With coffee grown in India set to record the highest production in 2015-16 (348,000 MT as against 320,000 MT the previous year), the market for coffee is huge with many up and coming coffee outlets and startups joining in. Given that 70% of what is produced is exported, India emerges as the third largest producer of coffee from Asia.
In view of this upsurge, coffee growers from Northeast India produced 220 MT of coffee in 2014-15 which translates to a meagre 0.07% of the total production in India. However, the potential is much higher owing to the conducive climatic and topographical conditions of Northeast India.
On a Coffee Trial
On a drizzly July morning, Zizira Explorers set out for a coffee plantation located at Mynriah village, which is about 38 km southeast of Shillong. Mynriah village is perched at an altitude of 1,300 metres above mean sea level. Naturally protected from high winds, it possesses the perfect combination of altitude, temperature and climate ideal for Arabica coffee.
The trek to Mynriah village was a sharp decline that spanned 4 km of rocky terrain. Not quite used to the arduous trek, the team was exhausted and wet from the light drizzle. However, our spirits were lifted upon being greeted by a humble and unassuming Mr. Ngoid Khriam.
Once we were settled in and nursing hot cups of tea accompanied by boiled yam, Mr. Ngoid Khriam then narrated his tale.
According to the East Khasi Hills district portal the potential for agro-based industries in Meghalaya is very high. Along with tea, coffee finds mention as a plantation crop with high potential.
The Farmer and His Family
Ngoid along with his family follows traditional farming system on their 20-acre land. Years ago, they used to grow millets, maize and yam. But they have moved on and are now growing broom and betel leaf owing to better returns. And since they had time for little else, he and his eight children had never been to school. But they have ensured that his grandchildren are getting an education.
At the same time, the farmers also discovered that coffee farming is labour-intensive and requires constant care and maintenance at every stage of the plant’s growth. The first three years of the plants did not fetch any returns. Revenue started to trickle in only from the fourth year.
Flowering in March and bearing fruits a month later, the berries are harvested in October-November. Each plant yields about 1-2 kg of coffee berries, 1 kg of which yields 250 gram of cured berries. Harvesting is done daily by plucking only the ripe berries. These berries are then crushed to separate the fruit from the seed and then soaked overnight in water.
Next, they are washed clean of the skin remains, rinsed, strained and spread out to dry in the sun on absorbent material like bamboo mats. Normally two days are sufficient to dry the berries. The cured berries are then collected in dark polythene bags and stored in a cool, dry place.
To their dismay, Mr. Ngoid and his fellow coffee growers found out that income from coffee alone was insufficient. The last two harvests yielded them a measly 50 kg of cured coffee berries valued at ₹5,000.00 in all.
Government Assistance and Awareness
At this point, the Zizira team started asking him and his sons a few questions. Are they aware that the government of Meghalaya have set-ups that aim at helping farmers on many fronts? Like trying out new crops? Assistance in seed, saplings and seedlings? Have they heard of organic farming, or about the Government of Meghalaya’s budget on organic farming? The answers are all in the negative.
Team Zizira then proceeded to explain the benefits of natural farming, which to the outside world, now translates as organic farming. These farmers are unaware that they have been practicing natural farming all along, avoiding the use of chemical based pesticides and fertilizers.
The Challenges of Coffee Growers
The major challenges faced by these farmers are:
Labour- Harvesting season forces these farmers to hire extra labour which adds to the production cost.
Transportation- The only way to the single market is up the hill to Umtong, which has to be covered with a load on the back!
Market- Their coffee is procured by the Coffee Board in Shillong. But money is paid only through bank transfers, much later. They have no idea, nor are concerned, where their produce goes to.
Ignorance about assistance from government agencies - These farmers are unaware about government schemes for farmers, be it community and market development, training or awareness programmes, seed and seedling assistance.
These challenges have demoralized the community so much that they are contemplating leaving the coffee venture altogether.
Would They Sell Their Produce to Zizira?
Mr. Ngoid became circumspect at this. He reasoned that:
He has to first work out the production expenses
He needs assured and continuous business to begin production. He was perceptive enough to understand that Zizira asks these questions with a two-fold view (i) to be a platform for the farmer and (ii) to expand our own footprints.
However, as a farmer he must ensure the economic viability of such a venture so that he does not incur any losses.
The Impression Mr. Ngoid, His Family and His Farm Left on Zizira
They appear to us as resilient people who are passionate about their way of life despite hardships. Undisturbed by modern chemical fertilizers, pesticides and destructive human intervention, the enormous potential in growing coffee is just waiting to be tapped.
With the government’s organic policy in place to introduce modern farming practices, there is no reason why Mynriah cannot be empowered and developed into a flourishing and prosperous coffee growing belt.
Zizira is hoping to create a platform for the farmers of Northeast India’s Meghalaya and build on a mutually beneficial relationship to open up markets for them. And in process, showcase and promote traditionally grown coffee from Meghalaya to the growing coffee consumers of India. Do you know any coffee farmer?