The Optimistic Coffee Landscape of Nicaragua

There are so many extraordinary things about the coffee that comes from Nicaragua. It’s a picture of overcoming all odds to find a brighter future. The unique features of Nicaraguan coffee include:

  1. The resiliency of the Nicaraguan people.
  2. 95% of it is shade-grown which helps the environment and helps create sustainable farming.
  3. Most of their coffee is Rainforest Alliance Certified.

The history of Nicaragua and coffee has been nothing short of tumultuous. If there’s a consistent theme, it would have to be untapped potential while overcoming insurmountable challenges. Their potential has begun to be unlocked in recent years, and access to resources has opened up some to producers. But even as progress has been made, there are new obstacles to overcome.

Like its other Central American neighbors, Nicaragua boasts of high elevation mountains just waiting to be cultivated with coffee. Specialty coffee, otherwise known as Arabica, grows primarily in high elevation areas like Jinotega, Matagalpa, and Nueva Segovia. These are located in the northwest part of the country. Coffee that isn’t specialty known as Robusta is also grown in Nicaragua and mainly in regions on the Caribbean side of the country in lower elevations. We only buy coffee grown in areas of high elevation.                                                      

The Beginning 

Coffee was brought by Catholic missionaries in 1790. By the 1870s, it had grown to such an extent that coffee was Nicaragua’s primary export. This era of prosperity with coffee would come to an end as Nicaragua would brace itself for decades of challenge and struggle. Fast forward to the 1970s, where the coffee landscape would really change. While Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala were emerging in their coffee production, Nicaragua was facing a revolution that lasted from 1974 to 1990. The aftermath of the civil war would leave Nicaragua in a dyer state, and when recovery efforts were picking up steam and making progress, Hurricane Mitch hit, leaving devastation in its wake. The struggles of Nicaraguan producers were multi-faceted, complex, and difficult to overcome. 

Surviving Decades of Adversity                     

Political Adversity 

One of the major challenges in the 1970s and 1980s was the civil war. This was a complicated war that involved multiple world powers, with the people of Nicaragua being caught in the middle. First, they would find themselves in the middle of the overthrow of the Samosa family dictatorship by the Sandinistas. This was a revolution that started within the borders of Nicaragua which resulted in violence and death. The Sandinistas were fiercely opposed by the United States, and as a result, conflict ensued. The people found themselves at the center of conflict among three opposing groups where much of the fighting happened in coffee fields. It was a violent time for Nicaraguans. Since this isn’t a political blog, I won’t talk about details of the conflict beyond what I’ve stated. These events are worthy of mention because they reached international proportions and provide a picture of the insurmountable challenges the Nicaraguan people faced. Imagine trying to grow coffee in war-torn lands where the evidence of military conflict would follow them for years and years. These events would severely hinder the ability of farmers to safely harvest their lands and produce quality coffee. 

Natural Adversity 

The adversity didn’t stop with political instability. Natural disasters are something the Nicaraguan people have to prepare for. Being so close to the Caribbean and having a tropical climate makes the danger of hurricanes very real. Some storms come and go, but some are so devastating that even years later, people still feel their effects. That was the case of Hurricane Mitch. Hurricane Mitch was the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane to date. It caused over 11,000 in Central America. In Nicaragua alone, there were 3,800 casualties. It was the deadliest hurricane to hit Central America on record. It was a slow-motion hurricane that dumped a whopping 75 inches of rain on Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica, leaving in its wake millions of people homeless, injured, and many dead. In Nicaragua alone, the agricultural damages totaled 185 million dollars. 70% of roads were damaged, with 92 bridges destroyed. Landslides covered villages completely, and those that managed to survive the storm faced the aftermath of sickness, water shortages, job shortages, and more. Reconstruction from such devastation would take years and even decades. 

Market Adversity 

If political and natural adversity wasn’t enough, the coffee crisis of 2001 would mean that once again, the effort to produce high-quality coffee would be an arduous, uphill climb for the war-torn, hurricane-havocked country of Nicaragua. When the coffee crisis hit the coffee market, Nicaragua was affected mostly in its Robusta bean production. Countries like Vietnam and Indonesia began to grow Robusta beans. They would grow so much that the demand for it in Nicaragua decreased quickly and significantly. The coffee crisis didn’t just affect Robusta production. Arabica bean production also saw a huge decrease in price. Back then, Starbucks appeared to have a solid hold on the Arabica market, and small coffee shops would often disappear as quickly as they came. Both markets were struggling. I don’t think there was one specific factor, but a combination of many things. There was so much market volatility as a result of the September 11 attacks coupled with general market instability that it’s hard to pinpoint a specific event. Nevertheless, there was a dramatic drop in coffee prices which had a ripple effect around the world.  

