What ‘sustainability’ means to a lifelong coffee farmer

coffee cherries

Coffee cherries growing in Cauca, southwestern Colombia. (© Neil Palmer, CIAT)

Editor’s note: On National Coffee Day, we’re taking a look at the people who make your morning cup of joe possible: coffee growers. Faced with rapidly rising demand for the beverage, growers must confront a litany of challenges, everything from encroaching development to climate change. Tack on ambitious new efforts to make coffee fully sustainable, and the world’s coffee growers could really use some help.

One option? The McCafé Sustainability Improvement Platform, a program launched by McDonald’s, its coffee roasters and industry partners including Conservation International to support growers. Here, McDonald’s director of supply chain sustainability, Townsend Bailey, speaks with second-generation coffee farmer and McDonald’s grower, Emilse Perez, about the program’s role in helping growers produce high-quality coffee while protecting the environment. 

coffee grower

Emilse at her farm. (© Courtesy of McDonald’s)

Question: You’re a second-generation coffee farmer. What was it like growing up on a coffee farm and ultimately taking over your family’s business? 

Answer: My parents were the owners of the coffee farm where I grew up. I was raised in that environment and growing coffee is all I’ve ever known. My parents taught me that coffee is a great help to us, so I followed in their footsteps maintaining the farm, growing coffee and keeping up with the farm’s tasks.  I have been doing so for around 30 years now.”

Growing coffee has a lot of ups and downs, but we need it to make a good living. And we can sustain a good livelihood with it. On the farm we also grow plantains, corn, and cassava, but none of them replace coffee. Coffee consistently bears fruit and there is always a market for it. If the farm is in good shape, we will produce good coffee.

Farm

Emilse’s farm. (© Courtesy of McDonald’s)

Q: Global efforts to make coffee sustainable have really taken off. What does sustainable coffee look like to you?  

A: For me, “sustainable” means coffee that is well-managed. By that I mean managed with good fertilization and care while preserving the environment. Sustainability is having good production without harming the environment. It’s the only way we can survive.

McDonald’s supports our business by supporting sustainable coffee. They care that we have good skills and tools that make it possible for us to produce the best coffee beans, and to take care of the environment. Part of our process for growing and selling sustainable, quality beans involves our work with Farmer Brothers, one of the coffee roasters McDonald’s uses to supply their restaurants around the world. Farmer Brothers buys my beans, roasts them and sells them to McDonald’s. Together with McDonald’s, they spend time with us to see how we are doing and ask what we need to be successful.

McDonald’s sustainability program helps us improve our fertilization methods, conduct soil analysis and conduct a quality analysis for taste.  By analyzing our soil, which we never did before, we can make improvements as needed.  We also can identify defects in the crops and understand why they are occurring. That way we can make changes to our farming practices to make sure we are growing the best crops. This has helped us increase our quality and production.

Coffee trees

Rows of coffee trees at Emilse’s farm. (© Courtesy of McDonald’s)

Q: How have you changed your farming methods to make your coffee growing more sustainable??

A: We have seen lots of positive changes in farming after incorporating sustainable practices. Coffee growers like me who follow sustainable farming practices protect our water streams and we don’t use banned pesticides. We recognize how important the forest is to our business because the trees the guamos, chochos and higuerillos protect the water and the soil. On my family’s farm, we have water springs which are shared with other neighboring farms. Together we take care of the trees and the trees take care of the spring.

One day, when my grandchildren finish school and the farm gets passed on to them, I will teach them about a better, safer way to farm. With McDonald’s help, I will teach them about protecting the environment while taking care of people. By doing this, they will help make the world better for everyone.

Townsend Bailey is McDonald’s director of supply chain sustainability. Emilse Perez is a McDonald’s coffee grower and a second-generation coffee farmer in Colombia. Sophie Bertazzo is a senior editor at Conservation International.

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