COVID-19 and Farmers — What We Know So Far

Sun on the mountains

Small-scale farmers struggled to maintain an economic foothold before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, their work has become even more of an uphill battle. A pandemic doesn’t recognize national borders. COVID-19, the sickness caused by the novel coronavirus, is spreading rapidly across the globe. How will people who grow coffee, chocolate, tea, bananas and other products continue to make a living? How is COVID-19 affecting Equal Exchange’s trade partners right now?

It’s hard to generalize about producers spread across four continents. They grow different crops and their living and working conditions vary a great deal. And all of us are still learning about the pandemic in real-time as it unfolds. But as links in the same supply chain, it’s important for traders and consumers to understand, as much as possible, the challenges farmers face. Here’s what we can say now, at the beginning of April, 2020. We’ll continue to update you as the situation develops.

Who is at Work?

The coffee and cacao harvests are currently underway or finishing up in Central America, and about to begin in South America. Both of these crops have their biggest harvests only once a year, so the stakes are high. In India, first flush — the first plucking of a tea plant’s harvest season — happens in early spring and has been disrupted. Other crops, like bananas and Sri Lankan tea, are harvested consistently throughout the year. Farmers may be performing harvest tasks to protect their incomes.

A field of organic tea in India
COVID-19 has shut down India during the tea harvest season.

Even outside of harvest season, farmers must work constantly to maintain their land. They’re always busy with tasks like pruning, planting, fertilizing and controlling for pests and disease. Despite anxiety about COVID-19, people may continue to work.

Travel, Transportation, and Social Distancing

Since COVID-19 is an infectious disease, many national and regional governments have reacted by limiting people’s ability to travel. Peru, where Equal Exchange buys coffee, cacao and bananas, abruptly sealed its borders on March 29th. India, where we source tea, ordered a 21-day countrywide lockdown on March 24th that includes ports. The list of countries that have ordered curfews or shutdowns keeps getting longer. However, in most cases, commercial logistics and port operations have continued, even if capacity is reduced.

Restrictions to domestic transportation also affect the agricultural sector. For example, even though our banana partners in Ecuador and Peru are classified as essential workers, they must show permits at checkpoints within their countries to get around. Some of the cacao co-ops we work with in Peru and in Togo have temporarily suspended central operations. That means farmers are carrying out post-harvest practices on their individual farms and storing their beans for now.

Bags of fair trade cacao
Cacao beans stored at the Scoops IKPA co-op, in Togo.

COVID-19 Affects Price and Availability of Goods

COVID-19 has shaken international markets. This has a ripple effect on everyday life. Our partners in Mexico tell us that the price of basic household goods like sugar and eggs is up by 20%. Luckily, farmers who work on their own land are often more resilient in the face of shortages than workers on large plantations. Equal Exchange trades with small-scale farmers who cultivate plots of land that they own. In addition to the crops they grow for the international market, many of our partners supplement their income by raising foods that can be sold locally or eaten at home. They may grow fruit, corn and beans or keep livestock. This allows for a degree of self-reliance.

Partners in our fair trade produce supply chain tell us that it’s been harder to find supplies like packing boxes and stickers for bananas. (We’ve found the same is true for us here in the U.S with certain supplies!) We anticipate more of these kinds of shortages in the weeks to come.

A person's hands hold a box of bananas
COVID-19 has made it harder for our banana partners to source packing boxes.

Sharing information

Our trading partners have organized themselves as members of agricultural cooperatives. Co-op leadership has the ability to get in touch with members, who may be geographically isolated, in order to share information and support. Some countries’ governments have been reluctant to respond to the pandemic as an emergency. For example, the Mexican Secretariat of Health issued a statement in late January saying that the novel coronavirus COVID-19 did not present a danger to Mexico. When the government doesn’t provide clear guidelines, farmers and the organizations to which they belong are the ones who share information to protect each other.

Doña Leticia Velasco, member of the CESMACH coffee co-op in Mexico, gives us a tour of the edible plants growing on her neighbors’ land.

Equal Exchange is also in a good position to share information. A grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development funds our work with farmers in four countries in Latin America through the Cooperative Development Program. This program’s staff is in regular contact with ten different farmer groups in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. We’ve been able to pass on guidelines from the World Health Organization to our partners. And we’re working with the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council to compile resources that leaders of co-ops can share with their members.

What About Equal Exchange — And You?

As a worker-owned co-op, Equal Exchange’s priority is taking care of each other and the people in our alternative trade network. EE has a larger degree of control over our supply chain than some others in the industry. We’ve always purchased directly from farmer groups. We roast coffee in-house on our own equipment. And we ship or deliver directly to food stores and community partners. We’re finding that to be a source of strength right now! As we take additional steps in our production facility and warehouse to keep everyone safe, we’ve been able to honor our contracts and keep up with increased demand.

We are checking in constantly with producer groups in order to ensure processes are as seamless for them as possible. We have switched to all-digital documentation for shipping coffee to ensure beans are not held up at port, and to enable quick payment back to the co-op for any container. It’s been heartening to see partners adapt and go 100% digital for logistics purposes.

And producer groups have been checking in with us too, asking about how we’re doing personally and how this has affected our business. We’re happy to be able to tell them that our customers and allies have shown strong support for alternative economic supply chains. In an uncertain economy, this makes all the difference to farmers.

Want to know more about the projects our co-op partners have taken on to help their communities? Read our update post from May 11, 2020.

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