Since coffee has always been a big part of the Nicaraguan economy, a steep drop in prices would have a crippling effect. After all the political turmoil natural devastation, Nicaragua had returned to the place where coffee was once again the biggest export. At a time when farmers in Nicaragua employed around 400,000 workers, making coffee a cornerstone to the economy. Just two years before farmers were fetching a price of up to $140 per 100lbs and when the crisis hits prices fell to $50 per 100lbs. At the steepest drop, prices would fall 64%. So many people were left without jobs. Once again, they were facing a devastating situation. With no work, people headed to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, to protest and demand that the government support small farmers. Many simply left their farms to search for opportunities elsewhere. After the coffee crisis of 2001, Nicaragua has worked hard to implement cooperatives to protect farmers from market volatility, especially since the majority of farms are small. It’s possible that Nicaragua was among one of the countries most affected by the coffee crisis. When you think about the challenges Nicaraguans have faced trying to cultivate coffee, you hopefully understand why we don’t offer it as often as we’d like. Offering their coffee today is a testament to their resiliency, dedication, and will to survive and thrive. 

Current State of Nicaragua Coffee Farms 

Today, 95% of coffee farms are small and family-owned, which is one of the reasons cooperatives are helpful to producers. The government also provides some help to farmers, but their focus is more on Robusta production. Not to mention that although there isn’t as much political unrest now, their president is Daniel Ortega, who was the leader of the Sandinistas and governs with an authoritarian style. I don’t know the ins and outs of their current political landscape, so I don’t want to sound like an expert. It’s harder and more costly to farm Arabica beans, so farmers rely on the resources provided by cooperatives since the government mainly focuses on Robusta production. As long as there is some stability, I think Nicaragua Coffee will begin to thrive. Hopefully, that means we’ll be able to offer it to our customers more often. Some farms have excelled so well that they are participating more and more in Cup of Excellence competitions and receiving high scores. There’s no reason to be anything but optimistic about the future of coffee in Nicaragua. 

Growing Cooperatives 

Today’s coffee-growing landscape consists of large farms, but 95% are small micro-farms, numbering 45,000. With so many small farms building cooperatives is important. They connect farms with resources. There are a total of 19 cooperatives as of 2022, but the largest is the Nicaraguan Association of Smallholder Coffee Cooperatives (CAFENICA). They facilitate farmers’ access to credit and many other resources to help take care of the land and workers. 

Shade-Grown Coffee and Sustainable Farming 

There is one aspect of Nicaraguan Coffee I haven’t written about that is of utmost significance. If there is one factor that sets them apart from coffee in other parts of the world and Central America, it’s that 95% of their coffee is shade-grown, meaning that coffee grows under a canopy of trees, limiting sunlight. It’s significant because shade-grown coffee is considered to be one of the best ways to create a natural organic environment and encourages other wildlife to thrive within the farm. The canopy acts as a natural fertilizer and herbicide and encourages pollination of both coffee and other plants. Pests are controlled by natural predators that the system itself encourages. The canopy also protects the crop from freezing. Shade-grown coffee takes longer to mature, which means that coffee plants have more time to absorb nutrients and flavor from the highly fertile volcanic soil.  

Sunlight accelerates growth giving shade-grown coffee unique characteristics. Producers figured out how to make coffee grow in the most natural way possible. Many farms have Rainforest Alliance Certification, which sets them apart from other traditional producers. To find out more, read our blog on Rainforest Alliance Certification. 

Current Challenges 

COVID and Coffee 

It doesn’t matter where you go in the world today; everyone knows about Covid and how it has impacted the local and global economy. It’s hard to imagine any country being immune to the effects of Covid. In Nicaragua, Covid brought uncertainty to their coffee industry. Many farms closed, causing unemployment and delays to shipments. The crisis isn’t over as many farms work to get production up and running while protecting workers and their families. As farms open up and shipping catches up, Nicaragua will certainly be able to meet demand and continue in its trajectory to a thriving coffee industry. 

Hurricanes are Never a Thing of the Past 

I think everyone can relate to some form of natural disasters. Whether you’re in hurricane-prone areas, tornado alley, earthquake country, natural disasters are a part of life and the world. Hurricanes and tropical storms are things Nicaraguans will always face. Even after Hurricane Mitch just a few years ago in 2020, the threat of more became a reality. Hurricanes Eta and Iota hit the regions of the north and northwest the most, including Jinotega, Matagalpa, Nueva Segovia, which are the main regions of coffee growing. While the devastation didn’t compare to Hurricane Mitch, recovery efforts took time and resources. Other regions were also greatly affected by these back-to-back hurricanes shifting the focus from growing coffee to saving lives. 

Looking back at the history of Nicaragua and its story, it would be easy to assume that the future of coffee would be grim, if not impossible. But the reality today is that it is alive and well. Well, maybe working its way to well, but much progress has been made, and there’s reason to be very optimistic. If they can overcome all the challenges of the last 50 years, there’s no telling what they can do in the next 50. We hope that sharing the story of Nicaragua will give you a greater understanding of how global coffee is and how when you buy coffee; there is the work of a farmer behind it. We love to show the work of producers and share their stories whenever we can.