to survive.”

It’s a phenomenon that doesn’t just arise in Costa Rica, but is also seen in many rural economies, including Colombia, another country where CIMS has worked and one that is currently the subject of the Nespresso MBA case study challenge.( hyperlink to www.sustainabilitymbcchallenge.com)

At CIMS our goal is to work with companies who recognize that sharing value with the farmers in their supply chain is the only way to guarantee a long term sustainable supply. Working closely with such companies, and studying farms like William’s keeps our ear to the ground, our roots (and boots) in the soil and our research evidence- based and solutions- oriented.

As the sun goes down behind the mountains William and Nicolas take a last walk among the bushes. The harvest season is over and it’s time to start thinking about pruning and renovating. Coffee bushes produce for around 25 years and replacing them is an investment in the next generation. That’s the kind of time frame we believe businesses depending on farmers need to think in too.