Some people have more money, resources, good looks, connections, and formative educational training than others. That’s life. In the case of coffee, life’s inherent unfairness doesn’t have to be a bad thing and it doesn’t take a mammoth international organization like Fairtrade to help restore some balance to life’s inherently imbalanced scales; it just takes a few well-placed fat neighbors.
With the smashing success of hyper-specialty coffee (think microlots of specific varietals grown in carefully selected locations and processed meticulously), more and more people with college degrees, agronomy instruments, master plans, and a healthy backpack of capital have been turning to coffee farming. The image of coffee growing as the activity of humble peasants with minimal access education and limited opportunities to escape cycles of rural poverty is by no means obsolete, but it is being forcibly challenged by teams of people who approach coffee farming as a business, a science, and a passion.
What does this mean for the humble subsistence farmers of the world? Hope that the fat new guys land next door and that they know how to be good neighbors.
There’s some sort of saying that says if you want to save the world start at home. Few individuals are in positions to overhaul the equity and sustainability of the entire coffee industry, but quite a lot of individuals are in positions to overhaul the equity and sustainability of the coffee communities in which they live and work.
Two examples of what it looks like when the fat guys—the teams with the scientific knowledge, theoretical planning, infrastructural capacity, and investment capital—involve their neighbors in their success are La Palma y El Tucán in Zipacón, Cundinamarca, Colombia and Gold Mountain Coffee Growers in northern Nicaragua.
La Palma y El Tucan entered coffee ready to rock and roll. Their land is ideal, chosen for soil quality and composition. They had their hands on a range of varietals of seeds and have all the technical research to know how to plant these varietals for optimal output. Their engineers got to work on an efficient wet mill outfitted with the latest in sustainable technology for the preservation of water quality and local ecology. The team includes Q Graders to confidently assess cup quality and graphic designers poised to wow buyers with elegant marketing materials. But, the problem that every coffee farmer, no matter how well equipped, faces is the reality that coffee takes its sweet time. You cannot rush a coffee seedling; the first harvest of newly planted trees takes around three years (I’ve seen it take a year and a half in bizarre instances and other varietals take five to show their first fruit).
Start up momentum disappears if left to idle, so the smartest thing a new coffee farm can do while it waits for its trees grow is to invest in its neighbors. That’s precisely what La Palma y El Tucán did. While the roasters of the world salivated waiting for their first harvest of Honey Processed SL-28 grown in fertile Andean highlands, the La Palma y El Tucán team was busy on the ground getting to know their neighbors. Their agronomists and engineers held workshops and seminars to teach better picking, pruning, and fertilization techniques. They invited neighboring producers to cup their own coffees and learn about objective evaluation. They gave tours of the mill and the newly planted trees. And then they bought, processed, and sold their neighbor’s coffee. Because they had taught their neighbors better techniques, they paid a higher price for cherries than producers would have earned for the equivalent coffee in parchment if they had processed it themselves on their own equipment on their farms.
Everybody won. The neighbors learned better practices and were paid more and La Palma y El Tucán introduced itself to the world’s buyers without having to wait three years for a harvest.
In Central America, Gold Mountain Coffee Growers of Nicaragua adopted a similar policy of being the best kind of fat neighbors. The first harvest from their farm (aptly named Finca Idealista) was only 22 bags, but their neighbors noticed that they were up to something different. Gold Mountain’s team embarked on the similar process of educating their neighbors and then incentivized the purchase of their coffee by purchasing coffees that met certain quality grade score benchmarks.
Very organically, rather than one well-funded operation exporting higher quality coffee, a whole neighborhood of producers benefits by being able to literally see a model for quality that they can replicate on their own farms and translate into higher returns.
This is the silent power of all the expensive microlots and auctions and supra-specialty coffees that make industry headlines today. By proximity, neighboring farmers are benefitting. But proximity alone is not enough; the equivalent of peeking over the fenceline to spy on wealthier neighbors does not translate to more success for all.
It is only when the fatter cats invite leaner neighbors onto their farms, into their mills, and show, tell, teach, guide, and even support by purchasing coffee from, that a region can then be revitalized by the presence of a single rockstar.
Coffee is contagious. Fat neighbors acting as good neighbors ensure that the best sides of coffee catch like fire.