Why Are Haiti's Coffee Trees So Tall?

Changing café culture and international do-gooderism collide on a troubled island.


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In the village of Bois Coffre there is a small mountain house, tucked at the back of a dirt courtyard surrounded by banana trees and hibiscus bushes. Growing right next to the structure, so close that its roots almost certainly threaten the foundation, is a towering 60-year-old coffee tree.

The plant is nearly barren; it produces perhaps two coffee cherries a year—a harvest of four beans—but the tree's owner does not prune it back. In Haiti, there is a joke: If a coffee tree still gives a single cherry, a farmer will not touch it with a machete, lest he lose the income that cherry represents, minuscule as it may be.

The joke isn't very funny.

In Haiti, coffee grows on trees. Well, technically all coffee grows on trees. The brown beans that go into making your morning cup are actually the dried and roasted seeds of a small red fruit from a tropical tree. But on the better-managed coffee farms found in much of Central and South America, the plants are rarely allowed to grow much taller than a man. This channels the nutrients and energy that plants gather from the sun and soil toward producing beans, which make money, instead of wasting resources sprouting too many woody trunks and branches. As most coffee is harvested by hand, keeping trees short also means that pickers can easily reach the fruits.

In Haiti, however, it's not out of the ordinary to find 20-foot-tall coffee plants. When I first arrived, I thought that the semi-wild, half-forgotten coffee I'd seen growing in the mountains was a recent development, the result of a sequence of natural and manmade disasters, including the earthquake of 2010 and the international embargo of the early 1990s that crippled the national economy.

In fact, it is a sign of how long the country has been in crisis: Coffee is known as one of the best cash crops for a tropical farmer, especially one with a small plot of land who has few resources beyond hand tools, organic fertilizers, and sweat. The majority of Haitians are farmers, and for the foreseeable future agriculture will remain the default economic backbone for the roughly six million people who live in rural districts. Yet Haitian farmers put almost no energy into tending the small coffee groves that their fathers planted. The average yield in Haiti is now just a third of the Central American average.

After I'd lived in Haiti for a few years, the underdevelopment of the coffee sector and its feral trees began to make sense. For many farmers, it's not about producing coffee—not really. Like much of what goes on in the country, it's more about marketing to aid groups or charities than it is about the real business of buying and selling.

In Haiti, you can often make as much or more through temporary aid funding than you can from productive endeavors. Which means that, even as the market for unique coffee with an interesting backstory booms, cultivating it in the country has become as much about chasing charity as it is about trying to run a viable enterprise that produces excellent coffee year after year.

Americans have gotten serious about their coffee, but only quite recently. Seemingly normal people line up on streets outside cafés in places like San Francisco, Manhattan, and Portland, patiently waiting for espressos and pour-overs and not batting an eye when the tab is as high as the price of a newsstand magazine. Many of these customers drink coffee because they like the taste of coffee, as opposed to, say, using it as a vehicle for milk and sugar or as a socially acceptable alternative to freebasing caffeine.

These taste-centric coffee nerds have become a lot like wine aficionados, focusing on the country, region, or even farm where their coffee was grown. Some want to know about the agricultural and socio-economic conditions of the coffee plantations, as shown by the rise of programs like certified organic and fair trade. Then come the real geeks—the people interested in the variety of the coffee plant, the altitude of the plantation, and how the beans were processed, all of which can influence how the product tastes in the cup. And there's a lot of overlap among these groups. After all, the people who care most about how their coffee tastes are most likely to care about how the person who grew it was treated. And they'll probably also be willing to pay more for it.

In contrast to a $4 vacuum-sealed tin can of pre-ground coffee from the grocery store, coffee sold to these fanatics often retails for $12 to $20 a bag and might come straight from a local roaster. Much of it is single-origin, meaning that instead of a blend of different coffees from all over a country or the world, the beans come from either the same farm or a group of farmers in the same community. The bag label features the country of origin, and frequently the name of the farmer or cooperative group that grew it.

Coffee used to be simply a commodity; any bean was more or less interchangeable with another from anywhere else. The early 20th century market was all about volume—national roasters like Maxwell House and Folgers perfected the arts of standardization, mass production, and distribution, competing mainly on price. U.S. consumption peaked in 1946, when Americans drank an average of more than two cups per day, a level never reached again. The beans were bad by modern coffee-geek standards, but it was cheap, and it delivered caffeine—the only two relevant criteria for many coffee drinkers both then and now.

Today, that lower-quality segment of the coffee market—the cans that lined the pantries of my grandparents' generation—has completely stagnated at zero growth. In stark contrast, the specialty coffee sector—the high-quality, pricier segment of the market that is to Folgers what craft beer is to Bud—has been exploding, growing by an estimated 10 percent annually for the past 15 years. Now, one out of every two coffees drunk in the United States falls into the specialty category.

