The Direct Trade Rabbit Hole

An amalgamation of articles and interviews written on the topic of Direct Trade [DT] doesn’t even come close to explaining the depth and breadth of this important, yet misunderstood, principle.   With so many stakeholders taking part in developing channels of dialogue and building relationships, many levels of involvement exist in the interpretation of DT.  Follow me down the rabbit hole as I discover the dynamics of one of the industry’s enigmatic golden paradigms.  

In essence, DT is a system designed by roasters to deal one-on-one with the producers of the coffee they want to buy, roast, and sell to consumers in their respective markets.  This system not only establishes a standard of exchanging money for goods between two like-minded parties, but it also creates a network of engagement that allows for services beyond monetary support.  DT is a spectrum; it is synonymous with sustainability; and, it is a mindset.   

DT operates on a spectrum relative to a roaster’s involvement with a particular producer.  This interaction leads to many questions, for example: How involved is the roaster in the life of the farmer?  Should the roaster provide agricultural information and assistive technology for heartier crops?  What systems are necessary to create a platform for sustainability?  Is it the roaster’s responsibility to help build schools and provide health and wellness programs for women and children?  The answers to these questions depend on the level to which a roaster can be involved in the lives of the farmers.

At the highest end of the spectrum, DT looks like a roaster deeply involved in the growing practices to ensure healthy yields year after year of delicious coffee.  Not only is this roaster assisting during production season, but is also aiding with the infrastructure of the farm – facilities and amenities for the workers including schools, hospitals, day care, as well as health and literacy programs for women and children.  These roasters get the excellence award for effort and the relationships they’ve nurtured over the years.  Notable roasters that participate at the excellence level are Intelligentsia of Chicago, Stumptown of Portland, and Starbucks of Seattle.  

But how exactly are these relationships initiated?  Surely not every roaster is visiting farms scattered over the rolling jungle-covered mountains of a country where English is a second language.  Further down the spectrum, the role of the roaster looks like a yearly trip to some of his/her favorite farms – coffees are cupped, bags are purchased and a handshake sums up the trip with a promise of return for next year’s harvest.  These roasters get a solid gold medal for acting within their means.   They are doing their part to contribute to a world where roasters and farmers are on a first name basis, send Christmas cards and continue to purchase coffee from one another in a mutual and symbiotic existence.  Notable gold medal roasters are Herkimer of Seattle, Verve of Santa Cruz, and Coava of Portland.  

However, not every roaster has the means to make yearly origin trips.  Therefore, they are forced to purchase coffee from a reliable source, one that values sustainable resources and genuinely has their hearts in the right place.  Enter the importers.  Roasters will go through these third party channels because the importers have done the legwork – literally trudged the muddy roads in rain-soaked ponchos, investigated and certified farms with whom they have long standing relationships.  This type of roaster gets the participation award for caring enough about sustainability and farmers’ rights to go to the lengths of utilizing a morally wealthy importer.   

Although, according to some, once an importer or middleman is involved, it is no longer DT.  However, if you’ve ever visited somewhere outside of North America, you know things move slowly, especially when Mother Nature is involved.  Furthermore, skilled negotiators who know coffee are rare.  Therefore, as glamorous as know-it-all coffee snobs want to be by only drinking Certified Organic, FairTrade, Rainforest Alliance, Bird Friendly coffee, we shouldn’t boycott a roaster because their coffee isn’t gold star level DT – it takes a mixture of special people, money, resources and lots of time to nurture the types of relationships that lead to sustainable harvests of award winning coffee.   And besides, not all roasters are people friendly, coffee negotiators.  

However, if I’m a coffee consumer who’s not worried what level of DT my coffee comes from, then, what’s the big deal?  It’s still a cash crop.  Isn’t it bought and sold just like it always has been?  The coffee is harvested – sent to auction – farmers get paid and start a new crop, right?  Yes, this is the case, unfortunately.  Coffee is graded according to its attributes and given a score.  (This process will make a great article in the future.)  After it receives a score, it’s sent to auction where buyers entertain purchasing it for various clients.  Depending upon the country and region, some auctions are regulated by the government or an organized body who sees that farmers are paid and to maintain consistency between buyer and seller when coffee is transported.  

