#60 | Re:co Podcast – Taya Brown on Supporting Smallholder Entry into the Specialty Coffee Market (S2, Ep. 1)

Today, we’re very happy to present the first episode of “Cost of Production and Profitability for Coffee Producers,” a session recorded at Re:co Symposium this past April. Buyers and producers alike need to understand what it takes to produce specialty coffee so that it can be produced sustainably, so we convened experts to ask: Do we really know what specialty coffee costs? 

SCA Lead Scholar Taya Brown worked with several communities of smallholder coffee farmers in Yepocapa, Guatemala to better understand the obstacles they face in uptake of new technologies. Profitability was found to be the main constraint, affecting nearly all aspects of production, sale, and innovation. Addressing low profitability, however, isn’t as straightforward as one might think. To gain true autonomy, farmers need more than just higher prices – they need to better understand how their own field, harvest, and post-harvest management affects their coffee’s quality, value, and potential to reach higher-paying markets.  

Special Thanks to Toddy 

This talk from Re:co Boston is supported by Toddy. For over 50 years, Toddy brand cold brew systems have delighted baristas, food critics, and regular folks alike. By extracting all the natural and delicious flavors of coffee and tea, Toddy Cold Brew Systems turn your favorite coffee beans and tea leaves into fresh cold brew concentrates, that are ready to serve and enjoy. Learn more about Toddy at http://www.toddycafe.com.

Related Links 
Table of Contents

0:00 Introduction
2:20 Smallholder farmers are not profitable and are leaving the coffee business
5:15 Smallholder farmers have a lack of resources and that translates to a lack of confidence, which requires motivation, support and education to solve.
11:30 Introducing ECA Montellano, a Guatemalan cooperative, explaining in their own words their hopes for the future, what motivates them and what support and education they need from the specialty community.
20:45 Outro

Full Episode Transcript

0:00 Introduction

Peter Giuliano: Hello everybody, I’m Peter Giuliano, SCA’s Chief Research Officer. You’re listening to an episode of the Re:co Podcast, a series of the SCA Podcast. The Re:co podcast is dedicated to new thinking, discussion, and leadership in Specialty Coffee, featuring talks, discussions, and interviews from Re:co Symposium, the SCA’s premier event dedicated to amplifying the voices of those who are driving specialty coffee forward. Check out the show notes for links to our YouTube channel where you can find videos of these talks.

This episode of the Re:co Podcast is supported by Toddy. For over 50 years, Toddy brand cold brew systems have delighted baristas, food critics, and regular folks alike. By extracting all the natural and delicious flavors of coffee and tea, Toddy Cold Brew Systems turn your favorite coffee beans and tea leaves into fresh cold brew concentrates that are ready to serve and enjoy. Learn more about Toddy at toddycafe.com. Toddy: Cold brewed, simply better.

Re:co Symposium and the Specialty Coffee Expo are coming to Portland in April 2020. Don’t miss the forthcoming early-bird ticket release – find us on social media or sign up for our monthly newsletter to keep up-to-date with all our announcements.

Today, we’re very happy to present the first episode of “Cost of Production and Profitability for Coffee Producers,” a session recorded at Re:co Symposium this past April. Buyers and producers alike need to understand what it takes to produce specialty coffee so that it can be produced sustainably. So we convened experts to ask: Do we really know what specialty coffee costs?

SCA Lead Scholar Taya Brown worked with several communities of smallholder coffee farmers in Yepocapa, Guatemala to better understand the obstacles they face in uptake of new technologies. Profitability was found to be the main constraint, affecting nearly all aspects of production, sale, and innovation. Addressing low profitability, however, isn’t as straightforward as one might think. To gain true autonomy, farmers need more than just higher prices – they need to better understand how their own field, harvest, and post-harvest management affects their coffee’s quality, value, and potential to reach higher-paying markets.

Also, to help you follow along in this podcast, I will chime in occasionally to help you visualize what you can’t see.

2:20 Smallholder farmers are not profitable and are leaving the coffee business

Taya Brown: Good morning. So, as was mentioned in the introduction, I’ve been working with some communities of smallholder coffee farmers. This has been for the better part of the last three years in a region of Guatemala called Yepocapa. If you’re familiar with Antigua in Guatemala, imagine going from Antigua around to the other side of the Fuego volcano, and you will be in Yepocapa. So, we’ve been studying the obstacles to uptake of technology within these smallholder coffee farming communities and unsurprisingly, what we found is that profitability is the main constraint that these farmers face and this is across the board and that affects their ability to innovate, sure, but it also affects your ability to do pretty basic things like fertilize. Farmers are having to make decisions about the amount of fertilizer that they’re using, about how often they fertilize, how many times a year they fertilize and are they able to make these decisions and do this as often and as much as they need to in order to have healthy plants?