The coffee plant shares a botanical family with the gardenia flower, and while there are thousands of different species of coffee, only two are commercially significant: arabica and canephora. All coffee grown in Haiti is arabica, the higher-quality bean served in trendy cafés today. Ninety percent of Haitian coffee is the typica variety—one of the oldest in production, relatively unchanged from the very first coffee plants brought to the Western Hemisphere from Ethiopia by way of the Arabian Peninsula and Europe. Haiti's typica has excellent potential for quality in terms of how it tastes in the cup, but it's a tall, spindly plant whose yields are just one-third of many newer varieties. So Haiti's coffee trees are naturally inclined to shoot up quickly if left to their own devices—it's part of the genetic makeup of the plant.

Over the last half-century, agronomists have selected and bred many varieties of the plant that have favorable traits, like resisting disease or being shorter, squatter, and higher-yielding. Over the same period, global coffee production has also steadily increased. Brazil, the top global producer, grows coffee like it's corn—monoculture, in full sun, and with lots and lots of chemical fertilizers and pesticides applied on giant fields. The upshot is that the country has the most efficient farms and highest coffee yields in the world. By contrast, about 80 percent of the world's coffee is grown by an estimated 25 million smallholder farmers—a collectively large group of people who each grow a tiny amount of coffee on their tiny plots of land. And Haiti is a country of smallholders: 85 percent of coffee farmers there have plots smaller than five acres.

The evolution of the coffee market presents small-scale farmers with new opportunities, because the coffee people who have become obsessed with quality are willing to pay for it. "Today," specialty coffee pioneer George Howell explains in the 2014 documentary A Film About Coffee, "we're starting to see cafés presenting coffees, and they're single farm, single origin, and they're not fair trade anymore only. They're now direct trade. This has now brought coffee farmers who are really caring, who are really craftsmen, it's allowing them for the first time to be independent of the commodity market and the swings that take place where for years in a row they could be paid under the cost of production."

That's the salient point if you're a small-scale coffee farmer in Haiti, or anywhere else for that matter. For most of the first half of 2016, the commodity market hovered between $1.15 and $1.35 per pound of green coffee. High-end coffee routinely sells for much more—sometimes double or triple that amount. If a grower can focus on high-end markets, then he can capture a hefty chunk of that price premium and, ideally, unhinge from the bulk market, making it easier to support his family.

But most Haitians don't grow for high-end markets for the same reason they don't prune their trees. They have no idea what tomorrow will look like. Global coffee prices are notoriously volatile. Weather patterns, like the three-year drought that crippled agricultural production in parts of Haiti recently, can be fickle and devastating. Diseases like coffee leaf rust can destroy a grower's coffee farm in a single season. But the biggest source of uncertainty is political.

It's not a stretch to say that Haiti has been saddled with political instability since 1986, the year the people finally uprooted the dictatorial Duvalier dynasty. That year represents the start of what Haiti-born University of Virginia political scientist Robert Fatton has called "the unending transition to democracy." The ouster of the dictators brought a wave of optimism to Haitians and outside observers alike. But, Fatton says, many of those people missed a crucial factor: To transition to democracy, Haiti would not only have to replace a regime in the father-son duo who just happened to be the latest rulers to warm the throne. It would also have to replace an entire form of government—the historical institution of dictatorship that had roots two centuries deep.

In the 30 years since 1986, there have been 18 separate terms served by heads of state. That includes interim and acting presidents, like the one in power today as a result of years of political impasse and delayed elections. In theory, and in a world without coups, there should have been just six terms over those three decades, given that the term limit for a Haitian president is five years.

Because that transition has been never-ending, an entire generation has now passed since 1986 where uncertainty about the political future is the norm. And the political bleeds into everything, including the day-to-day choices made by all Haitians, rural farmers included. It's not by accident that most coffee plantings in the country lie somewhere between neglect and all-out abandonment. If you're unsure what the political winds will bring next year, or who might be in power and how it will affect you, why would you invest in a long-term cash crop that takes years to pay off? To make sure you can provide for your family, you'd be wiser to focus on the food-crop harvest that's just a few months away, which is exactly what Haitian farmers do.

While coffee production has been steadily increasing for decades worldwide, it's been dwindling in Haiti, and official exports have nearly bottomed out. Since the 1980s, yields have fallen by half, and overseas sales have plummeted by 95 percent. Haiti now produces approximately 300,000 bags of coffee each year, or about 0.2 percent of global production.

Over the past 25 years, at least $25 million in public and private aid has been spent exclusively on coffee projects in Haiti, most targeted at producing high-quality coffee for export. "We trained farmers for three years in coffee technology," says Marc Eddy Martin, an Agency for International Development (USAID) agronomist who also worked for Haiti's Ministry of Agriculture in the late 1970s. The U.S.-funded trainings covered how to produce new seedlings, prune trees properly, control leaf rust, and every other technical aspect of coffee production. The project spent $4.5 million from 1990 to 1995 and produced more than 1 million seedlings. But like all other coffee aid initiatives before and after, it couldn't stem the decline of the sector.

Most aid projects focus obsessively on the roughly 5 percent of the sector that produces coffee for export. After all, talk of selling Haitian coffee in American cafés is sexy, and many donors want to fund projects that have a link back to their home countries. But pushing Haitians to grow exclusively for export ignored the realities on the ground.

