by Adam Pesce, Reunion Island Coffee
When I started traveling to origin as a coffee buyer eight years ago, the concept of a buying trip was hardly a new one. Buyers were visiting farmers, co-ops, and importers around the world long before it became the virtual necessity for credible specialty coffee roasters it is now. Over the past decade, there has been a paradigm shift in the reasoning behind such visits, much to the benefit of everyone involved.
The original traveling coffee buyers, mostly from large coffee corporations, visited primarily to secure their supply chains. While this remains a benefit of origin visits, there are a multitude of reasons for most specialty roasters to visit the sources of our coffees beyond the principal function of actually buying them: enlightenment, education, training, and sharing knowledge are chief amongst them. At its best, an origin trip is an equally beneficial learning experience for both the buyer and the farmer.
As a roaster, knowledge learned at a farm can translate directly to the quality of the cup we produce. Understanding how the coffee was produced, its terroir, processing method, and the weather that a farm experienced in a particular year are all vital when trying to successfully bring out the full potential of a coffee. Similarly, for the farmer, by sharing our experiences with their coffee year after year, we give them the fodder to analyse what affects the coffee in the cup, either positively or negatively. If a coffee is drastically different every year, simply asking “What was different on the farm?” can bring about the most important discussion that a producer will have in deciding how to make changes on his farm the following year.
After my first few trips to origin, I always got the question “What can you tell a coffee farmer about farming coffee?” and it’s a fair one. Truth be told, I couldn’t tell a farmer much of anything back then, and I still would not venture to edify a farmer on how best to tend their harvest. However, now that I’ve seen progressive, sustainable, and unique projects executed around the world in various agricultural, environmental, and social contexts, I am much better able to share that information and connect producers who could potentially help each other. To see what coffee farming looks like in Cerrado or Aceh or Antigua, is to see just how different the process can be. There is much to be shared. We, as the buyers who get to visit farmers around the globe, are the ones responsible for propagating what we’ve seen and spreading those ideas that might help— how a water project in Kenya might apply to a similarly water-starved community in El Salvador, for example.
This is the crucial ancillary role we can play as coffee buyers: acting as a conduit between farmers for ideas and techniques. One has to look no further than the proliferation of African-style drying beds in Latin America as an example of how visitors to origin have helped transfer useful ideas from one region to another. Technology helps, but this kind of information and eagerness to experiment can only be captured and circulated by actually being on the farms.
That being said, there is an inherent danger that comes with the customer/supplier relationship that exists between buyers and farmers. We must be careful with the knowledge we pass along and how we do it. Most buyers are of course, not agronomists or experts in farming—we are interested enthusiasts. And unless a guarantee to purchase is made, the roaster owns very little of the risk in the farmer taking a gamble on a new or different farming technique. For instance, the specialty market has created unprecedented demand for interesting and quality-focused varietals, such as Gesha and mocha. And while these varietals pull in tremendous value at auctions and in cafes, a farm’s physical and geographic limitations may make it financially unfeasible to grow them, potentially leading to a disastrous mismatch.
It is no doubt the case that anyone willing to spend the time and money to visit the producers with whom they work does so with the best intentions. But bad advice with good intent is still bad. It seems as though the best thing we can do to help our farmers produce better coffee is to empower them with the knowledge we have attained both on our travels and in working with their coffees. If farmers are able to continually improve the quality of their coffee, we as buyers can pay them more for it, and the process becomes much more sustainable for all.
In the relatively short amount of time since my travels to origin began, the world has changed considerably. Technology and telecommunication have improved exponentially; most farmers have a mobile phone and internet access, and I often get better cell reception in rural Nicaragua than I do in rural Canada. But, the amount of buyers traveling to origin is higher than ever, because we have recognized that there is so much shared value in touching, seeing, smelling, and tasting first-hand.
If information is power, then the more knowledge we are all armed with, from farmer to barista, the more we will be able to improve both the quality of the cup, and the quality of life for those producing it.
Adam Pesce is the director of coffee at Reunion Island Coffee, a Canadian specialty roaster and wholesaler. He is a member of the SCAA’s Sustainability Council, on the board of directors at Grounds for Health, executive director of First Drop Canada, and coffee blogger for the Huffington Post. As the director of coffee at Reunion Island, Adam has spearheaded sustainability initiatives, including the use of 100% renewable energy and their Sierra Verde tree-planting project.