Booklets with health and safety recommendations for coffee picking at COVID-19 times have been disseminated recently by various stakeholders such as the Secretariat of Agriculture of Espírito Santo (SEAG), cooperatives and traders. The materials are illustrated and contain useful information about hygienic measures and sanitation of equipment, transportation and workplaces. The Coronavirus crisis is expected to reach its peak between April and June in Brazil, when coffee harvesting will be in full force. With the 2020 production estimated at 62 million bags or more, farmers have to take extra precautions in order to safeguard the health of both their own workers and additional pickers coming to the farm from other municipalities, while creating awareness about the issue.

The on-going discussion about the potential impacts of the pandemic on the coming Brazilian harvesting season is very active these days for the obvious reason that coffee picking is about to start for Conilon and is 30 days away for most Arabica. Experts believe that the dissemination of COVID-19 is yet to reach its peak in Brazil while most of the country remains in a horizontal social distancing mode that is likely to last longer than first expected in many if not most areas. Both Conilon and Arabica harvesting can be affected if the current social distancing lasts until May or June.

The question behind the debate is whether labor to pick coffee will be available where it is needed. The answer to this question depends on the distances to be traveled by labor and how social distancing will affect its mobility. Let’s see if and how existing data can help. According to the latest IBGE Agricensus figures, in 2017 coffee farms larger than 500ha accounted for 16% of total production while those under 500ha and above 100ha accounted for 27%. The same Agricensus states that large farms produce predominantly Arabica.

The large farms are the ones that either rely on mechanical harvesting using big machines that do the work of about 100 coffee pickers  each or use large numbers of people who often come from far away and are lodged on the farms themselves. Sales of mechanical harvesters have increased recently, probably for fear of a smaller labor offer due to the pandemic. It is usually said that 20 to 30% of Brazilian Arabica is today harvested by these machines and considering that mechanical harvesting is much more prevalent in large farms it may be possible to assume that at least 50%, perhaps 70%, of the large farms rely on this technology today and use few people to harvest a large volume of coffee.

Assuming that half of the coffee farms above 500ha still use labor that travels large distances, sometimes crossing state borders, and that this labor is lodged at on-farm dormitories; considering that in 2017 about three-fourths of the total production was Arabica; and assuming that 90% of such large farms grow Arabica, the crop at most risk would be about 5% of the Arabica production. This is not negligible considering the size of the coming Arabica crop but it is of the same order of magnitude of other losses that can always occur, e.g.: hulling losses.

Does the rough ballpark estimate above justify the current debate? Perhaps not, even considering that a number of farms in the range of 100 to 500ha, that account for 27% of the Brazilian coffee crop, may also rely on labor that travels long distances. It is known that this labor cannot be supplied locally in normal conditions but perhaps some of the urban population currently at home because of horizontal social distancing can be used to pick coffee. Is this feasible? Is this speculating beyond reason? It can be assumed that towns in many coffee growing areas do have a sizable percentage of the population, specially those in the informal sector or untrained labor, that may be now attracted to coffee picking as a way out of the income shortage caused by the social distancing that does not include agricultural activities. Is this a solution to be further explored without risk of further spread of the virus? The next months will let us know.

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