- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 16, 2002

CHOCHE, Ethiopia
Yergacheffe and Harar are stars in the firmament of specialty coffees, but in the heart of Ethiopia where the plant was first discovered, farmers reap few benefits from their highly prized crops.
"For the last three years, coffee has become undependable," said Abba Milki, an 80-year-old farmer who owns 4,000 coffee trees. "Our livelihood is at stake if the situation doesn't change. We get nothing from the crop; it doesn't even pay for the labor."
With world prices at a 30-year low because of a glut of low-quality beans, even the Ethiopian farmers who grow the high-quality Harars and the Yergs, as they're known in the trade, are having problems.
Mr. Milki and other Ethiopian farmers earn about 60 cents a pound for some of the best organically grown beans in the world while coffee lovers buy it at stores for between $5 and $9 a pound.
Although not all Ethiopian coffee is on a par with the Harars and Yergacheffes, the country's beans have a significant role in the American public's shift from commercial to specialty coffee, according to buyer Jason Long.
Mr. Long, of St. Paul, Minn.-based Cafe Imports, said his 9-year-old firm has increased its volume in specialty coffees by 35 percent to 40 percent a year.
"Our volume has picked up so much because demand has picked up, and Ethiopian [coffee] has played a large part in this," Mr. Long said in a telephone interview.
Scott Kee, who buys Ethiopian coffee from Cafe Imports for the Minneapolis-based Dun Brothers Coffee chain, said it was a strong seller.
"I love these coffees and gravitate toward those that have stronger nuance in the cup," he said.
Legend has it that a shepherd in this village in south-central Ethiopia noticed his goats prancing around after eating the bright red berries from bushes that abound in the area. He tried the berries himself and was seen prancing around by a monk who, in turn, chewed the berries to stay awake during all-night prayers.
"This is where our great treasure originated," Bekele Jirata of the national Coffee and Tea Authority said of the commodity that is the second-most traded in the world after oil.
But farmers in Choche and other parts of Ethiopia are at a loss whether to stick with the treasure or try to grow something that will pay the bills. Some are considering khat, a seminarcotic leaf that grows on small trees and is very popular in neighboring Djibouti and Somalia.
Mohammed Fita, who owns 25 acres of trees, said he would stick with coffee and wait for prices to improve.
"You can grow other cash crops, but everything here has value only in relation to coffee."
Choche is in Jimma, one of the 12 administrative zones in Oromia state, which accounts for 35 percent of Ethiopia's total production of about 230,000 tons a year.
An estimated 45 percent of Ethiopia's coffee is consumed at home; the rest is exported. But because of plummeting prices and drought, earnings have been halved since 1997-98.
The reasons for Choche's misery range from the frustratingly long market chain through which meager earnings trickle down to farmers to the monumental inefficiency of the Ethiopian marketing process. Then there are ill-advised World Bank projects that have glutted the world market with lower quality beans and driven down prices.
"We can't afford to pay school fees for our children," said Fatuma Ibrahim, a mother of six who has 2,000 coffee trees. "They used to feed me and my family, but now I can't afford to take my diabetic husband to a clinic."
Oxfam International, which has started a global awareness campaign about the coffee crisis, says the livelihoods of 25 million farmers are at risk. It notes that, despite the precipitous decline in prices to growers, there hasn't been a significant change in the price coffee drinkers pay.
The agency is calling on the big corporations that buy most of the commercial coffee to pay a fair price to growers, and it wants 5 million bags of the lowest quality in stock destroyed.
But a meeting of the International Coffee Organization last month failed to produce an agreement on either the destruction or strict standards.


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