Interview with Faiz Moosakutty of Bibi Plantation, India
Faiz Moosakutty has been supplying Mercanta with both Arabica and washed Robusta coffees from his plantations in Sunticoppa, Karnataka, southern India for over a decade. In July, he came over to visit us in London and so we took the chance to ask him some questions...
Why did you become a coffee farmer?
My father bought the Bibi Plantation in 1960. He had worked in rubber and timber previously and decided to try his hand at coffee growing. He passed away in 1983, as I was preparing to go away to college in the US to study Business Management. My mother told me that I could go on one condition - that I promise to come back and look after the farm when I had finished my degree. So in 1990 I moved back to Karnataka and have lived on the plantation ever since. It was a very steep learning curve at first - it took me about a year and a half to get really involved. To be honest, before I started farming, I never thought that I would enjoy it, but now I can't give it up.
Is there a secret to producing such high quality coffee?
It is a combination of several factors. Firstly, our farm is located in a prime Arabica coffee growing zone and the natural conditions are extremely good, for Arabica coffee especially. Secondly, usually - though this seems to be changing - we have an even distribution of rain fall. But, of course, good natural conditions only go so far; unless you put the effort in they mean little. So the secret is simple - careful management of a favourable natural situation.
You mentioned that rain fall patterns appear to be changing. Is climate change an issue for the farm?
The weather in the region is undoubtedly changing. Every year, we are getting less rain, and the summer months are becoming hotter. This year has been particularly bad – July is supposed to be our rainiest month but so far we have had barely 5% of the rainfall we would usually receive. I expect this year’s monsoon coffee will be delayed by around a month because of the lack of moisture. It’s a deeply worrying situation.
What other challenges do you expect to face in the future?
The rising cost of oil – and, therefore, of fuel and fertilisers – is obviously a big issue. But the number one problem that we are facing is labour. The big trend in India today is urbanisation – the younger generation are moving into the cities because they think they can live better there. And the truth is that the construction industry can pay double or triple the average salary of an agricultural labourer. Almost all of my workers are aged 45 or over – younger people might help out in the school holidays but they never stick around. And in India we cannot mechanise – the trees on our plantations, and the uneven lie of the land makes access with machines almost impossible.
It has already become extremely difficult to keep up to our usual time scale – last year we had delays in delivering our crop because of labour problems – and in the future it is going to be very, very difficult. You are not going to be able to farm unless you are hands-on and willing to pay a little bit extra. You can’t cut corners.
How has coffee farming in India changed since your family bought the plantation?
The commercialisation of coffee has made a big difference. Today, farms are run much more like businesses. In the 1960s, the 70s and, to an extent, into the early 80s, people had much more of a lackadaisical approach – there was less pressure to produce high yields. But now producing quantity – as well as quality – has become extremely important, for reasons of survival. Because you never know, if you don’t have a good sized crop this year, what’s going to happen next year. Across the globe, agriculture is becoming a year to year phenomenon – you don’t know what to expect in terms of prices, demand and supply, weather, labour… Each year brings something new and it’s extremely difficult to predict the future.
How important is the Bibi Plantation to the local community?
We employ around 100 workers, about 50 of whom live on the farm. It is a big responsibility – like looking after a family of 100 people! – and we try and help out as much as we can. The farm provides free electricity, free housing and free medical assistance, and we offer interest free loans to help pay the children’s school fees. But, while our farm is directly responsible for 100 people, we, along with the other farms in the area, are indirectly responsible for an entire local economy. The community depends on a vibrant labour force, and without it a lot of people in the local towns would not be in business. This is the problem with urbanisation – if all the rural labour force moves to the cities, it will be difficult for local communities to survive.
What do you hope to achieve in coming years?
When I took over in 1990, a lot of the farm’s blocks contained 20 or even 30 year old plants so we began a programme to replant the whole plantation. We have now completed around 98% of this and it is very satisfying to see the new plants come up. In the past, planting was not done scientifically, but when replanting you can take a much more systematic approach, planting in neat orderly rows, so the plantation becomes more like a ‘model’ farm. In the next three to four years, I’m hoping to see this replanting pay off – it will be like a new farm.
What do you find most rewarding about coffee farming?
The quality of life and the standard of life – living in an eco-friendly, non-polluting way has become very important to me over the years. I love working outdoors, not being tied to a desk everyday, and being involved in agriculture can be very satisfying. When I go to the city, I don’t want to stay there; I want to rush straight back. To be honest, even if someone offered me a $100,000 per year job I wouldn’t move.