Adventure to Sumatra Part 2: All is Fair in Love and Coffee

We’re in the jungle, baby.

I heard a story of a small section of land in Sumatra being cleared to plant coffee and within a week of the clearing a banana tree had grown. A week.

The soil here is fertile and the climate is hot and humid; these are perfect conditions for plant life to thrive. This is why rain forest has existed here for ages and this is why the land is valuable now. It can be used to grow many things and coffee is one such thing.  We are not in Karitane any more; we are in the jungles of Sumatra.

A woman sells fruits on the side of a highway near Takengon. Behind her, dense Sumatran jungle
A woman sells fruits on the side of a highway near Takengon. Behind her, dense Sumatran jungle

As stated in part one of Adventures to Origin: ‘A Little Bird’, coffee is a huge industry for Indonesia. In 2007, Indonesia produced 420,000 tons of it and it’s only fourth in the world in coffee production. So it was relieving to see that coffee plantations existed in and among healthy, balanced areas with a relatively diverse spread of plants. Of course, this is still no crop for environmental sainthood: much rain forest has been cleared for coffee -driven by demand, but it seemed healthy and felt more integrated with its surroundings, especially when compared to palm as I’ll mention in my next post.

Coffee growing in a backyard in Sumatra
Coffee growing in a backyard in Sumatra

One surprising thing I learned was that a considerable amount of coffee is grown by “hobbyist” farmers. These are pretty much farmers who grow coffee in their back yards. They can still sell their coffee through a supply chain that reaches us. It’s all pooled together with other coffee from the region and is processed, graded and sold.

Certainly most coffee is grown in dedicated plantations, but the fact that it just grows in a humble back yard gives indication that it’s not as intensive and difficult as one would presume.

In Indonesia, coffee is graded on a scale of 1-6. Grade 1 is what we’d use in our espresso and grade 6 tends to be what is used in bad instant coffee.  This means that even if the coffee you grow is crap, it can still be sold -you just get less money for it.

2014-03-14-10.18.33-1024x677The plantations we visited were 1000masl at least, and were all Fair Trade and Organic certified (FTO). It was unfortunate not to see a non-FTO plantation as I would have loved to seen the difference.

There was a range of plants growing in and around the coffee plants: tall nitrogen fixers that provided shade and nitrogen (I had written “Lamtro” in my notebook, but can’t seem to find out anything more about this plant). There were also banana trees, plenty of ground cover including chilli plants (though when I asked what benefit they were they said they were just for the pickers!). The farmers used no sprays (since caffeine is a natural pesticide), fertilizers (other than the cherry pulps) or irrigation (other than rain). It all seemed lush and diverse, a healthy landscape.

Arabica coffee is best grown at altitude. Altitude has more drainage through the soil, greater temperature fluctuation at night yet less fluctuation throughout the year and moderate rainfall. The result is harder beans with more complex flavours.  

It’s not the same as growing things in New Zealand where from an outsider’s perspective (and a mere opinion), it seems to take great effort in the form of pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation. That’s not to say that things don’t grow here without them but as a comparison, in Sumatra: it’s wonderfully feral. 

Organic as we know it, is normal there.

Tall legume-growing trees around a coffee plantation, providing shade and nitrogen.
Tall legume-growing trees around a coffee plantation, providing shade and nitrogen.

So, what of certification?

It all seemed easy -throw a magic bean in the ground and coffee just grew. So I asked farmers and leaders of cooperatives if Organic Certification was difficult. They said “no, just annoying” with a laugh. (bureaucracy… one can only laugh sometimes).

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These are the hands that pick our coffee

In coffee, the certification for Fair Trade and Organic is expensive. Around US$10,000 kind of expensive. This amount surely covers a decent amount of land, probably several thousand hectares per cooperative but it did seem like a lot and it covered a range of certifications.

A cooperative can buy accreditation in a group deal. I.e. they get USDA Organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and some minor ones under one umbrella. This means that they have the option to sell the same coffee through each of these channels, all of them or none of them depending on demand, and the same auditor can audit all of the accreditations with the relevant set of checklists. It appeared to be a robust and strictly enforced accreditation scheme.

