Today I continued to explore the sub-regions of Simalungun. As I spoke to farmers and collection workers, they continued to express the hardships they are facing as a result of low coffee prices. Further to this, I witnessed extensive Coffee Berry Borer (CBB) damage which has become an epidemic in certain areas. I’m travelling with Desmond today. He is a trained agronomist working full time at the Simalungun facility. Desmond is in the process of developing a comprehensive training programme which will impact and help farming groups in these remote locations.
I travelled with Desmond to one particular farm in Dolok Silau, Simalungun which has been crippled by borer (CBB) damage. This pest damage, along with some other poor agricultural practices like poor pruning, had severely impacted yield and productivity at this farm. At first glance, the farm was beautiful and of a decent size, being about two to three times larger than an average small holding in Sumatra. However, as we walked amongst the coffee trees, the destruction from CBB damage became alarmingly apparent. Combined with other poor practices, CBB is preventing this larger farm from reaching its production potential. I have never seen CBB damage of this magnitude before — on several stems of clustered cherries literally 100% of the cherries had been infected.
CBB is a small insect that attacks the cherries on coffee plants. Some coffee tree varieties are more susceptible than others, education is lacking on the variety choice and unfortunately government advice/practices are unreliable and many farmers simply don’t trust these sources. During pulping, the effect of CBB can be seen at first hand. The cherries are black and have an almost rotten appearance/aroma from the infestation of lava within the bean. It’s not clear exactly what impact this has on the healthy seed (within the cherry), but I think it would be safe to say that the cup profile would be negatively affected.
The impact on cup profile aside, the effect of CBB on local farmers is devastating, mostly due to reduced yield. We estimated that around 70% of all the cherries on this particular farm were affected — and the impact for farmers is simply catastrophic. The majority of this coffee will be defective and ?floated out? after pulping. What does make it for sale, will be further downgraded to an extremely low specialty percentage. I think every farmer can produce premium grade parchment with the correct training and support, and in a low market, selling premium parchment is the only way to get paid enough to cover costs. The majority of coffee from this farm will go to local market sales at low rates, which is an unsustainable return and one which further reduces any chance of sustainable farming.
Further incorrect practices followed as they pulped some cherries for us. Old, rotten fruit and floaters (which had been floated out days before) lay around the pulper. Fruit which is heavily infested with CBB lava should be disposed of quickly to prevent further infestation when the lava hatch and return to the farm. Local farmers lack the education to fix these problems — this relatively large farm with an abundance of fruit could be very successful. Instead, the CBB problem I witnessed has affected their ability to supply quality parchment, attract a specialty premium and thus produce the yield potential of a farm this size.
These issues cannot be addressed on a per farm basis, so any education must be regional and comprehensive. It only takes a handful of farms with bad practices to infect surrounding farms with pests and diseases like CBB and coffee rust. I believe the Simalungun supply chain is mature enough and comprehensive enough to make huge improvements under Desmond’s training programme. As Desmond spoke with this particular farmer, it was encouraging to see how eager he was to learn and implement change.
What I witnessed today has highlighted the need for a serious training programme in this region. The Simalungun mill will soon have the facilities to offer training to farmers on many levels, both at the mill and using a mobile training programme to reach outer regions. As the farmers become equipped with the tools for successful farming, the mentality will change from chasing cash crops to running successful farms which provide an adequate level of income to support sustainable farming — not solely for great coffee, but for the improvement of life in general.
The flow-on effect of this type of training will send ripples throughout co-operative members and achieve mutual benefits for farmers, exporters and Five Senses too.