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Growing back

Ten years ago, disease devastated Mexico’s coffee farms. With help from a new program, farmers are finally able to start a new chapter. 

Sponsored by Sustainable Harvest

Gilmer Roblero had attended the Specialty Coffee Expo before, but this time, as he entered the Boston Convention Center after a two-year COVID hiatus, was different. Roblero, the manager of Chiapas coffee cooperative Café Sierra Azul, was delighted to hug old friends, attend panels, and of course try new coffees. But most important of all, for the first time in many years, he was able to meet directly with the companies that buy Sierra Azul beans, to hear what they’re looking for and begin to find further footing in the highly competitive world of specialty coffee. 

Attending the event “allows us to exchange ideas with [our clients], them to understand what they need from us, and for them to understand our challenges as well,” says Roblero. “It helps us to get a big picture about what is trending in the market and to understand the needs from roasters and consumers, especially as we’re still in COVID times.”

While hundreds of millions may rely on a cup of joe to get going each morning, the supply chain that ultimately delivers bags of coffee beans in cafes and supermarket aisles is staggeringly complex. And at the Coffee Expo, an annual event held by the Specialty Coffee Association, each link in that chain is on full display: baristas and roasters mingle alongside machinery manufacturers, packaging experts and flavoring specialists. But most significant of all are the coffee producers themselves, without whose labor there would be no beans in the first place.

The coffee producers anchor the event, with cooperative representatives arriving from Ethiopia and Kenya, Guatemala and Colombia—and of course from Mexico. Internationally, coffee is one of the few crops grown mostly on small family farms; at high altitudes, with thin soil, these farmers are experts in their craft, and they often sell their beans through membership-based cooperatives. For cooperative representatives like Roblero, the expo is one of their biggest chances to connect with the importers and roasters who buy their coffee and establish new partnerships. Cooperatives and farms usually fly to the event carrying bags of “green” or unroasted coffee beans to share with potential buyers during the 3-day event. 

Photo credit: courtesy of Sustainable Harvest

Attending the 2022 Expo was the last chapter in a three-year journey. After a plant fungus devastated Mexican coffee farms in 2012, Sierra Azul and other coffee cooperatives were left to pick up the pieces and try to resuscitate their industry. But help soon came through a joint project from coffee importer Sustainable Harvest and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Focused on cooperatives in the Chiapas and Oaxaca regions, the project helped coffee farmers figure out new agricultural approaches and techniques to both improve their coffee and safeguard it from disease. It then helped the cooperatives identify opportunities in the market, including attending the Coffee Expos. For Roblero, the 2022 trip to Boston celebrated the years of work he and his cooperative had invested in recovery, and highlighted the possibilities for the future of coffee in his region. “We want [our young people] to bring change to their communities through coffee, to make them see that they can have a dignified income and livelihood without migrating to other cities or countries,” he said. “We want them to see that coffee is more than just coffee.”


Ten years ago, attending a coffee expo was low on the list of Roblero’s priorities. 

In 2012, coffee farmers throughout Central America began to see yellow spots with brown centers appear on the leaves of their coffee plants. The underside of the leaves appeared coated in an orange dust—the telltale sign of the fungus commonly known as “la Roya” or “coffee leaf rust.” It was the first time the disease struck widely in the Western Hemisphere, an effect of climate change; long hot, dry spells coupled with erratic, torrential rain created perfect conditions for the fungus to flourish. Until then, Central America had been considered safe from the fungus often referred to as “the coffee killer.” 

La Roya causes the leaves of a coffee plant to shrivel and drop off, and without healthy leaves, the plants don’t have enough energy to grow the bright red cherries with a bean inside. In the nineteenth century, an outbreak of fungus effectively ended coffee-growing in Sri Lanka forever. In Mexico, one of the world’s top coffee-producing countries, the impact was catastrophic. Between 2012 and 2018, Mexican coffee production dropped from 4.5 million bags to just 2.5 million. Among family farms that make up Roblero’s cooperative, Sierra Azul, production went down 50 percent.

In desperation, farmers began trying new approaches, but without the resources or information to know what would work best. “For years, we tried to overcome the effects Roya had on us,” said Roblero. “Still, there was a lot of misinformation, and many producers were trying to replicate what other countries were doing, but not everything had a positive outcome.” Even slight differences in soil or altitude make enormous differences in coffee farming, which meant what worked for farmers in some regions didn’t necessarily work for those in Chiapas. No one knew for certain what strategies would help the farmers of Sierra Azul.


