It’s been two weeks without coffee. And it’s not been too bad. Then I read this “The 10 Most Annoying Coffee Trends.” So if you skip ahead to #8, you get to the heading of ‘Sky-High Coffee Prices.’
There’s a strange selfish pride in the statement, “Sorry I am not paying more for a cup of coffee than I do for a gallon of gas.” And it usually comes from folks who grew up on Folgers (not that they’re necessarily bad people). Working in coffee and around coffee and drinking coffee, it’s difficult to hear these things and not get annoyed.
There are commodities. Things like wheat, soy beans, corn. Hundreds of acres handled by a single farmer, a hired hand and some farm equipment. And then there’s coffee, right up there among the others with people unwilling to pay more than a few cents per cup, because, well only numbskulls would pay more for coffee than gas! Flour is cheap. Corn is cheaper.
But coffee isn’t like these other things.
Your morning cup, that thing that drags your ass out of bed, is primarily farmed by small holders, over 70 percent of it. People working less than five acres. Much of it on land accessible only by foot, dragged out of the mountains on the backs of families whose fathers and mothers worked the same fields, and whose father and mother before them worked the same fields.
This isn’t a commodity, this is an indispensable good brought forth by the hands of people. The fact we’re not willing to reward that work properly is wrong. And I think specialty coffee in some ways has done a disservice to this work. By fighting to differentiate specialty coffee from the consumer grades milled out by the members of the National Coffee Association, we’ve cheapened the efforts of the grand majority of coffee farmers.
Yes, of course, I’ll pay more for a coffee from the fine folks at Blue Bottle or whatever. I’ll seek out that fine little thing from Huehue or that natural processed, blueberry bouncing Ethiopian. But as Nick Cho said in his fantastical post, ‘Are we all just 1%-ers too?’, “The specialty coffee industry has, at least within our boutique segment, done a shitty job of actually helping coffee producers.”
I hear it again and again from the folks at Utz, friends in Fair Trade/Fairtrade, the Cup of Excellence and such that the best way for farmers out of their position is to improve quality and productivity. But it ultimately feels self-serving.
It’s similar to when I was a kid and our small family farm was getting picked away at by the giant farmers who were consolidating production, gobbling up competitors, and herding cows into feedlots. They all said, “If you’re going to compete, you need to get bigger. You need to produce more then you’ll earn more. That’s sustainability.” But it doesn’t quite work that way. All those quality improvements are for the ones who are winning. The ones who are lucky.
And then they’ll* say, “Well maybe those farmers just shouldn’t be farming.” Fortunately, by the time that bell tolled on our dairy farm, my brothers and I had managed to get an education and get ourselves off the farm. Coffee-farming families aren’t quite so fortunate.
There’s rarely enough to invest in education. People are shocked when they read Rick Peyser and Bill Mare’s book, ‘Brewing Change,’ and find out that many families go hungry part of the year – unable to even afford corn tortillas and a little chicken. Health care is spotty and unattainable. If farmers want to invest in productivity and quality, they should be earning enough to do that. If we aren’t paying prices that allow that, then we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back for doing that for them.
It’s not any one effort. It’s not ‘buy Fairtrade 100% of the time. It’s not only access to finance. It’s about respecting the work of people. Especially those doing it by hand – not the corn farmer planting wide swathes of GMO corn outside Marshalltown, Iowa – but the farmers you depend on every morning. This is a product produced by people. People you could get to know if you went to visit.
I just want to see someone do a Fairtrade or equivalent consumer grade coffee. It’s possible, I’m sure of it. It’s just not so sexy. Working at Fairtrade, I know our farmers are only selling roughly 30% of their coffee on Fairtrade terms. That means there’s a lot of coffee available in all grades to satisfy all, from the distinguished palate of a George Howell to my Mom who just wants whatever’s cheap to get that little pick-me-up at 6am on her way to work.
Can somebody line that up?
*Apologies for socking it to the proverbial ‘they’ in this post. They get what they deserve.