Practically all the infrastructure and equipment used by farmer cooperatives and associations were plopped down by an aid agency or nongovernmental organization. Because these resources were gifted, farmers have no equity in the ventures. The result is that there's no real ownership or accountability in many of the organizations that produce coffee for export today. And in turn, there are few incentives to make repairs when equipment fails, or to want to achieve long-term success generally.

Even for farmers who do have buy-in, almost none of the infrastructure built through these projects has been tailored to Haiti's context or needs. As a general rule, the gear is much too large for the low coffee yields and production levels in the country, and built in a style more suited for Central America. These aid-built facilities wind up operating at extremely low capacities and consequently with high labor, fuel, and water requirements. Most of them are so inefficient that they can't even break even—or at least they wouldn't be able to without support from outside aid groups.

In East Africa, where coffee production more closely mirrors Haiti's conditions than in Central America, various NGOs have pushed infrastructure appropriate for small quantities of coffee. Many of these initiatives use innovative and efficient equipment, and they solved many of the lack-of-ownership issues by truly involving farmers, who gave structural materials like bamboo and rocks and earned sweat equity by providing labor.

Over decades of aid projects, organizing as a co-op in Haiti became not so much about producing the best possible coffee year after year, but instead about hanging out a shingle that could be marketed to aid groups. Economists call this sort of activity rent seeking, which refers to the choice to spend resources pursuing political favors instead of on productive activity. The aid-seeking in Haiti's coffee sector is similar: Many cooperatives wind up chasing after seedlings, motorcycles, or grant funds on offer, instead of trying to run a sustainable enterprise. This is completely logical—if money is already earmarked for Haiti's coffee sector in a USAID budget, for example, then cooperatives would be silly not to try to get it.

Kafe Kreyol
When it comes to drinking coffee, Haiti takes its lead from France—and French coffee is dark, strong, and "sucks so bad," as food and coffee writer Oliver Strand has put it. But, Strand added, "the point of a Parisian café isn't really the coffee." To me, the point of drinking coffee in Haiti always seemed to be the sugar. The traditional Haitian coffee roast is what I can only describe as dark-to-burnt. It's practical. Except for at a few cafés and restaurants in the capital, the quality is usually sub-par, so you have to roast it to well-done to cover the defects.

There's an old joke that Haiti is 80 percent Catholic and 100 percent Vodou. It's probably also close to 100 percent coffee drinker. A lot of Haitians still roast coffee at home—much as American housewives did until the early 20th century—in a pot over a charcoal fire, and most mix sugar into the beans as they roast. It comes out looking like a gooey, sparkling black mass, before being ground with a mortar and pestle.

The existence of a robust domestic market is what sets Haiti apart from other countries, such as Rwanda and Uganda, which have made a success in the export business in part because the locals prefer to drink tea. It also changes the math on whether to aim for exportable-quality beans. Despite the fact that nearly all of Haiti's coffee is the potentially great-tasting typica variety, 90 percent is processed with very little quality control and bound for less-discerning local markets. It can be more straightforward, more profitable, and less risky to focus on food crops and sell that semi-neglected low-quality product locally (for a pretty decent price) and get paid a little bit today than to take the extra effort to produce a high-quality product for export that might pay more, but with a six-month-or-longer lag time. The extra costs and risks to export make the domestic market a much safer bet for the average Haitian coffee farmer.

Savane Zombie
Tucked high into the hills in one of the parts of Haiti that's still lush and green, Savane Zombie and its environs are home to the Haiti Coffee Academy, which I helped manage for a year. That initiative's goal is to help interested coffee farmers improve their yields, quality, and livelihoods by increasing their production and getting their costs down—to help make coffee work for small-scale Haitian farmers again.

Slowly but surely, there's been some progress. The Philadelphia-based coffee roaster La Colombe released a coffee from a Savane Zombie farmers association in summer 2015. It was a small amount, but it turned out to be the best-quality coffee the roaster had ever bought from Haiti. Since then, other American roasters have shown interest in buying Haitian coffee and supporting the work on the ground. Allegro, the coffee arm of Whole Foods, purchased a small order from the same farmer group in 2016.

Progress doesn't happen overnight. Coffee is a tree crop that takes up to four years to give its first full harvest, and issues that extend far beyond agricultural facts regarding the plant and the local coffee market dynamics present tougher obstacles. No one can say how long political uncertainty will persist in Haiti, or how long its transition to democracy will remain in its interminable state.

"A person must be somewhat conversant with travelling in Hayti," wrote James Franklin, a British "man of commerce" who visited the island several times in the 1820s, "before he can discover on his road that a coffee plantation is near him." Franklin described the plantation he was visiting as "a very good illustration of the coffee settlements in general, all of which exhibit negligence." When it comes to those tall, neglected trees, little seems to have changed in almost 200 years.

Another thing that hasn't changed is the know-it-all dogooderism shown by many deep-pocketed visitors to the island. But working alongside farmers, and listening to them about what they truly need—rather than dumping equipment and dreams on them, unsuited to their situation—can lead to the unglamorous improvements that add up to big differences in Haitians' lives and livelihoods.