Why do roasters visit coffee farms?
I started working on coffee as a 17-year old barista in Western Ohio. My espresso wasn’t great, I couldn’t drink drip coffee black and I didn’t know the first thing about how coffee was grown, processed or even roasted. I did know that coffee came from far away, exotic countries and I had read glamorous articles about the men and women who travel the world to find these coffees. I dreamed of how adventurous and exciting it would be to have that job.
Fourteen years later, I have that job.
I must admit, I still think coffee sourcing is one of the most incredible lines of work – and I am fortunate to get to do it! But like all great jobs, there are huge challenges, expenses and long hours of work involved. It takes years to acquire the necessary trade education and build relationships with international partners. Traveling to location is often difficult, tiring and some areas can be dangerous to visit. So, the question “Why do you go?” is valid (especially as a business owner!)
There are two important reasons why we visit coffee farmers. The first is practical. Coffee farmers are our suppliers. They are our colleagues and business partners. We want to get to know them, see their operation, and taste their products. If I want to have excellent roasted coffee, I need to find excellent raw coffee first. All good businesses work with their supply chain to maintain their product – so roasters go to where their raw materials are produced.
The second reason is ideological. In general, the modern coffee industry has high ethical expectations of its members. There are a number of reasons why, but it’s important to note that this was not always true. Coffee is a notoriously difficult and nuanced crop. Growing, harvesting and processing coffee is physically demanding work with numerous environmental and financial hurdles to overcome. Historically, coffee producers have been exploited to keep supply costs as low as possible. This created artificially low prices for the end consumer.
To repair this financial imbalance, buyers have begun to focus on improving the price farmers can get for their product. It may seem counterintuitive, but many farmers have serious financial difficulties making a living from growing coffee. When producers can’t afford their operating costs, they have no choice but to change crops or careers. This topic can be discussed at length, but the overall effect is lower supply in an increasing market.
Sadly, for some coffee producers, it is much worse. For many years it wasn’t uncommon for farms around the world to employ extremely low or even unpaid labor. There has been enormous effort to eliminate these practices from our industry – and this is one of the most important roles a coffee buyer plays when he or she visits a producer. Cutting labor costs is extremely tempting for many struggling farmers, but our goal is to work together to find solutions that benefit everyone along the supply chain. By visiting and developing lasting relationships with the coffee producers, we can ensure a great product at a fair price for all involved!