Sustainability has become quite the buzz-word the past couple of years. In the past 12 months, more and more frequently you are hearing it relating to agriculture. This single word is thrown around so much, I wonder if people have forgotten, or never realized just how much power it has?
When I hear people talking about it, I wonder in what context they are trying to utilize it in? Are they talking in human factors, environment, repeatability, profit, faith, or what?
Within the coffee industry, we have such "traceables" as Certified Fair Trade, Certified Organic, Rain Forest Alliance Certified, UTZ Certified, Bird Friendly Certified, International Women's Coffee Alliance, Biodynamic, among others. However, all of these terms relate to the coffee farmer and farming practices. Now don't get me wrong, I believe that responsible growing practices are very important, but I do believe we need to look at sustainability with a broader scope.
As a small business owner, I know first hand what sustainability looks like to continue to operate. In the corporate world, they seem almost shielded from the "sustainability" word because of the shear numbers of volume being produced and the dollars that are changing hands. I believe we do a disservice to the corporate giants to believe in any way they are immune to sustainability. It may be the little mouse that is shouting the warning cry that sustainability needs to be taken seriously. And yet, the corporate world also has to reflect on what responsible business practices they are following and what it will mean to them in the future.
Our hope seems to lie in that we would look beyond the short term gains and fast buck. That our farmers could achieve a livable wage, grow a profitable crop, have safe growing and harvest practices, protect the environment, not deforest a country to grow a food, not endanger wildlife, and generically care about what it is they are doing.
But what for? Hopefully it's not so we, as self-righteous Americans, can feel better about the cup of coffee we are drinking or the hamburger we are eating!
When I attended the SCAA event in Atlanta this year, I had a single moment that really struck me and left an impact. One of the vendors, of which I use their product, all of their employees working the booth had a t-shirt on which said "Middle Man". The message was not lost on me. Here were people providing a very valuable service that has helped to maintain a "sustainable" industry in coffee. Without the skills, resources, and connections that people like them have, products would have a very hard time finding their way from production, to developer, to consumer.
These "middleman" have provided an invaluable service and I am one to say thank you. I really do need them and they have taught me so much. I have been fortunate to work with brokers that understand the layers of complexity in ways I cannot comprehend.
"Direct-Trade" is another buzz-word very popular these days. In a way, it is trying to cut out the middle man. With a direct trade relationship, you are providing what is hoped to be, a more traceable path.
But what does this gain you?
I can tell you that there are some distinct advantages of a direct-trade relationship/partnership. You hire me to roast your coffee, and guess what? You get me to deliver it to you. If you have any questions about the supply chain of your coffee, well, I'm it!
I have a unique relationship with my customers. It is one I learned from my wife. For the most part, I can come and bring our product right to your doorstep, office, or shop. I personally provide the customer with the finished product.
I believe this a rare but special opportunity, but not the norm.
I have developed a particularly close relationship with the Mena family that own and operate Alimsacafe. Their farm in El Salvador, is in a remarkable location and growing region for coffee. I was introduced to the Mena family through a "middle-man". For the coffee I order from the Mena family, I tell them what I want, how much I want, and when I want it. This is almost as close as a direct-trade relationship as going to El Salvador and handing them the check.
But is this sustainability? Here I am, a small-single operator, purchasing coffee from a single family. This coffee you buy from me, gets planted in the ground, grown, harvested, milled, bagged, shipped, delivered, roasted, packaged, and consumed. I cannot provide any more simple, clear, traceable information than that.
What that doesn't say though, it doesn't say what life is like between planting the seed and drinking the cup.
Can I share a story?
I was talking with another roaster friend about my relationship with the Mena family and a recent article on El Salvador written in a coffee journal. He shared his own experience about traveling to a coffee farm he deals with in El Salvador. We shared stories of what life is like in Central America as we can best describe it from the stories shared with us.
In Central America, a horrible outbreak of a fungus most commonly known as Roya (or coffee leaf rust), decimated the coffee industry. El Salvador was hit particularly hard. 40% on of the country's coffee crop was lost to Roya. With the outbreak of Roya, coffee farmers have been left in desperate times. They are faced with the choice of having to pay their personnel (those that they can keep), horrible wages. Or, abandoning the farms. Acres, probably hundreds of thousands of them, of coffee farms producing fantastic crop have been abandoned.
And it isn't just because of the poor wages or battling the fungus. The Roya fungus can be treated. Unfortunately though, it is with very powerful chemicals that may, or are known to be, harmful to humans.
The other side of the story is where do the workers go? They have life sustainability to deal with themselves. My friend shared with me that his producer has a train of thought that is just simply astounding to think of, and the way that it is in Central America regarding pay scales for the workers.
Gangs and Drugs.
The average worker in a farm in Central America may only get $2 a day. In some locations $5 or even $7 may be possible. With wages like this, drugs have become an easy way out. And the producers scramble to find enough hired help for the harvest.
However, the producers have to be careful just how much they pay their workers. If they tried to pay them as much as $10 per day, the gangsters would know who would be getting the cash, and that is who they would rob! Think about it, either you get paid a terrible wage you can keep, or get paid a less terrible wage and lose it all!
Now, you might be thinking that $10 might be a lot of money in El Salvador, the cost of living there can't be that expensive. Well, if you wanted to buy a Toyota pickup in El Salvador, how much different a price do you think you would have to pay? And, how far would your $10 a day get you?
The producers that can afford it, don't pay their workers more money just so they can get robbed. They provide their employees with benefits, such as: housing, healthcare, education, food and clothing. The producers ARE the sustainability for whole communities.
The Mena family with their farm, won the 2009 Cup of Excellence. 2 years later, they faced losing 60% of their crop to Roya. They faced having to use herbicides, salvaging the farm and knowing they needed to replant. The 2014-2015 crop was the return of full production. It has been hard times. And the hard times are not over. They face a long rebuilding of customer-base to sell their products to those that went elsewhere.
I told Jorge Mena it was an honor of mine to work with his family. He said our relationship, and others like it, are going to be what it takes to, "save coffee in El Salvador." There is a picture Jorge has of his father with the pickers in the fields. His father has tears in his eyes holding a plaque the workers had given him sharing their appreciation they have for him, the blessing they have to work, and their joy to be farmers.
Please look at the faces in the photo I've included. These are all very hard working, proud farmers. It is a joy for them to know the year they've spent harvesting the crop is going to be enjoyed around the world. Because of it, they can take care of their families, look forward to the future, and have hope for opportunities.
These are the faces of sustainability.