Juan N. Hernández-Aguilera, Mary Kate Wheeler, and Romane Viennet are all members of Cornell’s Dyson School. Juan is a PhD student, Mary Kate is an MS student, and Romane is a Research Assistant.
Economic analysis is a challenge when studying complex systems with various actors and multiple interrelated social and ecological dynamics. In this context, economists can benefit from exploring approaches that go beyond our discipline. Integrating diverse academic and industry perspectives in one research project has the potential to generate innovative questions and solutions. Recognizing this opportunity, our research team has pursued a multidisciplinary approach to investigate coffee production and its implications for smallholder growers in Colombia. Here we share some details about our project and insights about our approach.
Coffee Industry Overview
As a high-value crop that generates income for an estimated 125 million people in developing countries (ICO, 2002), coffee provides a rare opportunity for public and private sectors to improve livelihoods for rural populations (Mueller et al., 2013), especially since smallholder farmers produce more than 80% of the world’s coffee (FLO, 2012). Specialty coffee—differentiated from its commodity counterpart based on quality and/or certified production practices—offers an opportunity for producers to raise incomes. The growth of a demand-driven market for coffee of exceptional quality has fostered the emergence of novel supply chain models expected to deliver multidimensional benefits with social, economic, and ecological outcomes for coffee producing communities.
Despite documented benefits, prioritizing quality in coffee production also carries costs and risks. Upgrading production systems to improve quality may correspond to lower yields, at least in the short term, due to selection of lower-yielding varieties, increased spacing between trees, higher exposure to pests and diseases, and the learning curve associated with adopting new farm management techniques. Furthermore, participation in specialty coffee markets often requires the cooperation of many small growers who must associate to achieve the volumes and quality standards that enable them to connect with international buyers.
Assembling Multidisciplinary Research Teams and Establishing Goals
To understand the multiple impacts of high-quality coffee market participation on smallholder farmers in Colombia, in 2013-2014 we embarked on an ambitious research project funded by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. The project brought together a multidisciplinary research team, including Prof. Miguel Gómez and PhD student Juan N. Hernández-Aguilera from the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics, Prof. Amanda Rodewald from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Prof. Harold van Es from the Department of Crop and Soils Science, and Prof. Ximena Rueda from Universidad de los Andes, Colombia.
In addition, we created a team of students from different fields under the Student Multidisciplinary Applied Research Team (SMART) program. The SMART program supports research conducted in partnership with developing country institutions that addresses real-world problems. In January 2015, seven team members worked with a Colombian growers’ association to identify and investigate key constraints and opportunities related to expanding grower participation in specialty coffee markets.
In a parallel research effort funded by Cornell’s Institute for the Social Sciences, Prof. Arnab Basu joined the team to help design and implement a set of behavioral experiments to measure characteristics of coffee growers with respect to cooperation, trust, and risk. This question is fundamental to the study of coffee quality because upgrading quality at the cooperative level is unlikely to succeed if some members act as free riders.
Fieldwork and Findings
Our initial fieldwork revealed long-term impacts of smallholder participation in high-quality coffee markets. Outcomes include higher tree biodiversity on participating farms, providing habitat for insectivorous migratory birds that have been shown to cut infestations by the coffee berry borer by about half (Karp et al., 2013). In addition, a higher diversity of fruit tress and crops generates additional food for households, and offers additional income sources. Moreover, growers who participate in specialty markets employ more water-saving practices and organic fertilizers than non-participants. Furthermore, growers have greater access to collective goods offered by coffee cooperatives, including microcredit and extension services, they hold better expectations about the future of the coffee industry and they are more aware of global market opportunities.
Building on these findings, the SMART project team spent two weeks in Colombia collecting information to address a concern posed by the project partner, a cooperative representing over 700 smallholder coffee farmers: how can the cooperative effectively engage and support its members to increase quality across the organization in order to improve its position in the specialty coffee market? With that key question in mind, our team collaborated with the cooperative to complete three main tasks: organizational analysis, cost analysis and soil health outreach. We identified opportunities to strengthen the organization, developed a detailed enterprise budget to model costs of production, and provided soil health test results and training to individual farmers. This project offers an instructive case for other organizations and cooperatives facing similar challenges. See this video with more details about the fieldwork.
For the behavioral component, we invited growers to participate in interactive activities that allow us to quantify indicators of the farmers’ propensity to trust one another, their patience, and their attitude toward risk (see Bechetti et al., 2013; Cardenas et al., 2009; Andersen et al., 2010). We will use the data from these activities to map out behavioral profiles for a representative sample of growers’ association members, while unveiling key factors affecting the behaviors, especially those that facilitate (or threaten) cooperation among members. Eventually these behavioral profiles will help growers’ associations to design appropriate policies and incentives that encourage growers to undertake the necessary expenses and risks to upgrade coffee quality.
In our work, multidisciplinary collaboration has provided a richer environment for developing research questions, while also generating credibility and trust among growers. This approach advances collaboration with communities and organizations that have had mixed experiences with external consultants, researchers and “experts.” To quote a grower, “rather than support existing processes, many times [the outside experts] abruptly interrupted the dynamics of the organization and defined an agenda out of context.”
Our project outcomes reinforce the value of a multidisciplinary approach to fieldwork. Every time that we apply a new methodology in our research, new questions emerge. By maintaining contact with growers and industry partners we benefit from their engagement in the research process, as their participation generates creativity and new ideas. We continue to invest in lasting relationships with our partners by tackling problem-solving projects based on their needs, and by sharing our results and recommendations.