Coffee Economics Pt.3 of 3
After my tour through Guatemala, I took a short flight to meet with producers in Costa Rica. The contrast between the two countries is noticeable immediately. CR is one of the most economically developed nations in Latin America, fuelled largely by tourism and IT industries. Coffee has long been one of its primary agricultural crops. After a global coffee price crisis in Y2K, coffee farmers decided that the model of selling to middlemen and huge multinational export companies wasn’t sustainable for them. Small communities of farmers banded together to build their own coffee mills and started what is now known as the micromill revolution. The farmers put an emphasis on high quality and small lot production to tap into the emerging value-added specialty coffee industry. Their efforts have been rewarded and Costa Rica now has a reputation for growing some of the finest coffees in the world. Many farmers have been able to develop direct, long-term relationships with roasters and importers and receive prices for their crops well above the global market. Not only are their prices higher but also more stable, because of the consistent and reliable high quality that they deliver to their buyers. This is a very important factor as one of the biggest challenges for coffee farmers around the world is planning their lives and businesses around the insane volatility of the global coffee market. It fluctuates anywhere between $0.50 and $3 per pound, driven partially by world supply, demand and inventories, but also by hedge funds and investor speculation. It is ridiculous that a small farmer has to endure this global economic storm every year at harvest time in search of a basic living.
Costa Rica’s micromill revolution is a proven example of a way forward for a more sustainable and stable coffee industry. The down-side of the Costa Rican coffee industry in general is a lack of focus on organic production. We have connected with a small group of 25 pioneering organic growers in the Tarrazu region who will hopefully help create a bit of a groundswell towards more environmentally-supportive farming methods in the country. AFAORCA has been part of the micromill revolution but also the grassroots organic revolution. Last year, we began sourcing a yellow honey coffee from the Gravilias Farm. The Marin family grows coffee in La Legua de Aserri microclimate zone at 1600m above sea level. They grow Caturra and Bourbon varieties of the Arabica coffee species. The coffee cherries are hand-selected at full ripeness and a special de-mucilage machine is used to remove the skin and a precise amount of the pulp of the fruit. This allows them to leave the perfect amount of flesh on the beans, to lightly ferment and dry them on raised beds in the sun and accentuate the natural fruit character and sweetness of the coffee. Yellow honey indicates that less than 50% of the fruit was left on the bean, while red honeys have more than 50%. We have used the Gravilias yellow honey as a reserve single origin in the Tarrazu Honey label and as the base for the espresso blend served in our coffeehouses. The global coffee market has plummeted over the last year, in many cases reducing coffee farmer incomes to around half of what they were during the last harvest. Still, we will continue to pay the Marin family the same price as last year because of the consistent high grade quality that they deliver to us. This will ensure that they can make a basic profit and continue farming with a reasonable quality of life. It will also ensure that Just Us! has an amazing espresso again this year. We cannot ask farmers to feed their coffee plants to produce good quality if they do not even have the money to feed themselves. I hope to see the industry increasingly evolve this way, as an alternative to the volatile global market; a more sustainable coffee industry, built by strong community organizations of small organic farmers, receiving stable prices based on high and consistent quality. On the other side, the farmers need long-term trading partners with common values that can develop markets and customers that really appreciate the fine taste and nuances of specialty coffee and the individual & community effort put into producing it.