November 1, 2020 | Emily Segura
This week I met the farmer who grew my coffee. “One problem I learned in life--” he said, “we as humans, we are simple. We don’t think about how things become.” We drink coffee without thinking, he told me.
Jose David Posada, owner of Capilla del Rosario, grew up in a pile of coffee cherries, at five years old tasked with pointing out sticks and leaves that the harvesters missed. “I used to drink instant coffee,” he said. Jose’s story is being told--largest specialty farm in Colombia, second generation farmer, good idea that is turning a dying profession into a thriving livelihood for generational Colombians. Jose transformed traditional coffee farming in Colombia when he tasted specialty coffee for the first time and began living and teaching "the specialty way" at Capilla del Rosario. Jose attributes the success of this way to many mentors who imbued him with a business model based on connection with consumers. The interdependency of consumers and farmers is “important so that we (farmers) can improve in our farms, and consumers can actually drink better [coffee],” said Jose. Wanting to help smallholder farms and build trust through deep relationships with farmers--we have these values, yet when our favorite brands say they do too, sometimes it is mainly to the benefit of themselves rather than the causes they claim to support. So how do we know that they are being authentic?
First, there is a problem
In today’s “worldwide coffee crisis,” livelihoods are at stake.
Colonial racism is at the root of what has continued to be an industry steeped in systemic injustice. Today’s specialty coffee industry was paved in the late 1700's by the slave labor of imported African and the first coffee plantations’ indigenous peoples. This disadvantaged position correlates with the lack of education for some farmers, a real setback considering the heavy reliance on academics in agronomy data collection and in navigating the coffee market. Much of the world’s specialty coffee today is grown by farmers who are still treated this way. Through colonization, the world was united by this steaming morning ritual, and so too have we been divided.
Specialty coffee research reveals what Jose confirmed: coffee is seen by farmers as a poverty crop. His story was like that of many farmers today: the returns on coffee often aren’t making it all the way down the pipeline, causing farms to be abandoned, coffee quality to slide, and leaving farmers without a sufficient income to put their children through school. For a coffee that costs about $3.00, after the coffee shop’s rent and staff are paid; the price of the milk, napkin, and cup with its accessories are factored in; a profit is made and taxes paid, the actual coffee in that cup costs 15-20 cents. And of those cents, after the roaster's costs and margin; the exporter or trader, the transporter, and processor have received their pay, the farmer’s return is about 3 cents, or 1% of the cost of that coffee you just drank. This isn’t profitable, said Jose.
That’s why iFinca stands as a third-party verification of the price paid to the farmer, the authenticity of the farmer’s story; and offers the entire journey of the bean to cup as transparent and traceable all the way back to the farmer.
“My biggest challenge was when my father lost his faith in [the farm].” Then Jose’s voice brightened, “And my biggest achievement was when my mother and father wanted to come back to join the farm again.” Jose's farm is growing, and his mission is to pass his gift of knowledge to budding coffee farmers. Trust grows from experiences, Jose reminded me.
Jose speaks for many farmers in that it’s not only consumers who want to make informed decisions, but it’s farmers too who want transparency. They want to know the people who handle their coffee once it leaves the farm. Jose told me about one of his clients who wants to offer funky profiles in their Korean coffee shop. “When I know what my client wants, I can decide my fermentation process," he said. Through partnerships with several non-governmental organizations (NGO's), he is also working on a honey bee protection project, reducing chemical use, is planting shade trees, and paying his pickers above average--all causes that he has learned matter to his clients and that he is able to address in order to keep their business. Knowing his consumers empowers him to make sustainable and ethical trade decisions that support his business, family, and local economy; and to produce coffee that we love.
iFinca, together with several NGO's and members of the coffee supply chain including exporters, importers, specialty coffee roasters and cafes are finding ways to create a better future for coffee by promoting transparency and traceability within the coffee supply chain, and focusing on directly improving the livelihoods of farmers in this dynamic industry.
As a community of specialty drive-up orderers, home brewers, and coffee shop bench-warmers, we have a social responsibility in drinking coffee. Among our diverse tastes, we can agree on this--we care that our coffee is purchased ethically because if it doesn’t matter to us how the steps were taken for the beans to reach our local roaster, and how much the farmer was paid compared to the cost of that cappuccino you're drinking, then they don’t matter. And if those don’t matter, then cyclical poverty will not break free and the coffee we love will soon become obsolete.
My responsibility—yours—is to care for the sake of coffee and the livelihoods it represents. You can discover more farmers like Jose and their stories by scanning the unique “Meet the Farmer” QR Code at participating cafes and brands.
Some tips to create a better future:
A good idea: Keep an open mind. Nobody knows the answer to create change. If we did, the world's problems would be solved. Listen to this A Sustainable Mind podcast episode 010, Getting Real About What Kind of Action Really Improves the Planet
A better idea: Be curious. Ask your local roaster about the story behind those beans, who the farmer is and how much the farmer was paid. (Read about farm-gate prices here)
The greatest idea: Follow people who have ideas, and speak up about your own. Our individual lifestyle changes change entire systems. Tell your local barista what you like about coffee. Buy coffee that lives up to transparency, traceability, and authentic connection with it's farmers
“There is a coffee, and I drink, and I don’t know the people who are behind it,” Jose remembered of his earliest coffee-drinking days. “But,” he interrupted himself, “people today are considering.” People are caring about where their coffee comes from and they are making a difference for the better, and it’s obvious because farms like Jose’s are thriving and we are still drinking it.