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[Buying Basics] Is Organic Coffee Worth the Price?

More and more organically-grown products are making their way into the open market today. You've probably seen many of them in the aisles of your local grocery store. The organic movement has also impacted the coffee industry.

Organic coffee is worth searching out. After all, if you're going to hold other popular products to such high standards, why wouldn't you treat coffee the same way?

When it comes to organic coffee, there's a lot of misinformation floating around. In some cases, it might not even be worth the time and effort spent searching for organic coffee products. Here are a few facts that you should know:

1. Coffee that is certified as organic doesn't mean that there aren't pesticides.

This is one of the most common misconceptions about organic coffee. I was stunned to learn this. I originally thought that organic coffee was a product free of fertilizers or pesticides. Turns out that's not the case.

For coffee to be certified as organic, it has to:

- Be supervised by an authorized certifying agent of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic program, and

- Have been created without the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge or other banned methods or materials.

Certain pesticides and fertilizers are allowed in growing organic coffee. Some of them are synthetic, but the majority of these substances are created naturally.

The USDA's National Organic program has even approved certain synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in the production of organic coffee. The certification isn't a hoax, but the procedure isn't quite as organic as some people may think.

2. Certification is expensive for many growers.

It can cost between $700 and $3,000 annually for crops to be certified as organic. This is an expense that some coffee growers around the world just can't afford.

Certification costs are especially challenging for coffee growers in Mexico. 48 percent of the population in the country's ten coffee growing regions are poor. This includes the state of Chiapas, which is well known for its exceptional specialty-grade coffee beans. 93 percent of farmers in the city of Chilon in Chiapas live in poverty.

Coffee growers aren't as profitable as you might think. There are a few big corporate farms that do well financially, but the majority of the 25 million coffee growers across the globe are small, independent companies.

Many coffee farmers are already stretching their budgets adapting their locations to climate change and dealing with other more immediate concerns. Spending time and money they don't have so that their coffee can be certified as organic is something that's just not feasible for them at this point in time.

3. Most coffee is already organic.

Most of the world's smaller coffee farmers can't afford the artificial fertilizers and pesticides used in making organic coffee. However, that doesn't stop them from growing their own coffee beans organically.

Coffee beans can thrive in many different types of growing conditions. Farmers in Yemen, Ethiopia and other countries often let them grow in the forests and fields where they lie. Coffee produced from smaller farms like these is usually organic in nature, even though it may not have the fancy green sticker on the bag.

4. It's not always easy for coffee growers to switch to organic.

Independent coffee growers who are just making enough to get by year after year are usually not in a hurry to transition to growing organic coffee. This really shouldn't be too surprising to anyone, even with the potential for substantial profits in the future.

Farmers who make the switch usually see a drastic decrease in output. It can take several years or more for them to return to their previous yields. Organic coffee does give farmers another 15 cents per pound produced. However, that increase doesn't come close to covering the losses that many small growers suffer in reduced yields during the transition process.

Switching to organic coffee growth is a high-risk venture that doesn't promise success. It also puts a lot of added stress on farmers who are already working hard to provide for their families.

Is organic coffee a higher quality product?

Quality is important, especially in the coffee industry. Coffee quality is affected by many things, including:

- Altitude

- Climate

- Harvestiing skills

- Plant health

- Plant genetics

- Soil composition

- Other miscellaneous factors

The quality of coffee crops usually improves after farmers have switched to organic. However, this is usually due to the steps they've taken to improve overall quality. It doesn't necessarily mean that their yields are better just because they converted to growing organic coffee beans.

Quality should be viewed on an individual basis, because not every organic coffee farmer sees a quality boost after switching to organic. There is a lot of conflicting information out there, as well as a few case histories like this one:

A Case History: Oscar Omar Alonso

Oscar Omar Alonso is one such coffee grower who decided to convert to organic coffee. He lives in Honduras, where 92 percent of the country's coffee farmers are small holders. They are often susceptible to economic hardship at any time.

Oscar realized that he had to do something, after noticing that his farm wasn't creating enough income for him and his family to live on. His farm produced about 39,000 kilograms of coffee beans in 2000, thanks to the use of several chemical fertilizers. The following year, he decided to work with a local group and make the conversion to growing organic coffee.

Oscar's farm only produced about 3,5000 kilograms of coffee beans in 2001. This was a 90 percent reduction in yield from the previous year. Needless to say, Oscar was devastated.

He was ready to give up on his farm, until he remembered the following metaphor: "when you ride a bike, you've got to pedal to move forward. You've got to keep going and think about how to maintain your balance, since a bike has no reverse." He went on to say that "a bike was my inspiration during the hardest moment of my life."

Oscar didn't quit. He experimented with different techniques to continue growing his crops organically over the next several years. Many of his experiments failed, until he started using coconut husk fertilizer. He was the first person in Honduras to use this method to help grow coffee beans.

It turned out that the coconut husks were very beneficial. His crop succeeded, and eventually became more flavorable than ever. The process took 15 years, but his yields and profits finally exceeded expectations.

This case history shows both the risk and reward of growing organic coffee. The end results can lead to better tasting coffee and higher profit margins, but it may require teamwork and perseverance. Oscar's farm probably wouldn't have survived without his determination and his decision to work with local groups who helped finance his conversion.

Is Organic Coffee Worth the Price?

Here's what we know about organic coffee:

1. Organic coffee has many benefits.

2. Organic coffee certification is often risky and/or expensive for smaller coffee growers.

3. Coffee is already organically grown in many small farms around the world.

It's important to recognize coffee growers who have transitioned to organic. It's also important to respect the ones who haven't yet. Moving to all-organic coffee is the overall goal that many growers envision. It's okay to purchase organic coffee, but it shouldn't be done exclusively, because that ends up harming farmers who can't convert to organic yet financially.

Buying organic coffee is just one way to improve our spending habits. Ask about where your coffee beans are coming from before purchasing them. It's okay to check to see that they're being responsible. Eco-friendly coffee growers and companies should also be supported, whether they've been certified as organic coffee growers or not.


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