Bees Partner with Coffee Farmers to Save the Farm

29 September 2016   |   Janice Nadworny, co-director of Food 4 Farmers

The coffee rust crisis of 2012 -2013 laid bare the precarious situation that hundreds of thousands of Latin American coffee farmers face every day. In some communities, farmers lost as much as 90 percent of their crop. Even today many farmers are struggling to recover. For some, diversification through beekeeping is showing promising results. Today on National Coffee Day, we’ve invited Food 4 Farmers, an NGO working with coffee farmers, to share their important work.


Since 2013, thousands of coffee producers and workers have left farms to seek work elsewhere. Some cooperatives have disbanded entirely. In the aftermath of la roya, the coffee industry has rallied, investing significantly to develop new coffee varietals that can withstand the impact of climate change, and training farmers on best agricultural practices.

But the question remains: what will coffee producers do when the next crisis hits, or as climate change reduces their ability to grow coffee?

In Latin America, which supplies most of the coffee consumed in the US, millions of people rely on this commodity for their livelihoods. Even before the latest coffee rust crisis, income from coffee had not provided enough income to support most smallholder coffee-farming families. Considering the low prices often paid for coffee along with fluctuating markets, many farmers simply cannot meet their family’s dietary needs for a full year. When money from the coffee harvest runs out, some cannot access nutritious food for as long as six or seven months a year — every year.

Combatting Seasonal Hunger

A survey of households in Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala found that, on average, 63% of coffee households suffered food insecurity during the year. This seasonal food insecurity has a name: Los Meses Flacos, or the thin months of hunger. Families survive by eating less, eating cheap processed food, or going into debt to buy food. (SCAA, from the Blueprint to End Hunger)

Many families resort to off-farm work, neglecting the needs of their farms, with negative consequences for the following year’s harvest. My NGO, Food 4 Farmers, is working to make sure coffee farmers have the option to stay and thrive. We’re finding that bringing farmers and bees together is one of the best ways to do just that. Food 4 Farmers now works with five coffee cooperatives and farming associations in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Nicaragua where together, we identify the root causes of hunger and lack of access to nutritious food. Then, we build community-identified and -driven strategies to address these problems.

For food security strategies like beekeeping, which are designed to diversify and improve livelihoods, we include business plans. We also try to build connections, linking farmers with potential buyers. Around the world, demand for high quality honey is soaring and, as consumers become more aware of where their food comes from through efforts like Fairtrade, coffee farmers are seeing increased interest in delicious “origin” honey.

Our beekeeping programs with Cesmach and Maya Ixil – both Fairtrade co-ops in Mexico and Guatemala, respectively – are in early stages, but are already bearing fruit.  With funding from Root Capital and Progreso Foundation, and training expertise from CADIA and Ecosur, we’re working with these co-ops to help them build their capacity to develop and sustain successful commercial beekeeping businesses.

At CESMACH, 70 coffee farmers are diversifying their production beyond coffee to increase income. We’re training 20 new beekeepers in the basics, and offer more advanced training to the 50 farmers already producing honey. At Maya Ixil, 43 new beekeepers have started up new honey production businesses, and more are signing up to join the program.

Sweet Results

In the first year of training, coffee farmers learn together at a communal apiary, working the hives 2 days per week. This allows them to continue farming coffee without disruption. Once they develop confidence and skill – bees in Latin America are more aggressive than our more docile North American honey bees – these new beekeepers receive hives of their own, and can take out small loans for more.  Maya Ixil has joined the nearby COPIASURO honey co-op and exporter, to link them with Fairtrade buyers in the EU. The co-op is also selling honey in local markets to further bolster their income.

For many of these coffee farmers, beekeeping is proving to be a great short-term solution to the coffee rust crisis, with production beginning in the first year and potential for higher quality and volumes as skills improve.

Though new beekeepers may have only a few hives, and have just started to harvest honey, they are already seeing benefits. Maya Ixil beekeepers report that beekeeping is now their second-most important source of income, after coffee – replacing the off-farm work that previously provided secondary income. Parents are proud that they can provide their families with additional income, and a safety net to shelter them from unpredictable coffee markets and climate change. For many families, beekeeping is a family affair, where men and women contribute, learn, and benefit.  Beyond income, honey production delivers much-needed nutritional benefits to coffee-farming families, helping them through periods of food insecurity.

Most important, coffee-farming families feel that they have a larger measure of control over their lives, and believe they can make these new small businesses thrive. If and when the next crisis comes along, they’ll be better prepared.

Janice Nadworny is co-director of Food 4 Farmers, a nonprofit organization she founded with Marcela Pino and Rick Peyser. Food 4 Farmers partners with coffee cooperatives and community-based organizations in Latin America to identify challenges, resources, and strategies that empower farming families to build lasting solutions to seasonal hunger. For more information, visit

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