The more directly we work on coffee projects, the more we need to visit coffee regions in the off-season to make plans for the harvest.
This was a quick trip in 2012 (made even shorter by delayed flights and missed connections in Houston, ugh) to visit Acatenango, Antigua, and Huehuetenango and check in on our coffee partners there.
This doesn’t always work out the way we plan. The economics of the harvest are guided by forces beyond our control. The myth of the small “microlot” and “Direct Trade” buyer is that you pay a great price for quality, and that is a sort of trump card that wins the game. You beat the market, you beat the commercial buyers, you score a win for yourself and the farmers. Of course … you do it for the farmers.
The fact is that the local coffee markets, for cherryEither a flavor in the coffee, or referring to the fruit of the coffee tree, which somewhat resembles a red cherry.: Either a flavor in the coffee, or referring to the fruit of the coffee coffee, or as in GuatemalaGuatemalan coffee is considered a top quality coffee producer in Central America. Due to our proximity to Guatemala, some of the nicest coffees from this origin come to the United States. : Guatemalan growing regions, for parchmentGreen coffee still in its outer shell, before dry-milling, is called Parchment coffee (pergamino). In the wet process, coffee is peeled, fermented, washed and then ready for drying on the patio, bed, or a mechanical coffee, are guided by harvest volumes, by the global market and demand, by the floor prices set by the big buyers, by the standards of the big buyers (Volcafe, Ecom, Nespresso, Illy, Olam, etc).
So yeah, you pay a super great parchment price for a small volume of coffee. In the meantime a farmer can make a quick sale of cherry or parchment that wasn’t even carefully picked or selected, and get a decent price paid on delivery or in a couple days. Your rep. pays after a preselection or after you cup the sample – mayger 2 weeks or 3 weeks or a month later? And the farmer produces 40 quintales but you just like the 3 quintales from mid harvest delivery. What does the farmer do with the rest? What do they get paid on average for all their coffee, for all their labor, for the whole crop.
Coffee is complicated. We don’t pretend to understand it all, and yeah as a small buyer we just have to focus on what we do and hope it works for everyone in the supply chain.
But we understand that we are just part of a bigger picture. We try to do our best. We hope that works for the farmers we buy from too. It has to or we aren’t going to get the coffee we need and the quality we need. But the narrative roasters spin about their ‘goodness’ rings a bit hollow.
Small buyers who pay well are important. They are not the answer. Maybe, maybe … they / we are part of an answer though. –Thompson