A big challenge for 2021 in Chiapas: labor shortage

January 8, 2021

Here is the investigation carried out by Jesus Santos Santiago and Miguel Ronquillo Aco, two agronomists of the ECOM Sustainable Management Services team. They interviewed a dozen farmers in the coffee region of La Frailesca to identify the impacts and the solutions to the situation.

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The Frailesca region

The cooperative Ek Balam is integrated by 1,370 certified coffee producers, with a farm average of 4.5 hectares. The coop operates in the Frailesca region, adjacent to the El Triunfo biosphere reserve, located in the heart of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, Mexico. The farms’ altitude range from 900 to 1,700 meters above sea level. The varieties grown in the region are Bourbon, Typica, Mundo Novo, Caturra, Catimor, Marseillesa, Costa Rica 95, Oro Azteca, and Sarchimor. The natural areas La Sepultura, La Frailescana and El Triunfo have a warm sub-humid climate and abundant rainfall in summer. They are important protected areas in Mexico.

Characteristics of the harvesting model 

The producers of the area are used to hiring workers from Guatemala for many years because of their efficiency. This implies that during the harvest, whole families move from the neighboring country to Mexico, work 3-4 months and then go back to Guatemala.

Problem of labor shortage

For the last couple of years, there has been a shortage of workers to carry out the harvest mainly due to the devaluation of the Mexican peso against the Guatemalan quetzal. It was the other way around in the past, and Guatemalan workers received a higher income in Mexico than in their own country for the same job. However, people continue to emigrate due to the lack of work in Guatemala, in a smaller proportion compared to previous years.

This year, in response to the pandemic, the Mexican border has reinforced measures restricting access to foreigners. In the survey, 65% of the farmers said they currently have problems with finding workers for the crop, which has already started.

The risks

The lack of labor to harvest implies some production costs increments and a potential quality loss.

As there are few available workers in the region, the cost per box collected has increased from last year’s average of $110.00 – Mexican pesos – to $130.00-140.00 today (4 boxes of cherries equal to 1 quintal of coffee).

The producers interviewed stated that a significant percentage (14.5%) of the coffee has already been lost because it was not harvested on time. Besides representing a loss of income, cherries on the ground also help the development of pests that significantly affect the crop such as the coffee berry borer (CBB), since the bean that falls to the ground becomes a host for the insect.

With a reduced staff, the farmers have to reduce the number of pickings during the 3 months of harvest. This implies harvesting uneven ripped cherries (pintones – picture below) and in some cases over-ripped ones, which could affect the cup quality if not sorted before pulping.

The solutions

In the producers’ opinion, some alternatives exist to mitigate the problem. They can be implemented by coffee merchants, specialists in cultivation, or local governments.

The local farmers are requesting the intervention of local governments to generate strategies that allow the entrance of harvesters in a regulated and agile way through efficient sanitary filters.

There are technologies in the market such as mechanized selective machines, which even a farmer in the area has started to use since last year showing good results. Although the adoption of this technology is difficult to implement for everyone, it should be considered since 1 person with this equipment can cut the equivalent of 3 people doing the job manually.

Last but not least, the production of specialty coffees represents an alternative providing greater incomes and margins which cover the high costs of production. The agro-ecological conditions of the Frailesca region allow the production of high-quality coffees that Cari Coffee, a national specialty coffee merchant, has been able to successfully commercialize last year. This company works with groups of producers by giving courses on crop management, selective picking, wet processing, and storage, with the help of the ECOM SMS team providing support throughout the year.

Stay posted, these coffees will be available at the end of the month!