As farmers and cooperatives grappled with the effects of the disease, Sustainable Harvest, a mission-driven coffee importer, decided to partner with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), a financial institution with a focus on supporting economic development in Latin America, to help. Sustainable Harvest has long emphasized the importance of a “relationship coffee” model: coffee producers hear directly about what their clients want and at the same time receive more support and technical assistance to grow high quality coffee and positively impact their communities. At the Sustainable Harvest’s 2018 Let’s Talk Coffee gathering, a semi-annual event in which roasters and farmers came together to discuss pressing issues in the industry, IDB and Sustainable Harvest announced a joint program to directly aid the Mexican farmers grappling with the fall out from la Roya.

In Chiapas, farmers needed support more than ever. Roblero watched as the next generation of Sierra Azul coffee farmers began leaving for new places and new opportunities. With the impact of Roya, “we haven’t been able to awake much interest in them to become coffee professionals—not only coffee growers but cuppers, baristas, roasters,” he explained. “We want them to see that they can get immersed in the industry and that coffee can be a profession that can bring them a better future.”

The new program from Sustainable Harvest and IDB launched in January 2019, titled “Scaling Climate-Smart Transformation of Coffee Landscapes in Mexico.” It focused squarely on supporting coffee farmers in three core areas: agricultural production, technology, and market access. Relying on close partnerships with five coffee cooperatives, including Sierra Azul, the project worked with nearly 2,700 coffee growers to help improve their coffee production and opportunities to sell it.

Program administrators started by working closely with the World Coffee Research (WCR), a nonprofit with an emphasis on R&D, to identify which varieties the farms were growing and analyze the genetic components of each variety. The WCR then returned reports to each cooperative and offered virtual trainings to help the farmers adjust their practices. 

WCR also provided new ways for the cooperative to improve their techniques, including in-person workshops that brought the participants from the different cooperatives together. “The training really helped us strengthen our nurseries’ practices and our work around the way we do different processes,” Roblero mentioned. 

The project also sought to improve technology for the cooperatives so that each one could better identify members and make connections. Many coffee buyers, like importers and roasters, look for a detailed portrait of who grows the beans they’ll purchase. The project built a digital platform allowing cooperatives to pull specific information on each individual coffee farm, including the land, how much coffee it produces, the types of coffee and more. Now the cooperatives have an advantage when talking to buyers like importers who want the ability to trace beans to their source. Coffee roasters can even identify particular farms to their clients.

Photo credit: courtesy of Sustainable Harvest


While the platform is still under construction, the program will soon implement training programs specifically targeted to female coffee growers interested in learning these new technical skills. Thirteen women, from Sierra Azul and three other cooperatives, joined a “Relationship Coffee Women” group, where they will hopefully learn not only how to enter and retrieve data from the new systems, but additional managerial and administrative skills that can help them find new job opportunities, along with equity and leadership training to give them a louder voice.

But the project’s most ambitious goals were to significantly increase opportunities for the cooperatives to get in front of new potential clients. Direct access to international markets would significantly bolster incomes for the coffee producers and their communities. Throughout 2019, the program brought representatives from major coffee roasters like La Colombe to visit cooperatives and farms and begin building relationships. They also brought representatives from the cooperatives to the 2019 Coffee Expo and to New York to visit the roasters and hear more about the most desired kinds of beans.

When the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, program administrators needed to shift their approach. IDB authorized funds for COVID relief kits for each cooperative to help them deal with immediate needs. They then did a re-evaluation of the project to create alternative activities. The program administrators initially hoped lockdowns would be a few weeks. They continued rescheduling trips and booking flights, until eventually it was clear in-person events could no longer be a core strategy. With support from World Coffee Research, the program administrators created videos with activities co-op members could do by themselves; the cooperatives submitted reports with their progress. Additionally, cooperatives took advantage of virtual workshops focused on equity, and administrative and managerial skills.

In spite of the challenges, the trainings continued to have an impact. Over the course of the program, four producers, including one at Sierra Azul, started training to become “Q Graders,” coffee’s version of a wine sommelier. Few cooperatives have their own Q graders; the process requires years of work and difficult exams. Having a professionally trained Q grader on their team would allow each cooperative to not only assess their own coffee but provide their expertise to others.

“This project has been a great way to motivate us,” says Roblero. It has allowed us “to see the need to keep working hard on our trainings, the way we develop projects within the cooperative, and how we work with producers…we’re happy about what we’ve accomplished.”


Mexican coffee is fully making its comeback. The country continues to climb back up the ranking of coffee producing countries as farmers adjust to new techniques and new types of beans. At Sierra Azul, business is booming. Before la Roya hit, its members had an average production yield of 1600 kg per hectare. At the height of the crisis, that went down to 700 kg. Now, after the program and efforts to build back, farmers are up to 1900kg per hectare.  

But the cooperative isn’t taking this recent success for granted.

“We have adopted new practices and new technologies at our cooperative, we are excited to make them part of our life at Sierra Azul,” says Roblero. “We want to keep strengthening our community. We know two or three years are not enough, but we’ll keep working with what we learned from the project.”


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