A part of India with many family farms owned by hard working farmers whose livelihoods depend on agriculture. A region, with undulating terrain, with elevations ranging from ground level to over 4000 feet. A state where coffee is grown, even Arabica at elevations of over 3000 feet, but not many know about it.
We are referring to the State of Meghalaya, the home of Zizira. Over the past two years Zizira explorers have met farmers who are growing coffee, and some who cultivated and stopped due to poor returns. Want to know who we met and what we saw? Read on...
Discovering Through Exploration
Zizira started operations in 2015. Do you know its tag line? Making Farmers of NE India Famous. The mission, to help achieve this, is to open markets for them. If the farmers of NE India become famous, i.e. well-known, it will mean the world has woken up to the uniqueness in their produce and to their farming techniques.
There were enough signs to point to the rich agricultural and horticultural potential of this region. And, pointers to show too that hardworking farmers are not being compensated adequately.
“Zizira was set up as an ‘exploration’ project to mine the inherent potential of the land in such way that it opens markets for the farmers and they thrive, so also our venture.
Zizira is exploring the region for ‘High Value, Low Volume’ produce, to release the potential of farmers, and one such is looking for potential in single farm coffee, artisan coffee, grown at higher elevations.
The coffee board is training farmers in proper drying methods, but, looks like, not with much success. The rates the local beans get is low because of poor standards in drying.
“We are not fetching good price (for Meghalaya coffee), though organic, as quality is compromised due to poor drying. That is a pity. If drying is done properly then Meghalaya coffee can command a much better price”. Said a Coffee Board official.
Meghalaya Not Seen as a Coffee Growing State
Though Meghalaya produces high quality coffee, it does not count as a State growing coffee. Do you know why? To begin with, coffee farmers are very few in the state and they do not sell their produce locally. In fact, their harvest is purchased by the Coffee Board and sent to the nearest processing centre in Guwahati and then transported to Bangalore’s auction houses. The identity of Meghalaya coffee is thus lost! It is time for the Meghalaya coffee farmers to stand up and get noticed!
Meet Coffee Farmers
This is a first-hand report of team zizira’s meetings with coffee farmers like Mr. Teibor Mynsong, of Ri Bhoi district, and farmers in Mynriah and Syltham villages of East Khasi hills district. These farmers need to be acknowledged, celebrated and helped by opening markets for them. Meet farmer Teibor Mynsong of Ri Bhoi district used to grow pineapples, but moved to cultivating coffee in 2012. He now has 1200 coffee plants, which produce 2 Kgs of coffee berries per year. Why did he make the switch?
“Growing coffee requires less labour and care as compared to pineapple. I don’t have to water or use any fertilizer or pesticide. The leaves fall off the plants and replenish the soil” said farmer Teibor.
It took an effort to reach his farm, but the sight of lush coffee plants and the hospitable farmer made it so worth it. Farmer Mynsong was happy to see someone noticing his hard work over the years and enquiring about his coffee. If he is able to follow the best practices in post-harvest processing, we could be looking at his own single farm artisan coffee. These are the farmers who need to become known, become ‘famous’ and earn better returns for their labour.
Visit to Mynriah, Smit was Unique
The Zizira team’s visit to Mynriah Village, in Smit, was special. Though the village is not easily accessible, the team has made three visits already to meet the coffee farmers. It took more than an hour by car from Shillong to Umtong village and then a two-hour hike across hills, to reach Mynriah. The third trip was made in November 2017 by a team of 10 and was a well-planned one.
Zizira senses that these farmers need help in marketing, and plans to build a relationship with them and see what could be done. As the route was so arduous, the group stayed overnight and spent a good 4 to 5 hours interacting with the farmers and going around the fields. The team met the headman and an elderly person who founded the village. Many of the farmers had stopped growing coffee as the rates they got did not make it attractive.
The buzz we heard was that they were not happy with the rates and the terms offered by the Coffee Board. Could it be because they did not dry the bean properly that they got poor rates? It was a pity, though, to see that many of the plants had been allowed to dry, as farmers wanted to stop cultivating coffee. If there is a market, the farmers are confident of reviving the plants.
Zizira plans to buy not just their coffee beans, but also honey. Yes, Zizira is taking a risk with this partnership as the coffee is yet to be tested, but there is no better way of learning than by doing. Team Zizira was blown away by the hospitality and the gentle nature of the coffee farmers they met in Mynriah. Here again there is a potential for single farm coffee. What can also be referred to as artisan coffee.
Once Thriving Coffee Growing Village - Syltham
Syltham village, close to Mynriah, also in East Khasi Hills district, was once a thriving centre for coffee beans. Now the story is different. There seems little scope in Syltham village for coffee. Most of the plants have died as farmers have abandoned the idea of growing coffee.
An interesting news we heard was that coffee had come to Syltham thanks to a Catholic priest who gave them 15 Kgs of seeds for planting, around 50 years ago.
Other Explorations to Meet Coffee Farmers
In October 2017 Zizira explorers visited Pynursla in search of coffee farmers.
Zizira may source coffee directly from such farmers for both in-house consumption and for creating a Zizira product. Team Zizira has met with other coffee farmers too. Maybe more on that later.
Proper Processing is The Golden Key?
What is clear is that for good quality coffee, proper post-harvest processing is crucial. Mr Barry Syiem, the district horticultural officer mentioned in an interaction with Zizira that proper processing units are important. He said:
While a good number of people took up coffee growing, lack of knowledge and the required processing units are pushing these farmers to give up coffee”
Artisan Coffee a Possibility
Is there market for Meghalaya Coffee? Zizira bets there is, especially for single farm coffee, artisan coffee, grown at higher altitudes, provided the farmers are willing to adapt the correct post-harvest processing methods to get good quality and it is properly marketed. Zizira has been exploring for almost 2 years – more stories can be seen on its blog.
Zizira is facilitating a social network for farmers, entrepreneurs, researches and well-wishers of the farmers of NE India, called Friends of Zizira, to help build a movement. If you are a scientist, entrepreneur, farmer, researchers or well-wishers of Zizira, then we invite you to join.
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