Coffee is a beverage that all of us know, most of us drink, and some of us desperately need to function in the mornings. As a barista who has been working with ‘specialty’ coffee for just over five years, I have been lucky enough to make, taste and experience coffees from all over the world. From Rwanda to Panama,each coffee growing country has a distinct characteristic due to factors such as altitude, climate, varieties within the beans themselves, and differences in the processes of the cherry both after it is picked, and after it is dried. From harvesting the cherry to making a latte, we often forget that there are many steps at the heart of coffee making. The fact that it is the second largest traded legal commodity in the world shows its importance.
Sometimes, when walking into a café, you may see espresso or filter coffees that range from 5 to 30 dollars, which seems like a lot of money when you know you could probably buy a 1 dollar coffee at any 7/11. The process to turn a coffee cherry into a coffee bean has multiple stages, all of which cost the farmer time and money. When big buyers of coffee partake in the race to the bottom, it is the coffee farmer who loses. Much like Australian dairy farmers, they are forced to sell their product for less than what it takes to produce.Now, I do not need to go into details, but the ripple effect of conglomerates buying coffee for the lowest price possible has crippling effects on the farmers, their families, their workers and the community as a whole.
Over the summer, I was lucky enough to go to Guatemala and visit coffee farms who have direct relations with roasters from all around the world, including Melbourne. As buyers and roasters of coffee are always on the lookout for exciting, new coffee farms, this has opened the door to direct trade between farmer and roaster. Direct trade between farmer and roaster ensures both a profit and a predictable cash-flow during harvest, which is not always the case for farmers who can be easily coerced into selling their coffee to big buyers for an unfair price. This income source means that farmers can invest more money back into the farm knowing that their income for the next harvest will be steady. To name a few examples, farmers can invest in better quality fertilisers or cultivating different varietals. Additionally, a steady income can also change the ways in which pickers are paid; pickers can be payed per day instead of per kilo of cherry picked, which is considered to be fairer for the pickers.
Valuing quality means that we can make good on the promise of development through the de-commoditisation of coffee so as to ensure that coffee is a logical and sustainable choice for the farmer. Farming coffee is a tough business; harvests are dependent on climate and rainfall, plants are susceptible to disease (coffee rust or coffee borer beetle to name a few), coffee plants need to be maintained to ensure maximum harvest, and in some countries, coffee only harvests once a year. When taking all this into account, if the final price is lower than what it costs to produce, it is easy to understand why Colombian farmers might turn to coca production instead, as it requires less cultivation and harvests at least three times a year. Obviously, this is a very simplistic analysis of the situation, as there are other factors that also come into place. However, it is the one aspect we, as consumers, can easily influence.
So what can you do to help? The next time you have a coffee, scout places that have direct relations with the farmer because these places also have the ability to pay the farmer more by cutting out the middleman. If this is not possible, cafes that serve single origin coffees are also a good starting point. Paying those extra cents could help a farmer in Guatemala send the children of their workers to school as opposed to condemning farmers from all over the world (especially Vietnam) to sell their product for less than it is worth. Coffee is just one example amongst many of how direct trade can make a big difference in someone else’s life.