September 22, 2017

Why We Know Less Than We Think About Coffee Production


Working for an exporter in Nicaragua has come with many perks. The most significant is that I get to meet the people who grow my daily coffee and learn from them. I witness every stage from picking and sorting and processing through to quality checks, exporting, and sample roasting. And yet the more I learn, the more I feel that I don’t understand.

Regularly visiting farms has opened my eyes to something I had always known – something I believe most people know, but fail to truly comprehend. I could not acknowledge this at first, but coffee production is an inconvenient truth.   

There are numerous problems that we all know exist, but we can’t grasp. The problems are in a distant country and we feel there’s little we can do to make a significant contribution to a place so faceless. In order to make a difference, we need to solve this disconnect and look to new trade models.

Spanish Version: Por qué Sabemos Menos de Loque Creemos Saber Sobre la Producción de Café

coffee production

On-site quality check with Expocamo agronomist Heriberto Olivas. Credit: Bram de Hoog

Disconnected Worlds

Take coffee pickers: these are the most vulnerable people in the supply chain and, in Nicaragua, often have a nomadic lifestyle. They follow the seasons of the basic grains. They do not have a house, have probably never had access to education, and are unlikely to ever leave the cycle of poverty. As a global agricultural tradition, kids follow in the footsteps of their parents. Unfortunately, in this sector, they do so at a very young age and the poverty cycle continues.

I cannot pity these people because this is the reality of life in rural Nicaragua. And what’s more, pity implies that I could somehow understand what this means. How could I ever truly understand these pickers’ lives? We live in disconnected worlds.

Coffee picking starts at a young age. Person unknown. Credit: Bram de Hoog

Making Farmers’ Stories Matter

What’s more, somehow these revelations, questions, and challenges are lost the moment the coffee leaves the dry mill bound for the consuming world.

For a large majority of specialty coffee farmers, the life cycle of coffee ends when it is cupped and graded. On the other end, this is where the life cycle of coffee begins for coffee roasters. A farmer has been paid well and their coffee has been processed separately, effectively making it a cherished single estate coffee. The facts are known: the altitude, variety, process and producer name proudly decorate the slick packaging. A passionate barista will share this with curious customers and add their personal touch to it.

But their words are empty. A couple of weeks later, the lot will run out and be replaced with another farm. The same passionate barista will fire new facts at the ever more educated customer.

It is obvious that roasters do know that coffee comes from a cherry and it takes a whole lot of work to produce. Unfortunately, knowing and understanding can be far apart. Equally, farmers have a vague idea of what people do with their coffee, but frankly, 99 out of 100 times, they will never come close to a proper espresso made with beans from their own farm.

This disconnect limits our ability to enact meaningful change and create a better, more equitable industry.

coffee production

Freshly picked coffee cherries. Credit: Bram de Hoog

Direct Trade: The Benefits and Problems

Many people would say that direct trade is the solution. But is direct trade the panacea it’s perceived to be?

Well, yes – sort of.

First of all, direct trade, generally speaking, is an illusion. Large estates are logistically and legally capable of exporting their own crops. However, outside of Brazil, this is a rare sight. The real trade is often done with the exporter, who pays the farmer. A roaster can visit this exporter, cup some coffees, agree to purchase, visit the farmers, and load up a container.

However, even the largest roasters can balk at the idea of transferring an estimated US $100,000 up front for a container of coffee. So, who pays? The importer, in many cases. Yes, direct trade often uses importers to finance coffee.

This is not an attempt to degrade direct trade. I just want to offer some clarity on an often misunderstood term. The set-up is great: everybody gets a piece of the pie for the work done and that is just. Furthermore, direct trade (or relationship) roasters usually buy from the same farm, continuously supporting a farmer and making them proud. It’s a leap forward from the commercial coffee system.

But it’s not quite there yet, either. The core of the problem lies in the accessibility and scalability of the model.

coffee production

Roaster-farmer exchange. Left to right: Francisco Valle, Ryan Douglas, Rony Herrera, and Russ Prefontaine. Credit: Bram de Hoog

What Do Alternative Models Need?

It’s obvious that a small-scale farmer is unlikely to visit a roaster on the other side of the world. On the other hand, a roaster is more likely to have the financial resources to witness the beauty of origin. However, for a micro roastery dependent on spot lots, this is hard to achieve and without much return on investment.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what I believe needs to be the first step to empowering coffee farmers. Genuine bonding, mutual commitment, and open communications will put power to a barista’s words, empower farmers, and create more sustainable relationships. Nobody should be left out of this system.

We launched a partnership-based purchasing model with twelve producers in Nicaragua and a similar amount of roasters in Europe. Through a collaboration with This Side Up, these roasters have committed to purchase from the same farm each harvest.

New models – such as this one – need to support roasters logistically while also encouraging long-term partnerships. Concerns such as financing and quality improvement need to be accommodated.

As part of This Side Up’s project, all logistics are taken care of for the roasters and even financing is available when needed. However, in contrast to traditional spot lot purchasing, the roasters have exclusivity with this coffee in Europe and can work together with the farmer on a range of projects such as experimental processing or social development.

By nurturing these relationships, we can take the first steps in social and environmental projects. This won’t happen overnight. It will happen when mutual trust is established.

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Luis Manuel Almendarez with his first natural lot. Credit: Bram de Hoog

SEE ALSO:Specialty or Marketability: What Are We Really Selling?

Home-Grown Development Is Key

I do not have a solution for many of the problems producers face, and neither do other roasters, although we can provide advice and support. However, perhaps this is a good thing. The solution shouldn’t come from us, but rather from the producers – with our help, yes, but not our management.

The home-grown development I have witnessed here in Nicaragua is truly inspiring and fully attributable to specialty coffee cultivation. With the help of personalized advice, farmers have made decisions to invest in quality. The higher prices yielded by that quality is their gain, and most producers reinvest in their farms. This increase in income is possible without any charity or donations: it is based on their own power and decisions.  

Empowering coffee farmers is essential for solving the broader issues because this is the group of people where change is most effective. Unfortunately, this group is not being heard because of the disconnect in the coffee industry. I believe that in order to solve problems together, we have to talk. And talking means listening first.

And once we have listened, and then talked, and then advised and supported, we have to be involved in the long term. This is the only way to solve the coffee industry’s disconnect and facilitate real change.

Feature photo: Close collaboration with farmers. Left: José Julian Corea, right: Francisco Valle. Credit: Bram de Hoog

Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the individuals or bodies mentioned in this article, and cannot directly endorse them.

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