Does it pay to get into the coffee business? If you ask a restaurant or a bar owner, an importer, an exporter, a processor or a dealer, any one of them would answer – hell, yes, it does! And that’s because on its long journey from the plantation to your cup, every one of the chain links that helps it get there doubles its price. As an unwritten rule of business, for any industry to flourish someone has to lose. And in this particular case, though it might seem I’m pulling your leg, the biggest losers are the farmers. Let me explain.
The coffee coming from the regions around Lake Toba is rated as top variety all over the world. The fertile volcanic soil, the high ground and the mild climate are the attributes that nature blessed upon this land making it the ideal place to grow coffee. Yet, there are less and less peasants to do that. They prefer growing corn, cocoa or pineapple instead. Because, they say, you can’t make ends meet on coffee anymore.
How low can you go
Osmel Harianja is a professor in Samosir and also a farmer. He’s one of the few people that are hardheaded enough to keep growing coffee on the highlands of the island. He started his plantation some 3 or 4 years ago, after inheriting a few acres, and put about all his time and money into it. His mornings are spent teaching at two schools but in the afternoon you’ll always find him in the field, taking care of his plantation.
- This year I harvested my firs crop.
- Was it worth it?
- No. The prices have dropped since I’ve started the plantation. Now, we are at the dealers’ mercy.
I added up the financial pros and cons of a small coffee plantation weighing between the harvest and the market price and I came out empty handed – zero profit. The farmer can’t even dream about recouping his investment in the plants, fertilizers and man power.
But the locals share part of the blame for that. It’s enough for one of them to start a profitable coffee plantation and the next year everybody around starts growing coffee. The flow increases, the dealers begin manipulating the market, the prices go down and the farmers end up dropping the coffee business like a hot potato and seeding avocado, ’cause it looks like a money maker. The flow increases again, the dealers play the market, prices drop and everybody’s right back to where they started. Nobody’s interested in educating the farmers. It’s much easier to rig the market when you deal with ignorant folk.
Pangururan – the capital city of Samosir. Farmers come from the highlands with their motor-bikes, mules or old vans packed. The dealers from Sidikalang or Berastagi send their people to buy up. It’s Wednesday – “market day” – and you can find anything here: potatoes, spices, fish, fruits and of course coffee; lots and lots of coffee.
Two old women are bargaining with the dealer’s agent – a greasy lady in her 40′s. She tips the coffee off in a large sack and gets them to pick out the throw out beans. They’ll discuss the price later. I find myself asking:
- How much are you selling it for, ma’am?
- It’s too early to tell. I’m waiting for a call from the buyer in Sidikalang. He’s the one who sets the price. But you’ll have to wait until 2 or 3 o’clock. How much are you looking to buy? I’ve got 900 kilograms. If you take it all off my hands, I can give you a good price.
A tone of coffee. Do I look like a warehouseman?