Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The HTF Conundrum

This post probably will not come off well-constructed nor will it have any conclusions - mainly because it's something that I'm still thinking about and trying to figure out myself, but it's been on my mind for the past few years.

In the coffee business, we give a lot of lip service about how we do "direct trade" or want to do "direct trade" or how we are "helping the farmer" and all sorts of "Do Good, Feel Good" kinds of things. We boast about how we are paying "higher prices" for our coffee and how that's "making a difference" in the lives of the poor, lowly campesino toiling on the soil and under the sun to produce our award-winning coffee that retails for sixteen bucks (and up) per pound.

Throughout our business (and especially in our niche of "high end" specialty) we can peruse all sorts of media - brochures, product sheets, websites, blogs, facebook pages) of us mugging and posing at the farm, with the farmer, holding the beans and pretending to do any and all of the coffee processing - from picking the cherries, lugging the bags, raking the parchment - and of course, there's the de rigueur shot of someone from the company pondering carefully and intently about the beans he/she is holding.

We know that our efforts have not gone unnoticed because we're now seeing "the big guys" starting to do the same - and it's not just those old school darlings, Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance. Recently, an executive of worldwide coffee operations for a very large hospitality organization told me that they too were looking for that "compelling story" - because that's what their guests are looking for - especially with the recent trend of everything "Farm To Table". "Seasonal Direct Trade Farm To Cup" - it's what's chic in the today's world.

To be honest, I'm probably as guilty as everyone else. I've been to origin. I've been photographed while posing with that basket pretending to collect beans off the tree. Truth be told, I wouldn't last an hour picking coffee cherries. That's hard work. And when I'm in Nicaragua, I'd much rather be drinking Flor de CaƱa and eating paella at Taska Kiko in Managua than toiling under the sun in Nueva Segovia (though I have been facebooked doing both).

Third Wave Types love to pay what seems like a lot of money for their coffee. We brandy about our green prices like a badge of honor - as though we should be lauded because we pay so much for this and you only pay that little for your coffee. Each of us is looking for the hot new coffee that's going to set the industry on fire, intent on being the first person to bring the new Esmeralda to market. To this effort, we flit and flirt around from year to year buying a little of this and a little of that. "Only the best of your crop, please." The rest is rubbish that isn't fit for my ancestor's slaves.

And next year, when that same farmer toils under adverse weather conditions or roya? Adios, burro. You don't have that purple jade green beauty we're looking for. I mean, afterall, your coffee is only scoring an 82 and I'm a 90 plus kind of roaster. Especially because I'm good-looking, wear ironic eyeglasses and don a retro-rockabilly look. My loyalists would be aghast for me to deliver a coffee so, common...

Through all this I've constantly been wondering: To what end? To what end are we doing all of this? We talk about "helping the farmer" but what does this mean really?

I'm from America. Born and raised. The American Way. To my mind, when we talk about "helping" someone, I presume we're talking about The American Dream: to lift oneself from their current position. To help ensure that our children will have a better life and a better future - one different and better than our current station. This is what I presume when people say we're "helping the farmer" and this is what I think most people presume too.

But is this the reality?

If the average Central American coffee farmer (that small plot holder we're thinking about) makes only about US$2,500 per year (which is far lower than the lowest paid barista in America), is that enough? Is that enough for this couple, with maybe three children, to pull themselves out of poverty and move their children up the Food Chain? Or are they destined to remain at their station - in the lower classes of their societies?

Deliver us great quality and we'll pay more, you say? How? If we presume that the average coffee farmer is operating at a subsistence level, then how can they afford to do any of this? How can they learn new techniques? Go to a class? Can they afford that class? Can they afford that raised bed dryer? Can they afford to do anything but just barely grow their coffee and send it to the beneficio (processing mill)?

Conversely, there's the producer Rock Stars. You know their names. They're the ones you see touring America (and other first world nations). They're US or European educated, smart dressing and part of their nations' elite. Their coffee is typically the most lauded in the world and they've got the savvy, the education, resources, connections and money to make that happen (and command the greatest prices) year after year. We all know them. They're my friends too. And we all want to pose for pictures with them - to show our public just how "real" we are about coffee. When your family already owns hundreds of hectares of land and you're invited regularly for events at the presidential palace, are you the kind of coffee farmer that really needs "help"?

What about events like the Cup of Excellence, you say? They demonstrate the best coffees of any country for that year and those coffees command tremendous prices. Certainly that's gotta be good for the campesino! Agreed. The CoE is a great event, has done good works and delivers great coffees. That 2011 CoE Lot 19 Nyakizu Rwanda I bought is fantastic, but is it repeatable?  Jon Lewis will probably correct my data but a trusted friend related to me last weekend that no farmer has won the CoE Peru more than once, asking the question: if these winners actually have the knowledge and formula to sustainably produce great coffees year after year (and raise their revenue and lifestyle), or are these one-off, one-hit wonder flukes?

I know I've hit on a number of different topics here and I'm offering no answers, definitions or solutions. I don't know what or if there is a "solution". Maybe it just is what it is. But I do think that this is part of a discussion we should be having in our industry - questioning our motives and our goals when we say we're "helping the farmer".

The comments section is open for discussion.