Guatemala farmers
Guatemalan farmers discuss climate change adaptation. (Photo credit: Counter Culture Coffee)

Over the past two decades, Counter Culture Coffee has been a major player in the rise of craft coffee in the United States. The Durham, N.C.-based roaster supplies beans to high-end restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores across the U.S. and runs barista training centers in 11 cities.

In recent years, the company has taken on a new role: Helping coffee farmers adapt to climate change.

Fearing coffee as a ‘poverty crop with no future’

Counter Culture’s business model depends on a steady supply of top-quality beans from trusted farms. The company spends years cultivating relationships with coffee growers in Africa and Latin America, investing time and money to help them meet its customers’ high standards.

But climate change threatens this model. Coffee plants require very specific environmental conditions, and warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns are already hurting production. By 2050, the amount of land that can support the crop is expected to shrink by half. Bean quality will also suffer, experts believe.

Coffee rust
Rising temperatures have led to increased problems with coffee rust, a fungus that can wipe out harvests and kill coffee plants. (Photo credit: richardaustin / Flickr CC NC ND 2.0)

Most coffee farmers are ill-prepared for these changes. Much of the world’s coffee comes from small, independent growers in remote equatorial regions. As a group, they see little of the profits earned by the industry as a whole. Even as worldwide demand for coffee has increased, farmers’ fortunes have actually declined. Their real earnings are down by half since the 1980s, according to a recent report published by Dutch development NGO Hivos. Consequently, most have few resources to devote to climate change adaptation.

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This situation has provoked fears of massive supply chain disruptions over the next few decades. Industry observers expect climate change to force many coffee farmers out of the business for good. As the Hivos report put it, “To many young farmers, coffee equals a poverty crop with no future.”

Recognizing the seriousness of the threat to their bean supply, companies ranging from Counter Culture to Lavazza and Starbucks are taking steps to help growers adapt.

Knowledge is power

In 2014, Counter Culture began working with nearby Duke University to understand more about how climate change is affecting coffee production and how farmers are responding.

Duke’s lead researcher, Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza, PhD, has first-hand knowledge about the coffee sector, having worked with farmers in El Salvador. Based on those and other experiences with marginalized communities, she decided to use a methodology called participatory action research, or PAR, for the Counter Culture project.

PAR is used to help the people being studied – in this case, coffee farmers – systematically think through issues affecting their community, then use the resulting knowledge to identify opportunities for positive change. Proponents of the approach claim it increases local buy-in and results in more accurate and relevant information than studies where researchers from outside the community call most of the shots. Locals understand their environments better than anyone else, the thinking runs, and need to play a meaningful role in generating solutions if those solutions are to succeed.

Guatemala farm
Finca Nueva Armenia, a farm in Guatemala where Counter Culture held an adaptation workshop. (Photo credit: Counter Culture Coffee)

Overseen by Shapiro-Garza, a team of Duke graduate students spent two years using a PAR framework with farming cooperatives in Colombia, Guatemala, and Peru. Through interviews, discussions, and focus groups with cooperative members, they gathered information about climate change impacts and farmer responses. They then worked with farmers to determine how several popular adaptation methods – developing additional income streams, for example, or building solar coffee bean dryers – might work on different farms.

The study’s conclusions: Climate change is already hurting Counter Culture’s suppliers, and, while many have taken innovative steps to adapt, there’s much more to be done. There are no easy answers, however, given the wide variation in environmental, social, and economic conditions between different farms. Each adaptation plan needs to be tailor-made.

Participatory adaptation

When the study was completed in 2016, Counter Culture sustainability manager Meredith Taylor was enthusiastic about the results. Searching for a way to scale up the project so that it could benefit other farmers, she asked Kathryn Gaasch, one of the student researchers, to distill the two-year effort into a two-day workshop.

Meredith Taylor
Meredith Taylor leading an adaptation workshop in Kenya. (Photo credit: Counter Culture Coffee)

In the summer of 2017, they piloted the workshop at a coffee cooperative in Peru. Taylor served as facilitator, leading 25 cooperative members through a four-step process designed to identify climate-related challenges that farmers were experiencing; describe potential adaptation strategies; investigate the feasibility of those strategies; and develop a prioritized list of actions to be undertaken.

By the end of the workshop, the coop members had chosen organic composting as their top adaptation priority.

After receiving positive feedback from pilot participants, Counter Culture turned the workshop into a web-based toolkit designed for use by anyone in the coffee industry, regardless of their level of climate adaptation knowledge.

The company has conducted workshops with nine of its approximately 60 suppliers. The next steps, Taylor said, involve bringing it to the rest – and helping farmers fund their chosen adaptation strategies.

Top-down versus bottom-up

For Taylor, the participatory workshop offers several advantages over a more common alternative in the coffee world: training programs that deliver ready-made answers.

“Coffee farmers are very used to big companies and other parts of the supply chain coming and saying, ‘Oh, we did this study and this is what they told us to do – so, yeah, can you go change everything you’re doing on your farm now?’” she said in an interview. But many growers hesitate to bet their livelihoods on information they know little about, while others may feel obligated to implement any advice a customer provides, good or bad. Involving the farmers in creating adaptation strategies helps skirt these issues.

Another benefit of the workshop model: Expediency. While farmers might not have access to all the information needed to create a perfectly optimized climate adaptation program, they know enough about their local conditions to begin making real improvements.

“Getting started on anything is really important at this point,” Taylor said. “I don’t want to create this scenario where we get really bogged down in the research part of it and don’t take action for another five years.”

Sarah Wesseler is a Brooklyn-based writer focusing on cities, culture, and climate change.