Closing the Circle
I’ll never forget a trip taken to Brazil, my first origin trip, and the respect I gained by meeting the farmers and their families while studying their coffee growing efforts and when cupping side-by-side with them. From each farm represented, the farmer would always insist that his coffee was the finest on the table. When in fact, it typically wasn’t, but rather, he most likely “needed” it to be the best so I would buy his coffee at a great price. That would in return help feed his family and further his dreams. Truth of the matter was that there were truly only a few standouts among the many. In fact, my traveling companions and I bought, at a very fair price, the entire crop from one such exceptional farm.
We all know that our purchase decisions are made based upon the quality and final intended use of any coffee. Cup of Excellence exists because there is a market for people who desire the finest coffees, just like there is a market for coffee below specialty grade. The contrast of a farmer’s existence based on the two couldn’t be further apart based on sizing of farms nor the trickle-down economics to employed laborers. Is there a way to go beyond Fair Trade structure for all, or are we filling consumers with hope that may never convert to realized dreams for certain farmers? Note: this is in no way a slam on Fair Trade.
The fine work being done by those among many industry organizations, like the Coffee Quality Institute, means that we are learning to baseline how we judge the coffee that is being produced. Qualitative analysis that is consistent, via trained and qualified Q-graders, is proving invaluable to identifying all kinds of crop variables impacting final green quality, and ultimately the definitive asking price of the coffee. At the farm level, farmers have now truly become “taste scientists” as they work to influence the final flavors in a cup of coffee even when the crop isn’t perfect. Yet, it isn’t necessarily final asking price alone that is changing the lives of farmers, though every bit of successive crop improvement helps.
You may ask, why do I even care? I personally care because I feel it too, purely based on industry “size” dynamics. We at Lucas Roasting Company exist as one of the many small roasters in the industry. We aren’t trying to expand our market aggressively across the country, like the numerous other excellent roasters have been able to. But, we do want a sustained existence with hopeful continued growth in our region, especially in our community, which had very little prior focus on coffee. We are little, but we are passionate as hell, just like some of the really small farmers we met in Brazil. We are as passionate as any large roaster, but with extremely limited resources, like many of the smallest family farms we visited. We relate to the underdog.
Yet, “size” between a farm and a roasting operation are two distinctly different issues. We could find financial backing to fund our next roasting facility and become a household name tomorrow and be on our way to quick growth with the right funding, as other big names have done. The smallest farmers however, are locked in. They are locked in generally by geographic location and are limited by land available to them for purchase unless a coop forms; but even that has its own complications. One of the largest complaints we hear from small farmers is that without a farm’s own mill, some mills can’t be trusted to process one’s coffee without mixing it with other coffees, making an exceptional crop a target for being stolen. Milling equipment is as expensive as roasting equipment. This is similar to us only having a 7-Kilo roaster with limited production potential per day because it was what we could afford. If the yield of the family farm is only five sacks of finished dried coffee, income potential is small. With what then are we all left with? PASSION…QUALITY…STORIES, but from where will the growths come from unless we MAKE it happen?
Ultimately, it isn’t anyone else’s call as to how a farmer is or isn’t financially sustainable. Any business owner has to be on the lookout for the best scenario for their business. However, what if the farmer that grew the five sacks of super-premium coffee did get an excellent price? It’s still only five sacks of coffee. Better yet, what if that farmer managed to travel to one of the barista competitions where that coffee was used and was in the crowd the moment Ms. Barista won the title for that competition, but only vaguely mentioned the farmer during the presentation? What if she mentioned everything about the farm? It still takes time and money to grow, even with a winning reputation. Farm “size” is really what I’m addressing here.
My point is this: what are we truly doing to create an important human-connection element in everything we do in coffee beyond our focus on what end-consumers can see? Are we working enough to draw the “small” farms (or any small part of this industry, for that matter) into growth models or are some really just interested in keeping people suppressed as long as we receive our gain on the finished end of really high quality coffee? Have we misled the public as to what is actually possible through their buying of products marked as “Fair Trade” or even “Direct Trade” seeing as at least some of the income inequality simply stems from basic business dynamics, “small versus large,” and whether certain farmers even have room for growth as they are structured with small tracts of land?
If we’re deeply invested in this industry, we are ALL working harder than most consumers realize because we care passionately about quality and integrity, and we’ve developed intense specialization from origin all the way to crafting beverages as baristas. This industry is intensely hard work from start to finish, but the farmers are the ones “growing” this industry from the beginning, and coffee consumers are being fed products (of all kinds) instead of recognizing the connection stories. At a time when the U.S. is exploding with farmer’s markets making farm-direct buying by consumers more possible than ever, I feel this same tug of urgency in our industry.
That being said, some of you are doing amazing jobs of connecting all of the dots with each bag of coffee packaged for the end consumer. The stories, the pictures, the absolutely beautiful coffees that are roasted to perfection and then served with the upmost care and distinction… The world of coffee for end consumers has never been more decadent than it is right now. But, some farmers and employees continue to struggle, especially with new problems like climate-change.
My dream for the coming year in the coffee industry is that we begin to re-build the “value-added” segment of PEOPLE throughout coffee. Sustainable-wages-earned for anyone, from origin to cup, would be incredible for our industry, but will only be achieved where we place our values. Are our values being placed in our pride of being known the over the world as successful or will we better exemplify all people at every stage of coffee as crucial?
We’re a bit at odds from top to bottom, and much of that has to do with the moment when some turned coffee into a “thing” instead of the personal journey. I want to see us continue to build an industry as we improve from the ground up, not the top down that is accessible to people and companies of various sizes that emphasizes the one common bond—the growers and their lives at origin. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say, that I myself have a long way to go to reach my own vision.
Coffee…it is a beautiful community of people. What is our direction for the future?
Lucas Roasting Company, LLC