We do see that farmers are becoming disenchanted with this situation as prices continue to remain low and have been low now for a couple years in this region and we do see the farmers are beginning to leave coffee. So, these Yepocapa farmers are finding other crops or sending a family member outside of the region to the city or to another country to bring in an income to help sustain the family and I was asked to come here today and talk to you about this issue of profitability from the perspective of the smallholder farmer. And I was thinking about that and what I could bring to this discussion that might be useful and I was thinking about how we’re the specialty coffee industry. This is the Specialty Coffee Association event. So, we can pay a higher price. I’m sure that many of you that are in the audience today pay really reasonable prices for some of the coffee that you buy. The issue is that the quality has to be there, so the quality has to be there for the coffee to have the value for us to be able to pay the prices that might make coffee a little more profitable for the producer. We have a real interest in supporting the smallholder farmer as they produce a substantial amount of the world’s coffee supply.

So, they’re having a large effect on our industry. But, in reverse, our industry, especially specialty coffee, can have a large effect on them.

 

5:15 Smallholder farmers have a lack of resources and that translates to a lack of confidence, which requires motivation, support and education to solve.

Peter Giuliano: On screen, a slide states “Smallholder farmers produce 80% of the world’s coffee.”

Taya Brown: So, many of these farmers, coffee producers are dealing with all kinds of issues and to showcase this and bring this home we superimposed what we consider the global coffee belt where coffee is produced over three other global belts.

Peter Giuliano: Taya has three maps of the world, flattened out and side by side. There are two horizontal lines running across the three maps. The southern line runs through Bolivia and Madagascar, while the northern line intersects Mexico and northern India. Everything in-between these two lines is the coffee belt. Taya’s map also reveals that the coffee belt intersects many countries facing major conflicts, hunger, and malaria.

Taya Brown:  So, this is the conflict belt where civil war has been more recent in many cases within the last 30 years. So, if you think about that and the average coffee farmer is 55 years old. That means that the average coffee farmer has lived through civil war in their lifetime. These other two maps are the world hunger map that’s showing where starvation and malnutrition are concentrated around the globe. There’s the malaria belt where communicable disease is more prevalent in the world. So, this is evidence. This is showing you how coffee producers are living and the lack of resources that are available in these areas. One of the things that happens when you grow up with the lack of resource is you have a lack of confidence. You’re not quite sure what your options are? You have limited options, and if you want to do something more with yourself, you’re not quite sure how to do that and this is something that I actually have personal experience with.

So, I’ll explain to you why I personally identify with the smallholder coffee farmer. I was raised in a single parent, low income household in South Seattle. My mother was pretty preoccupied as I was growing up, So, I was left to figure things out, kind of on my own and without a lot of resources and I was watching my friends or my friends were just like me, you know, from broken homes, sometimes having drugs in the family background, low history of formal education and the family, low resources. All of us just trying to figure out what to do with ourselves in the situation that we found ourselves and in my own experience, and then watching the experience of people that I spent the most of my time with and have cared about. I’ve been really curious and paying attention to what is it that causes somebody or what is it that allows somebody to bring themselves up when they are in a situation where they have low resources. So, you can either have resources or you don’t and what do you do in the case that you don’t? So, what I have realized or what I’ve come to in my paying attention to this over the years is that these are the three factors that are involved when resources aren’t. There’s motivation, there’s support and there’s education. So, motivation will define as a drive to do something more. This is an ambition that comes from within oneself and understanding that there is something greater than us and wanting to connect to that bigger, greater thing.

Support. Support I will define as an effort made by somebody else in your direction that helps you do something that you were unable to do otherwise because you either lack the resources, lack the confidence or lack the know-how and so this is something that somebody else can give to you when you don’t have those things and I’ve received a lot of support over my life. I think people were able to see that I had a lot of motivation as a kid, that I was interested in science and art and these bigger things and that I wasn’t going to get the resources that I needed to do something with that, with what was available within my own context. So, people jumped in and gave me support and in some cases, this was grants or fellowships, monetary support that have helped me get through school. In some cases, this was just somebody lending me their ear to listen or a space. I remember in high school, I had an art teacher that let me hang out in his room in my free periods, and I was able to just do arts and talk to him about things and just sort of be me and have some self-expression in the art that I was doing and I didn’t have a lot of spaces like that at that time in my life. So, that was a huge support to me.

And the other factor is education. Education is indestructible capacity. You cannot destruct this capacity. This is knowledge about things that help us to make more profound and longer ranging and better decisions and this is really the key to making us different. If we want to live in a different kind of a context, we have to be able to fit that context and in reverse as we change ourselves the context around us changes also, and education really is the key to that, to becoming different, to changing fundamentally who we are and to see that ripple effect in the world around us. and I don’t think that myself or my friends that I grew up with are really any different from smallholder farmers around the world who are growing up without a lot of resources, but who want to achieve something more with themselves.

 

11:30 Introducing ECA Montellano, a Guatemalan cooperative, explaining in their own words their hopes for the future, what motivates them and what support and education they need from the specialty community.