Here, the rabbit hole takes a turn and drops into darkness as there are degrees of risk on both sides of the bag when coffee changes hands.  If the farmers are paid what they deserve, they have a chance of repeating that harvest for next year or continuing to harvest whatever is in season.  If they are not paid appropriately, they risk losing workers and the quality suffers, which means a loss for the farm.  In some regions, farmers are giving up on coffee and growing crops that fetch better prices.  When this happens, the land where coffee trees would have been growing in harmony with their environment, possibly under shade from healthy foliage providing homes to birds and other wonderful critters, is ‘slashed & burned’, giving way for more lucrative crops.

At the commodity level, not only do farmers suffer, but ecological niches do too.  Biodiversity is essential for healthy harvests.  Coffee farms have become fragile ecosystems and susceptible to threats from “roja” or leaf rust, boring beetles, and climate change.  If coffee farms are under threat from all these factors, in addition to purposeful eradication, then sustainability comes into question.

Sustainability is also threatened by the way we buy coffee, even though the specialty coffee world makes up a very small percentage of total coffee sales worldwide.  Most coffee is commodity grade and sold at lower prices to make blends or soluble coffee beverages.   Powdered stuff.  Just add water.  The problem arises from non-environmentally conscious groups that purchase these types of coffees and the buying culture they create.

One of the elephants in the room is commodity roaster, Smucker Co., who owns the likes of Folgers, Dunkin Donuts, Millstone, and Kava Coffee.  This buying giant purchases more coffee in North America than anyone else… estimated around 300,000 tons as of 2013.  The problem is they are not concerned with DT like the little guys are; and, the worst part is they lack a plan of sustainability for the future.   Coffee Habitat has the details here: http://www.coffeehabitat.com/.  If you see a problem with some groups consuming vast amounts of resources without a plan of how to continue to fuel their appetites, you’re on the right track.  

As consumers we should change our mindset and rethink how our buying habits affect the longevity of coffee.  It doesn’t matter if your favorite roaster is a gold star member, a runner-up, or just happy to be here; there’s nothing wrong with their level of involvement in DT because the movement itself is working. But, while we’re racing on our hamster wheels, fueled by ethically sourced and sustainable caffeine, existing in our righteous bubbles of ‘I won’t buy from that café because they don’t have rainforest stickers on every bag’, even though their coffee was purchased from an importer who has established relations with several farms over the last five years, a disproportionate amount of the population is still scooping heaps of blueberry flavored brown powder into drip machines, oblivious to what they don’t know they don’t know.  (BIG BREATH) If you’re concerned with how to contribute to DT, look for evidence of transparency, the name of the farm, even the dry mill or name of the region.  The more information on the bag, the more transparency and traceability there is.  

DT is a mindset.  In an interview with the SCAA, Geoff Watts, Director of Coffee for Intelligenstsia states, “…it [DT] was not originally created to operate as a general certification system.” In other words, it is not a standard that everyone adheres to – it doesn’t translate across continents.  It is fluid and adapts to each unique circumstance.  Here’s the link if you’d like to learn more: http://www.scaa.org/chronicle/2012/02/14/direct-trade-the-questions-answers/.   

Instead of being a one-size-fits-all label, DT asks, how much do you care about others?  Do you care that some farmers struggle to make ends meet every year due to drought, floods, pests, and other environmental factors, not to mention the farmers who fear for their lives in politically torn war zones?  It’s a tough question for all of us – especially when we’re faced with more immediate concerns like rising costs of rent and gas prices, as well as student loans and healthcare.  There’s no right or wrong here – there’s just what’s so.  Right now a lot of us will gladly pay a premium price for a cup of coffee because it tastes good and we know that it came from happy farmers and happy coffee trees that grow on rolling jungled mountains.  But at the same time, huge corporations are getting away with pretending to have a future plan for sustainability.   

Strong relationships are based on trust and made over years of interactions – DT isn’t just some concept in which everyone partakes.  However, it is important for more people to engage in it because we all benefit when communities are created.  DT is a network of friends, a support structure for sustainability, and a symbol of trust and quality.  Trust your café owner, trust your roaster, and trust your importer.  Look for the symbols of transparency.

Continue to follow me down the rabbit hole as I discover more about DT.  In future installments, I’ll be chatting with some of the industry’s best practitioners of Direct Trade and getting their take on this dynamic topic.


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