Going Up and Out: Orbital Thinking at Symposium

By Trish Rothgeb

From the moment that SCAA Executive Director Ric Rhinehart asked the 400 plus attendees at SCAA Symposium 2011 to “get orbital,” I knew this annual event of presentations, forums and conversations was not going to be an easy ride. Rhinehart knew we would be hearing about climate change, diminishing coffee quality, market volatility, and extreme poverty within the coffee supply chain, and it was clear that he was already expecting us to be overwhelmed, perhaps to the point where many of us would just shut down, disavowing any ownership of the problems before us.

And so he asked us to keep our own businesses in mind, but to put them on the back burner as we moved up and out with our perspective, maybe further up and farther out than we had ever gone before.

Adjusting your perspective in this way (or “getting orbital”, as Rhinehart puts it) will do a few things. First, it makes you realize that the problems you face are not unique to you, and second, it asks that you consider that there are others with issues that are completely different yet totally integrated and interconnected with your own. With a wide view, you see all that came before and all that might result. But the third, and most challenging realization, is that you—personally and as a company—are part of the problem, the equation, and ideally the solution.

The Symposium’s keynote speaker, Hal Hamilton, of Sustainable Food Lab, set the agenda for our orbital ride Wednesday morning. He asked: if we didn’t feel like climate change was something to worry about, how did we feel about the shrinking coffee yields? Could that get us to shift in our seats and accept that a product that relies on humans directly touching the earth is currently in crisis?  Would we be willing to acknowledge that the current market is a potential threat to coffee quality? Do we have any responsibility to improve our own industry’s practices in the face of this crisis? He left us with a thought from someone that had attended one of Food Lab’s events. When asked if progress could be made toward a more sustainable supply chain, that person answered, “Can’t we just work within our own walls instead of working on the whole system?” Here, Hamilton warned us, was where we would fail the industry as well as our own livelihoods The specialty coffee industry has already fully explored what it’s like for a few good companies to shoulder the burden. What we need to decide is what our tipping point is, the one that leads us to industry-wide action.

It was a lot to take in, but we didn’t even have a chance to catch our breath before we were asked to tackle the concept of climate change with a few scientists currently working in the area of climate change as it relates to coffee production

Dr. Peter Baker, senior scientist for Commodities for Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International, cited 2010 as the hottest and wettest year for coffee growing regions to date. For the last decade, we have been experiencing increased droughts as well—with different producing areas taking hits in alternating years. At some point, Baker said, all of these regions will experience drought at the same time as a result of global climate change. It’s not a question of “if;” it’s a question of “when.”

He felt secure in his assessment that coffee-growing land is shrinking, but also admitted that this is still unsubstantiated by real data, as the industry has yet to establish a reliable means for measuring such a phenomenon. Finally, he asked us to consider working as an industry to reconceptualize coffee production. Do we have a plan? If not, then he suggested that the first order of business should be to reconceptualize collaborative industry priorities and work together to get to a plan.

Dr. Juliana Jaranillo, scientist at University of Hannover, took the stage to underscore the idea that insect infestation of coffee is not a consideration for the future. We are in the throes of the crisis now. The Coffee Berry Borer (CBB) accounts for $500 million in losses yearly, and it’s on course to get even worse. Jaranillo told us that in the tropics (aka coffee-growing regions), CBB is incredibly adaptive to climate change. Ethiopia, for example, now experiences as many as five generations of this insect in one growing season. She went on to show us truly horrifying maps of a growing infestation in Tanzania. Unfortunately, we have no plan as an industry to deal with CBB. If you’re like me, you can attest to unscientific observations of more insect holes in your coffee this year and last, no matter the origin.

One slide from the presentation of Dr. Tim Schilling, director for Enterprise and Partnership Development at the Norman Borlag Institute of International Agriculture, Texas A&M and SCAA Board of Directors, made all the difference for me on the question of quality. It was a slide that showed coffee-growing regions in Veracruz, Mexico. As temperature relates to altitude, we could see that the cool temperature required for slow maturation of fruit was moving to higher land, occupying less surface area and jeopardizing both the sweetness/acidity and yields of specialty coffee. And again, as the others had already informed us, we didn’t have nearly enough data to report on the prospects for future production.

