Last month I had a rant about some of the fairness and equity issues relating to the global trade of coffee. I raved on about how small growers were getting screwed over by huge coffee buyers and how this was impacting the growers’ ability to invest in infrastructure which would, in turn, lead to a better quality product, which would then allow them to pitch and sell their coffee to more discerning buyers who would be willing to pay more — thereby changing the course of their lives, potentially forever.
I realise that my reference to ‘investing in infrastructure’ actually means very little to you as a reader until you have a better idea of the coffee world and the grower’s role in that world. Over the next few newsletters, I’m going to attempt to give to you a more detailed description of what happens at origin and how everything that the grower does affects the result that you experience in the cup. I’m also going to give real and tangible examples of how, with a better coffee price or with the help of a company like Five Senses, a grower can make small changes at every stage of the process resulting in massive quality improvements in their offering.
This month I’m starting at the very beginning — that is, the ‘growing’ part of the process. That is, everything that relates to growing and nurturing the coffee trees. The world already owns good information (I’m talking specifically about good agricultural practice) about how to grow coffee trees that produce a great yield of really good fruit.
Every climate and soil type requires a unique farming approach and things like how the trees are spaced, where to grow to maximise the over-story shade canopy, what and when to companion plant with the coffee trees, how to retain and enhance soil nutrient levels organically and how and when to prune, are all examples of factors that affect the quality and yield of the fruit. Growers with money (estates owned by the big companies) know what their individual approach needs to be, because they can afford to employ agriculturalists and agronomists who can help them maximise sustainable yields for the smallest cost. Small growers don’t have access to these resources. They rely on a bit of pot luck, what they see others doing or what they have learned from the generation of growers who have gone before them. Some lucky growers have the good fortune of government-funded or Non-Government Organisation-funded agricultural support, but many of them don’t. Even those who may have access to good information are reluctant to invest the time required for good practice because they don’t see that their efforts will be rewarded with a better price for their coffee. This is because they don’t feel they have access to markets that would appreciate their extra efforts anyway — and typically they don’t.
What can we do at Five Senses?
There are a couple of tangible things we can do. Firstly, we can commit to buying (at a price higher than market price) directly from the growers for a period of a few years, on the proviso that they put the effort into making the necessary improvements to their agricultural practices. If we do this, the growers will know that their extra efforts won’t be in vain. This may mean that in the first year or so we might overpay for the quality of the product we purchase, but it also means that we’ve invested in a grower or grower group that will, in the end, produce better crop yields and better fruit. This will then give them fruit that, if prepared correctly (I’ll talk about this in the next newsletter) will be good enough to attract the attention of the specialty coffee buyer who will pay a much higher price than they are currently getting. This is a win for them, and a win for you the consumer, who ends up with startlingly good coffee from the region.
Secondly, we can partner with experts in coffee-related agriculture when a grower group lacks access to good knowledge and information. Many of the specialty coffee buying/trading companies employ people with specific agricultural knowledge to work with growers to improve crop quality, thereby increasing the amount of quality coffee available to them to sell to roasters like us. When we commit to buying coffee from a grower group through a trader, they will be more willing to invest their resources in the grower group, knowing that they too will get a better return on their investment on the basis of our willingness to commit to purchasing their coffee.
I know that reading this might be heavy going for some. We at Five Senses don’t claim any expertise in agronomy or agricultural practice, but we do recognise that we can influence positive change. Part of our job is finding growers who want to get on board and are willing to commit to the journey with us. At the moment we work with and buy directly from three grower groups; Kintamani in Bali, Aceh in Sumatra and Chuave in Papua New Guinea. Our intention is to connect with more growers in the near future and give them the opportunity to work with us to improve their quality, benefitting from our commitment to both buy their coffee and pay a better price. Again, I invite all of you as consumers to walk the journey with us. Buying these origin coffees will be a tangible way that you too can support these communities of growers — and end up with startlingly good coffee in the cup.