So the last blog post here was about my sourcing visit to Bolivia. I planned to continue the blog post whilst doing the same task in Colombia, but a last minute change of plan from one of my hosts threw it all in the air.
The farmer had decided, after months of our joint planning, that he would now be out of the country.
After arranging expensive flights and hotels, having confirmed it was all okay, I was left stuck in Colombia for 3 days with nothing to do. As it turns out another exporter was kind enough to spend some of that time letting me cup with them, and I think we found some stonking coffees that we bought once we got back and will be showcasing later this year. But I was left with lots of time to mull over concerns that have been on my mind for a while.
Before I go to this, I’ll rewind to earlier this year.
Earlier this year we launched our direct trade idea, a model used by other roasters whom I respect, as a way of showing they look after their farmers / producers / co-ops. I agree that farmers / producers / co-ops should be looked after and it’s important to make sure they get paid well, very well. But ever since I launched this I began to feel it was a bad idea for Has Bean (stay with me).
Direct trade is a way the needs of the farmers / producers / co-op can be met, be that monetary, be that pride in improving quality, education, whatever. But it’s also about the farmers / producers / co-ops having an equal voice to that of the roaster, and protection too – but what happens if problems swing the other way?
At the time of our launching the ‘Fairer Than That’ idea, I was in negotiations with a producer in El Salvador about a very important coffee for us. One we bought initially from the number one Cup of Excellence, one that we’d bought every bean of from the farm for four years, and a farm I had visited 3 times and loved. The farmer, due to his hard work, was being approached by many coffee roasters about buying his coffee, but the farm is small (the way we were able to buy everything from the farm for four years shows how small it was). There was not enough coffee to share.
Regardless of how much money we offered (we never even got to the money negotiation), and because the producer’s voice got ever louder, we didn’t get our coffee.
This isn’t about sympathy; there are lots of other great coffees out there, but we invested a lot of time money and travel in building up this farm, and the voices became unbalanced away from us and we could no longer negotiate.
There is good news from this; Santa Petronas, San Raphael Pacas, Loma La Gloria, and Monseratt wouldn’t have made it here this year if this hadn’t happened. I am very pleased with these coffees, and there are many other great coffees to be found.
So from launch I had this concern that the Fairer Than That / direct trade model wasn’t perfect, but I persevered as we had launched and made a big noise about it. I looked enviously at others using this kind of model and thought “I could do that.”
But that’s part of the problem. As a coffee industry we are all saying the same things; we are sending this confusing message, which means something different to everyone. And when we try and tell the world what we mean by it, I think most people don’t get it. We make it more confusing.
I buy amazing meat from my local butcher. I don’t ask him if the farmers got paid. I taste the quality, I listen to what the butcher has to say, and I trust him; this makes sense, right?
So fast forward to my ill fated Colombia trip. Another relationship was falling down, because the producer had a different set of priorities to making our long standing commitment to meet up. I am not just belly aching here; much time, effort, and energy was invested into my second trip for a second year, blown up only when I kept pestering to confirm the trip one week before leaving.
It’s not a relationship when it’s one way. I like the idea of equal-stakes-equal-voice, but in this case it was not equal. If I broke that equilibrium, quite rightly I would be a bad man, but it doesn’t seem to be the same both ways.
I likened it to being trapped in a loveless marriage; one was trying really hard, but the other didn’t feel the same way. It’s a problem when your partner loves you for the wrong reasons, or doesn’t trust your motivations. I guess it’s my job to fix or change that.
The extra time in Bogota on my own – in the evening eating alone, not knowing anyone in the city – gave me lots of time to think, and to run (a great city to run around). Most of my thinking time (and on the flight, and even more since I got back) was about direct trade and Fairer Than That. And you know what, I’m not happy with it at all.
I don’t think it helps the message: I think it clouds it. And it’s important to be happy, or otherwise to change something to make yourself happy. A ginger man once said: life’s too short.
When you make a mistake you can either keep going ahead or stop and about turn, and that’s what I am going to do.
We are not going to label up our buying practices in the “direct trade” model we discussed in Fairer Than That. Not because paying a good price isn’t a good thing; it is a very important thing, but it’s also a complicated thing. I can talk about the $10 a lb Colombian we bought last year when the market was at $1.80 if you like, and I’d sound great, but from all the deals we did last year, none were lower than $3 and most around $4 and above, which is a great price. But what does it tell you?
$3 in Colombia won’t buy you just anything in Nicaragua or El Salvador – it will buy you a great (and I mean great) coffee. It’s all figures and numbers that make no sense. Coffee buying and relationships are complicated, and I want to try and make it easier for everyone.
We’re also not going to cheapen the great coffees we have acquired through importing partners by not giving them a sticker, or make noise about economics when we should be talking about taste. We paid over $7 a lb to a producer for a coffee from an importer last year. This was a huge price, for a huge coffee, but we couldn’t put it under the banner of direct trade because we used an importer. When you have constraints like that, it’s crazy.
Instead we are going to buy the way we always have; some direct, some not, dependent on the partnership and the logistics, but we will always remain transparent and faithful to the following:
1. I promise to pay a good price for the coffee I buy. This is built on trust between grower, roaster, and end customer – trust, and long term results;
2. The price we pay will ALWAYS be above the market price and any Fairtrade floor prices;
3. I promise to visit the producers we buy from directly as often as I am able to, and ask them face to face if they are happy that they sell to us, and with how we roast their coffee and promote their farm name;
4. I will work with our partner producers feeding back things I learn about the coffee market and what I think the market needs, where we can add value to the chain. Collaboration is important;
5. If we use middle men (exporters / importers / brokers) we will make sure they are good people and that the producing end still get rewarded for their work. these people will become facilitators, not leaks where money doesn’t make it back to the ground floor. If we cannot be assured / shown this, we will not work with them;
6. I will promise to work with good people, in general good people produce good coffee;
7. You’re just going to have to trust me.
You’re going to have to trust me even though it doesn’t have the name direct trade / Fairtrade / grown by nuns / kissed by monkeys, or any other certification. I don’t want to make the same noise or the same mistakes as others using direct trade. Relationships with many producers is too complicated to give it a title or a badge or a sticker. After all, it’s not about words, it’s about actions. Feel free to judge me on them.