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A coffee worker in Medan, taking a break from lifting 70Kg sacks of green coffee, in preparation for export.

But having a great accreditation scheme doesn’t necessarily equate to more money for farmers. The Permata Farmers Cooperative has 48,000ha of coffee plantation around Gayo and over 3000 members (many farmers have just 1ha of land). I asked the leader about Fair Trade Organic (FTO), and if it was worth it. He said that all 48,000ha is FTO but in 2013 only 50% of their coffee sold as FTO despite being fully accredited. So for 50% of their annual yield they got the normal commodity rate despite producing 100% FTO coffee. This means if you bought non-FTO Sumatran Gayo coffee from the 2013 harvest there was a good chance that it was FTO. They still had to pay for the certification.

Organic certification can be attained if the coffee has been grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides. Since the biological function of caffeine is a pesticide, coffee doesn’t need pesticides to keep growing coffee. One pesty problem I saw when I was in Sumatra were coffee bora, a little fly that would lay its eggs inside the coffee cherry. The grub would then eat one of the two beans inside lowering the overall yield and the grade of the coffee. The organic way to deal with coffee bora is to hang alcohol traps (methylated spirits in half plastic bottle) from each tree, which is pretty cost effective. There must certainly be other challenges for coffee farmers, but the only other issue I saw in person was la roya (coffee rust) and this is a whole other kettle of fish. This has no organic method of control. Farmers must wait for the tree to slowly die and then grub it and it seemed like many trees were affected.

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2014-03-14 10.07.51Healthy soil was attained by spreading the pulped coffee cherries over the grounds. I didn’t see or hear of any other fertilizers but I did see chooks running around many plantations.

Coffee cherry pulps used as fertilizer
Coffee cherry pulps used as fertilizer

As for the workers, coffee pickers are contractors and are generally in hot demand: the work is seasonal (all farms need picking within the same 3 months of the year and occasionally during the year) and the work is far from the cities, up in mountainous villages. A picker picks 25-50Kg/day which, after processing gives 5-12.5Kg green beans. The pickers get 25% of the price: FTO is currently $7/Kg and non FTO is $6.50/Kg. for FTO, that’s US$8.75-$21.88/ day which doesn’t sound like much, but that’s 100,000-250,000 Indonesian Rupiah/day. A meal at a local restaurant costs about IR 4-12,000.

A seasonal coffee picker on a Fair Trade, Organic plantation
A seasonal coffee picker on a Fair Trade, Organic plantation

There are other certifications that are just as good (or better) for the farmers, their land and the coffee. In Cup of Excellence for example, a farmer pays relatively little to be a member (US$150) but an importer pays up to US$3580 for the chance to buy the coffee at auction. Auctions allow the most appropriate price to be achieved for the farmer since many members compete to get it but not all coffee makes it to auction -it has to reach a desirable, winning quality, and grow to the standards set giving it the cup of excellence stamp.


The Fair Trade movement over the last 20 years has helped the people growing coffee dramatically. The growers pooled together and created cooperatives giving them more power over others in the supply chain who’d previously had it all -access to the customer is just a valuable resource as the coffee. The movement shortened the supply chain by removing some collectors (known as ‘Coyotes’) since each part requires certification. It also shone a light on the difficulties that farmers were having and the lack of equality and fairness that existed. For a product that is consumed far away from whence it came, this was important.

Despite the bureaucratic annoyance (a new, expensive middle man) it is worth it for the farmers and all involved, otherwise they wouldn’t buy into it. But essentially:

They’ve paid for the privilege to get higher prices and yet there’s very little difference in practice.

Without seeing a non-FTO farm I don’t have the right to comment on what they are like. From what I’ve heard and seen, it’s not too dissimilar.

But I don’t think that’s all there is to FTO. I still use FTO coffee because it communicates information about fairness and growing conditions from the source accurately, in oppose to not knowing at all. But it is worth noting that just because a coffee isn’t FTO certified doesn’t mean it’s bad.

Thank you to the coffee people of Sumatra. 

Read more from elsewhere

The problem with Fair Trade Coffee via Stanford Social Innovation Review

The ecological benefits of shade grown coffee via Wikipedia