The Simple Act of Meaningful Change

I'm sharing a really great article here - please read! It's from my favorite daily dose of coffee news, the very aptly named "Daily Coffee News" from Roast Magazine.

The article is "Just Do Something: How Roasters Can Make a Meaningful Impact at Origin" and it's a response to the current coffee pricing crisis. The "C price" hit a 15-year low on April 11 - the day before thousands of coffee professionals gathered in Boston for the annual Specialty Coffee Association's Coffee Expo. And the low C price was the talk of the conference! Well, at least in the circles I ran with (sidenote: maybe who is having these conversations is part of the problem! Was anyone genuinely talking about the coffee crisis in the Roaster Village?)

The C Price hit 90¢, and many many farmers are losing (and have been losing) money for every pound of coffee they sell, leading people to just walk away from their farms (many times emigrating north, like we're seeing at our Southern border right now), or just letting the coffee cherries rot on their trees instead of harvesting. Our farmers are devastated of course, as are we. And we engaged in incredibly real and emotional conversations about their livelihood, right before we talked about their upcoming community development priorites for next year, and how much funding we would commit to. In addition to paying above the Fair Trade minimum, this is how we help bolster our farmer partners.

So everyone is asking (again ... this happened 30 years ago, too) what can we do? Well, first read the article. And then read my take on it.

Here's what I think...

To me, this is what lies at the heart of the problem; when roasters look at their customers, they talk about coffee as a specialty product. When roasters look at farmers they think about coffee as a commodity. When roasters and importers stop this schizophrenic split of how they feel about coffee, then we can get down to solutions. Either specialty coffee is worth paying for and therefore worth the outrageous prices most roasters charge their customers relative to what they pay for the coffee, or it is merely a commodity and roasters should knock their prices down to the customers to reflect that.

Concerning what a roaster can do at origin, our entire business bank model is based on this dynamic. There is nothing to prevent a roaster from contacting farmers, be they independent or cooperative, and talking to them about their developmental priorities. You don’t have to be a giant company to do it. We’ve been around for 26 years and have been doing this since day one. Even small efforts have large impact on the ground. Whether it’s supporting a women’s loan fund, well building, giving support to local schools in coffee communities, or a dozen other ways that the farmers prioritize as their road out of their current economic situation, it is incumbent upon us – the people making a great living off their backs – to work with those communities to achieve those goals. It is especially ironic that people who claim to have direct relationships, which of course we know is mostly marketing nonsense, those people should certainly be funding or participating in community development at the farm level. What’s the excuse for anything else?

I can’t understand why people have been talking about this issue for the entire 30 years that I’ve been in coffee and still haven’t realized the basic equation. If you want the farmers to have more money, simply pay more money. Even small roasters can tell their brokers that they want to pay more on a contract. The C price isn’t etched in stone as the 11th commandment, it is merely a market convention created by and for exporters, importers and large roasters, that has now been taken over by speculative interests. We don’t need to buy into that system any longer.

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