Los Delirios Labor Diaries

Our current Nicaragua Flor Azul lot comes from Milton Canales and the Los Monos section of his family’s Los Delirios farm. It was shade-grown and shade-dried at the family’s new dry mill, and represents the culmination of years of effort and investment to rehabilitate Los Monos and upgrade the farm’s post-harvest infrastructure and processing.

But the effort behind this lot wasn’t Milton’s alone. Eighty of his neighbors harvested this coffee during 28 days spread across two months, from mid-December 2018 to mid-February 2019.  As part of our commitment to give credit for quality where it is due, we identify every one of them in our coffee credits here.  

And as part of our commitment to better understand farm labor in our supply chains, we have partnered with the Canales family to collect and analyze data on seasonal farm labor.

The Labor Diaries

Every day during harvest, the Canales family recorded in battered spiral notebooks the name of every worker who showed up and the amount of cherry each one delivered to each of the three wet mills it operates.  Their deliveries are measured in latas, five-gallon plastic buckets that generally represent roughly 30-32 pounds of coffee cherry.

This season, we collected copies of all the Canales family’s harvest notebooks with the idea of analyzing the data in them to better understand farm labor at Los Delirios and to identify potential innovations to improve worker livelihoods, quality, or both.

 These data help us to understand the labor function on the farm, beginning with labor demand — how many workers the farm needs at each point in the harvest.

They help us to see how labor productivity changes over the course of the harvest — the average amount of coffee a worker harvests in a day.

And they allow us to track total deliveries over the course of the harvest, from the first pickings through peak harvest to the last.

These general direction of these findings may not be revolutionary.  After all, we have long understood the production distribution to generally resemble a bell curve.  But the specificity can help us consider, together with the Canales family, the distribution of harvesting days over the course of the season, evolution of labor demand and labor productivity, the time between passes, and other possibilities we might not have considered exploring in the absence of such granular data.

They also help us  get some insight into how seasonal farm labor fits into broader household livelihood strategies.  For some, work at Los Monos was sporadic, for others, it was regular.  There were 28 harvest days at Los Monos last season. The graphic below breaks that season out into quarters and shows what percentage of workers chose to pick coffee during fewer than 7 days, the percentage that chose to work between 7-14 days, 15-21 days, and more than 21 days.

And because we built these graphs from the ground up, we  can disaggregate them on the basis of gender to see how the labor strategies and contributions of men and women compare.  In the graphs that follow, women’s contributions are depicted in shades of red, men’s in shades of blue.

This graphic was particularly interesting.  

It shows a marked difference between women and men in terms of the number of days worked, which may be a reflection of local culture and tradition, different opportunities for women and men in local labor market, or other factors we don’t yet understand.

We are just beginning to scratch the surface of these farm labor data, but already there are two initiatives we are working on for next season based on our analysis, one focused on social impact and one on coffee quality.

Meantime, we are working to enlist external experts to help us mine them for deeper insight even as we think about how to expand both  the narrow parameters of these basic data fields and the number of data collection points to other farms in our supply chain.

Our model is built on the idea of mutual benefit and shared value, on the alignment of  incentives for quality from one end of the coffee chain to the other. Over and over again in the context of estates and small-scale family farmers, we have been able to turn shared commitment to quality into shared value, and to generate reliable returns to investment in quality-focused innovation.  We are bringing the same focus to this work on farm labor, working to identify opportunities for chain-wide investment and collaboration to turn a shared commitment to quality into better outcomes for everyone.

 

Our collective blind spot

Intelligentsia’s Chicago Roasting Works is located in a light industry area a few miles west of the Loop, the center of the city’s financial and cultural districts.  Every morning on my way to work, I walk past manufacturing plants, dodging forklifts and rigs making deliveries and pickups. One morning in early 2017, this sticker on a semi-trailer caught my eye.

It is intended as a courtesy for drivers, of course, telling them that if they can’t see the driver, the driver can’t  see them. But it occurred to me that it might be an appropriate message for coffee farmworkers. After all, farmworkers represent the most numerous and most vulnerable participants in specialty coffee supply chains, but have remained stubbornly isolated from broader currents of concern, conversation, and action in the coffee industry, even over a quarter-century of extraordinary innovation in sustainability.  And this despite the fact that in every coffee origin I know, spending on labor represents the largest portion of a grower’s cost of production.   Continue reading “Our collective blind spot”