“It’s too bad that the economic compensation isn’t that fair, but that doesn’t negate, doesn’t impact the pride that I feel to know that my- that a cup of my coffee, is served in New York, in Germany, in Italy, in France, in…all over the world, there are so many places. Even in Australia! There they’re serving a cup of my coffee. So its…theres’ nothing that can take that away. Now, my, my final reflection…is… coffee is my life.”
–Miguel B, coffee producer in Tarrazu, Costa Rica.
Miguel reminds me of a graffiti artist.
He reminds me of one of the nation’s most prolific taggers when he spoke in the documentary Infamy. When asked why he chose to tag freight trains the artist said that he loved the idea that his art could see places he never would. His tags ran back and forth across the country; they went into states, towns, places he’d never see himself. He loved the thought that thousands of people he’d never met knew him in a way, were an audience for his art even though they’d never speak. His creations could go farther than the bounds of an individual.
Miguel loves that people drink his coffee; he knows it’s his coffee they’re drinking because it’s in the same bag the coop sent it in when it gets to the roaster and/or consumer. By being part of a coop the coop represents him, and his coffee, he gets to share his work with thousands (millions?!) of people he’ll never meet. His coffee is tagged with the coop’s name, and he knows people he will never meet are drinking coffee with his tag.
The desire to claim coffee is echoed again and again by farmers. For as long as coffee has been bought and sold, it’s been tagged by the people who put it on boats or in ovens or on store shelves, not by the people who grow it.
And the growers want their tags back.
There is something unsettling about corporate logos, especially ones that are just a symbol, logos so loaded they speak without words. At the Association for Science and Information on Coffee conference, most of the presentations had a little corporate logo in the corner of each slide, signaling sponsorship and funding of the research.
It’s like a flag waving on a hilltop in the distance quietly reminding you, “remember who’s realm your in. Don’t forget who’s running this thing.”
Flags are as wordless as logos; they’re both self explanatory declarations of power. The flag in the distance is a reminder of who controls the land. In the case of coffee, the one with the logo and the capacity to slap it on the bag, the one supposedly “running things,” is the one with the money.
But farmers are actually the ones making things possible, and their names usually don’t get slapped on the bag. Just like a ruler is moot if he has no one to rule over, the guys with the logo are moot if there’s no on to make the product they label.
People want to see their hard work- their devotion and craft- go farther than them, whether it’s a freight car to Tuscaloosa or a macchiato in Milan. Farmers want to claim their coffee. They want to have a means for expressing ownership and pride at the work they’ve done by putting their tag on the bag.
And that’s what exactly what more and more are doing. In Nicaragua, one of the brightest smiles on Maria’s face was when she showed me the embroidered aprons for the women in the roaster and told me, “do you like the logo? That’s what we’ll put on the bags when we sell our coffee!”
Ineke, a Dutch woman who’s been living in Costa Rica for 20 years, spent 30 minutes looking through every photo on her computer to find ones of the logo for the now-defunct coffee brand she and her family started when they cultivated and processed the coffee on their mountain property. She literally wouldn’t let me leave, held me hostage in her little Stroopwaffles stand, until she’d shown me. “You have to see the labels! They were so beautiful!”
Everyone in Cedral told me the story behind naming their coffee “Los Jilgueros.” Developing an identity and using it to claim the work you do is part of the reward for the work done. Knowing that people you’ll never meet will see- and maybe even recognize- your tags gives a texture of satisfaction apart from profit.
Excessive expenditures of energy (not to mention money…) are more doable if you can claim the product of your labor. Logos and labels are the icing on the cake, but they’re a declaration of pride and make everything worth it.