Some strong themes had already been established for Symposium, and we hadn’t yet broken for lunch on this first day. Climate change is upon us…at least we’re pretty sure it is. The only reason we don’t know for sure is because the industry did not think ahead enough to develop the means for measuring or reporting on this catastrophe.

But if you aren’t someone who is going to succumb to the warnings about the depletion of our environment, you might easily fall into the business (or “follow the money”) camp. Projecting ourselves up into our orbits again, we began to focus on the “The New Market Reality.” Juan Luis Barrios, general manager at Finca La Merced and Proquimtec, helped us trace the money. In a $3 market, more money is getting to the producer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can sit back and wait for better quality next year. A producer might be heavily leveraged and need to pay off some debt instead of invest in his farm. We could also expect producers to engage in unwise practices. Perhaps a farmer may choose to prune just 10 percent of his farm instead of his usual 30 this year to take advantage of these high prices—or worse yet, not prune at all. Carlos Brando, president of P&A International Marketing, then hit us with the prospect that the market has reached a “new floor,” or the concept that the C price will not “correct” from the recent surge to $3 per pound. We may be looking at a new commodity price point, well above what we had ever anticipated. Can we really blame it all on speculators, when we are experiencing such an increase in demand for specialty…and did we mention loss of yields due to climate change? Oscar Schaps, global head of Soft Commodities for INTL FCStone LLC, left us with one key take-away after his in-depth assessment of the volatile coffee market: get a plan. Whether our company is large or small, a plan will help us navigate what seems to be an utterly unpredictable market.

After lunch, we started our search for “sustainability”—a familiar term to most of us in the specialty trade. Kim Elena Bullock, sustainability and producer relations manager for Counter Culture Coffee asked us to consider being accountable to our own claims of sustainability, even while admitting it was something she could do a better job as well. As a result, she was challenging assumptions of her supply chain—which was the theme for the afternoon.

Rhinehart’s “get orbital” challenge was never more important than the next morning, as we assembled to watch the World Premier of “After the Harvest,” a film and special project produced by Rick Peyser, Director of Social Advocacy and Coffee Community Outreach at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. This film tells the harsh truth that, after the coffee harvest, smallholder farmers and their families suffer from hunger for a minimum of three months. Some families experience as much as six months of abject hunger. They are not equipped to deal with these lean months, which occur well out of our sight and full understanding. The question given to the Symposium attendees was: Can you live with the fact that hunger is an integral part of your business models? For a great many in the room, hunger is actually an integral part of our business models.

With the film’s message weighing heavily on our hearts, we began the process of exploring options for the industry to deal with our challenges. We were able to reflect on the progress made through certification programs—some even with measurable data to report. While the specialty coffee industry could be seen as exceptional in its response to impending problems of sustainability and quality, the question remains: have we really been able to connect those two things effectively. In other words, are we ready to admit to ourselves that true quality has to come part and parcel with sustainability? And if so, what are we willing to do to fully define that? And additionally, what are we as an industry willing to do to address the issues that had been so expertly laid out for us? Our view had been rather aggressively expanded—way up in that orbit—we saw it all.

The events at the end of the second day were those that had the potential to be the most telling about our collective resolve. The group began workshopping solutions to the impact of climate change, new market challenges, hunger, and a host of other issues in small group break out sessions. While it was only a beginning, the Symposium offered me—and I think many others—a great orbital vantage point. I realized that in order to be truly useful, I need to work with the rest of the industry instead of just within my own small business. It’s time we pool our efforts—by traveling up and out, we open ourselves to the discovery of innovative solutions and new kinds of success stories.

Trish Rothgeb is the owner, green coffee buyer and roastmaster at Wrecking Ball Coffee. Her experience in the industry spans more than 20 years as a coffee roaster, green coffee buyer, and teacher of all things coffee. She is a licensed Q-Grader and credentialed Q Trainer by the Coffee Quality Institute, has served on the SCAA’s Roasters Guild Executive Council, was a charter member of the World Barista Championship Board of Directors and is a founding member of the Barista Guild of America.