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a cup of relationships

April 30, 2012

As someone who loves coffee and drinks it regularly but also has a social conscience, I have a lot of questions about the coffee industry, especially after working in specialty coffee for 5 years now. This conscience manifests itself in many ways. Where I buy my coffee, what questions I ask and how much I pay for the beans are just a few. I also got my Masters in Intercultural Studies and wrote my thesis about the history of colonialism and how it affects coffee today. Therefore I can’t help but continue to look at my job, other coffee blogs and cafes through that historical framework.

Most recently this issue became apparent after reading an article in the Specialty Coffee Chronicle. It is called Direct Trade: Going Straight to the Source. This was an interesting article interviewing Geoff Watts, Molly Laverty , Mark McKee and Spencer Turer about what Direct Trade means to them, how it affects their job and how they think think it can improve. The complexity of this movement and their desire to work with and help the farmer was very apparent. Yet I had many qualms about what the  layout, perspective and language said about the attitude of the coffee industry towards the farmer.

It is an in depth article written by Shanna Germain and was eight pages long. I mention the length to emphasize my frustration when, after the detailed conversations held with the cafes and buyers, only on the ninth and final page was there a small blurb called From the Other Side: A Tale of Direct Trade and Finca Chicapacy by Sylvia de Lazo, owner of Finca Chicapacy. She writes of a farmers struggles with Direct trade and some overall negatives of working directly with cafes. My first problem is with the title, why are the producers the “other side”? This only increases the distance and frustration with the unknown. The word “Other” belies a very colonial and exotic mindset that should not be prevalent within our coffee culture. We are all in this business together. Secondly, Geoff Watts just spoke of the many farmers that Intelligentsia works with and helps and the incredible coffee that has been developed. Where is their voice? Why do they not get to express the truth behind that statement or any frustrations they have with the system? Direct trade is supposed to even the playing field, improve quality and wages for these farmers. How is this possible if they are not allowed to speak and share their perspective?

The language used is my next problem with these articles. The segment from the United States and purchasers is an elevated and elite interview with 4 United States Coffee Professionals. “Straight to the Source” sounds official and important. Whereas  the farmer’s perspective is called a tale.  Are tales often seen as the final word or as trustworthy? Not often, the definition of a tale includes “libelous, obsolete, imaginative”. These farmers have been dismissed before you even read what they have to say about their experiences with Direct trade. The name of the cafe is not shared and their real issues are seen as excuses that allow cafes to break their word and not hold up their end of the business transaction. The most disheartening thing about this whole article is that only two sentences are alloted to discuss the burgeoning coffee market in Guatemala, Sylvia’s winning barista, and the fact that producing countries are now enjoying their own coffee.

This is something that we as a Specialty Coffee Industry must be interested in as it shifts the market and our perspectives considerably.  In many ways this new growing market is because of the work of Specialty Coffee people. It is all too easy to speak of how one respects and values coffee farmers as in the first article. Yet the problems spoken of in the second article must be addressed and validated. Both parts of the industry must be understood and their issues addressed. Coffee Farmers must be treated as equal business parters instead of just using them to market your coffee. When this happens we will hear their voice instead of speaking for them. We must be united as farmers and sellers and everyone in between to have a sustainable, specialty industry.

{I realize that this is one article and therefore one perspective but i feel that this is reflective of a deeply rooted mindset that doesn’t disappear because we as an industry are improving. I have seen this evidenced in many areas of the Specialty Coffee world and will continue to discuss this in future articles. I appreciate your feedback, both positive and negative.}

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2012 2:18 pm

    Your clear and insightful comments should be well noted! Keep up the good work.

  2. April 30, 2012 8:34 pm

    Nice work!

  3. May 1, 2012 12:15 am

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments on the article. I’m so glad we were able to get Sylvia’s voice in the piece. We actually had hoped to talk with other producers, but unfortunately, many are not as willing to talk about their experiences, lest they do damage to their relationships or business. Hopefully this is the first step toward more open, constructive conversations for the future. Best, s.

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