by David Pohl
Helen, Brooke and I attended the third-annual Sustainable Harvest “Let’s Talk Coffee” (LTC) meetings in Costa Rica in October. LTC is the coffee industry’s pioneering “relationship coffee” gathering, intended to bring all stakeholders (farmers, coop reps, exporters, importers, roasters, journalists) together to discuss ways to strengthen coffee trade. Sustainable Harvest is a new generation coffee importer that seeks to develop the “relationship coffee” model. Sustainable Harvest’s credo is “transparency, traceability, trade credit, training and total quality.” Equator shares a commitment to each of these aspects of coffee and is delighted to be able to pursue them with a committed importer.
Transparency guarantees that everything is on the table and nothing is hidden from any of the stakeholders. This is especially true when discussing price, a historically opaque process.
Traceability means that we as the buyer know exactly where any given coffee is from, down the cooperative and even individual farmer in some cases. The Ecuador “El Batan” is a good example of this as we met with the farmers from this small community at LTC and very much look forward to receiving some of their best lots in January.
Trade credit refers to the financial support low-income coffee farmers need to produce top-quality coffee year after year. Credit can be used to “pre-finance” a harvest to ensure the farmer has enough funds to properly care for and harvest his or her coffee, or for improvements a cooperative would like to make to its processing facilities. This line of credit has historically been off-limits to coffee farmers, forcing them to live a hand to mouth existence, but with the help of Sustainable Harvest and farmer-oriented lending institutions, this is changing.
Training is key for coffee farmers who want to learn everything from coffee cupping to methods for organic growing. And total qualityis essentially a recap of the previous points, taking into account the million and one details that go into a coffee relationship and seeing to it that honesty, dedication and fairness prevail throughout the process. Incorporating the five “Ts” above, relationship coffee seeks to create strong, enduring coffee partnerships between roasters and farmers by bringing them together, face to face, to hash out issues and sign contracts, as well as to harness advances in technology (Skype calls, YouTube videos) to keep roasters and farmers in touch throughout the year.LTC is an exciting event for Equator because it allows us to meet with a number of our supplier partners all at once in a casual and unhurried environment. Meetings take place at all hours of the day and night, over breakfast, lunch, dinner, and beyond. We found that LTC helped us better grasp the complex and diverse issues farmers face – water in Tanzania, guerrilla warfare in Colombia, poverty in Honduras and bureaucracy in Ethiopia. Our conversations with growers groups gradually became more specific as we learned more about each other and a trust developed. By the end we knew exactly what the pricing expectations were for each group, their volume, coffee cup qualities, shipping dates and so on.
In concrete terms, the relationship coffee model Sustainable Harvest embodies is an efficient and economical way to directly source high-quality specialty coffees simply because it brings all the stakeholders together at one time, in one place. At Let’s Talk Coffee we were able to finalize two coffee contracts (Peru and Rwanda) and begin discussions with two other groups from Colombia and Honduras. This last group, RAOS, will be exporting coffee to us in the spring, and the former, Corpoagro, will possibly be a supplier next year when more of their organic coffee comes on line. All of this was done over the course of a weekend where as establishing new relationship coffees the old way would have taken months if not years. Prior to working with Sustainable Harvest, Equator was already committed to developing relationships with farmers. Examples of this are the Guatemala Chipacay, which we have been buying for 10 years, and Nicaragua Aldea Global Fair Trade Organic, among others. We believe in the value, sometimes tangible, sometimes not, of direct relationships based on trust and interdependence, and we will be offering more “relationship coffees” to our line up over the coming years. Of course, we are planning to attend LTC again next October, this time in Colombia, where we will strengthen existing relationships and begin new ones.