Building Bridges: The Path to Direct Trade

Tamara GoldsmithOn March 7, 60 coffee professionals and 17 Costa Rican farmers gathered for Terra Bean Coffee’s pilot Direct Trade Event, at the Joe Pro Shop in NYC, providing roasters with an opportunity to build direct trade relationships with farmers. The roasters attended in person and the farmers via Skype. The goal – bridging the knowledge gaps between those who grow the coffee and those who roast it to build capacity and develop mutually beneficial and sustainable relationships.
The atmosphere was full of excitement about new direct sourcing opportunities and the chance for roasters and farmers to share the experience and learn from each other. The roasters cupped the coffees and spoke directly with the farmers, at origin. The farmers were given a unique opportunity to market their own farms, instead of depending on an exporter to sell their coffee.
Transparency leads to greater accountability and creates new opportunities for entrepreneurs, both farmers and roasters. Change that requires overcoming cultural differences and disparity of information will not occur overnight however, it begins with a conversation, such as the one that started at the Direct Trade Event.
How did the Direct Trade Event come about?
I learned about coffee from the farmers. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I was inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of the famers; and especially those who started their own micro-mills. They had invested time and money into their farms in order to take greater control over processing their coffee and the supply chain. However, they were unable to extend their businesses beyond a certain link in that chain due to a limited understanding of their market, the coffee culture of the coffee drinkers and the supply-chain logistics.
One farmer, in particular, took me under his wing. Javier Meza, owner of the La Cabana micro-mill, taught me everything I know. I shadowed him, participating in every part of the process. We spent hours pondering the condition of the Costa Rican coffee industry and brainstorming new opportunities to break out of the traditional market structure.
Fast forward to today…
The Direct Trade Event required an enormous amount of collaboration on the part of the farmers. My philosophy going into the project was that I would only take on the challenge if the farmers demonstrated their commitment, as well. They did, exceeding expectations!
In January, I travelled to Costa Rica to meet with the farmers… Peace Corps-style. Javier spread the word about the meeting amongst the micro-mills before I arrived. Would anyone show up? One of my biggest challenges was re-adapting to the cultural differences. The meeting started at 3pm… 3:30, only 2 micro-mills showed up. 3:45, others started trickling in… Phew!
We gathered around my laptop as I presented my proposal to them to host an event in NYC focused on building direct trade relationships between farmers and roasters. They were excited about the concept of direct relationships and the opportunity to speak directly with the roasters. The excitement in the air grew as a plan was laid out where the farmers’ are in control of their own businesses and no longer dependent on exporters. While price is an incentive, the empowerment from feeling in control is invaluable.
The farmers were thirsty for information about the coffee industry beyond their farms. Oftentimes, they are only provided with the information that they need to know, with little understanding of, or access to, information about what happens next. We spoke about the factors that contribute to roasters’ buying decisions and how coffee is served in coffee shops… espresso drinks, drip coffees, pour-overs.  We spoke about the different types of North-American coffee drinkers, the specialty coffee culture and the attention being given to single-origin coffees.
To help them understand the supply chain and pricing, we spoke about the function of exporters and importers and what additional fees are incorporated into the cost of the coffee before reaching the roaster. We spoke about how most roasters buy on spot. We spoke about the risks and limitation of buying directly from farms and brainstormed ways to mitigate those risks. We spoke about the limitations to buying directly for small roasters.
As word of the project spread, other farms tracked me down. I spent the rest of my trip visiting the farms and micro-mills and speaking with the farmers on an individual basis.

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