Taya Brown: I would like to introduce you to one of the region’s or one of the communities that I work with. This is ECA Montellano. They are located in a town called Hermogenes Montellano, which is right outside of Yepocapa. This is a cooperative or an organization of smallholder farmers that are 187 of them, 187 members. They’re about 32 years old. They farm coffee on what used to be a large finca up before the war and was re-appropriated to smallholder farmers. These people will come from four different parts of Guatemala to be here. So, after the war they traveled to this area to set up camp and start coffee farming and there’s a small group of this membership that is realizing that if they change a little bit of what they’re doing, they can have a product that the specialty market might be interested in and so they’re forming this group and they’re trying to figure out what they need to do in order to have a coffee that might be worth, you know, might have more value and so this past year they started selecting out some coffee that they picked really well. So, they thought, you know, what’s the easiest thing for us to do? We can just try to pick our coffee the best as possible, and we’ll have only mature beans, and that’ll be specialty coffee and what they’re starting to realize in this process is that there’s a lot for them to learn. So, picking is a great place to start, but there will be a lot more for them to learn. So, I’m going to let them introduce themselves to you.

Peter Giuliano: Taya is playing a video featuring ECA Montellano. Because they only speak Spanish and their videos have English subtitles, I will translate some of what they’re saying.

Francisco Kelel: Buenos días. Mi nombre es Francisco Calel, el presidente de La Vigilancia La ECA Montellano… con todo gusto, saludo para toda ustedes.

Peter Giuliano: Francisco Kelel is president of vigilance at ECA Montellano.

Teresa Orosco: Buenos días. Mi nombre es Teresa Orozco y soy parte del Comité de Finanzas de la pequeña empresa campesina y trabajamos aquí hombres y mujeres.

Peter Giuliano: Teresa Orosco is part of the finance committee and says the organization is made up of both women and men.

Manuel Tzorin: Mi nombre es Manuel Tzorin, de la comunidad.

Peter Giuliano: Manuel Tzorin is a member of the community.

Horacio Matzir: Buenas tardes. Mi nombre es Oración Mártir. Soy secretario de la ECA Montellano. Para mi es un gusto poder dirigir unas palabras a ustedes que nos pueden ver desde donde estén.

Peter Giuliano: Horacio Matzir is secretary of ECA Montellano and is happy he has an opportunity to speak with you.

Teresa Orosco: Estamos en lucha para poder encontrar un mercado mejor.

Peter Giuliano: Teresa says they are in a fight to find a better market.

Francisco Kelel: Pues nosotros hemos luchaba para mejorar nuestro cafetal… también queremos ser más el café especial para que haya un buen precio.

Peter Giuliano: Francisco says they have to fight to improve their coffee, and are looking to produce more specialty coffee so they earn more income.

Teresa Orosco: Y lo que se está haciendo ahorita es tratar de cambiar la forma de cómo se recolecta el café mejorado para hacer un café especial.

Peter Giuliano: Teresa says they are changing how they harvest to improve their specialty coffees.

Horacio Matzir: … entonces a raíz de eso nosotros hoy en día estamos trabajando de otras formar para encontrar la manera de sostenernos, ser autosostenibles con nuestros gastos, con todo lo que lleva el proceso del café.

Peter Giuliano: Horacio says the organization is trying other ways to be self-sustaining to cover their expenses.

Manuel Tzorin: Nos gustaría conseguir un mercado. Nos gustaría conseguir como exportar. Claro, claro estamos muy interesados, nuestra gente esta muy preocupada por el precio que está muy bajo. Y entonces estamos muy interesados en conseguir un mercado que sea mejor.

Peter Giuliano: Manuel says they are very interested in finding an export market for their coffees. Everybody is very worried right now because prices are very low.

Taya Brown: So, I hope that it’s clear from that video just from the introduction that these folks are motivated, these are motivated farmers. I think that it’s also clear that they need a lot of support and education. So, as they were working with this small lot this last year, and they picked well, then they realized that they had to figure out how to pay their pickers better or incentivized picking mature beans over just picking by quantity. So, they’d only paid a certain way in the past and they realized that they had to fix that if they were going to get a different product. Then they realized that there was this information that they needed to keep track of with the coffee, variety, altitude, the farmer, day it was picked things like this. They hadn’t had this experience before, having to keep track of information about small lots of coffee. Once that coffee was at the mill, they had to figure out how to keep it separate at the mill and keep the information with each lot. So, there was a lot of things that they’re realizing they’re going to have to learn how to do, and they’re going to have to get better at if they want to continue in this and grow their volume. So, those are some of the things that I know about, that they’ve had to change and learn, and I want to keep in this vein of having their voice here and having them explain their own situation and so here’s another clip of them.

Francisco Kelel: Muchas veces nos vemos obligados a abandonar nuestro café. El precio, cuando vendemos no hay un buen precio, pero estamos luchando.

Peter Giuliano: Francisco says that many times they have to abandon their farms. When they do sell their coffee, it’s for a bad price. But still, they are fighting.

Teresa Orosco: Queremos pues es ver en qué cosas más podemos mejorar. Principalmente las personas que tal vez nos vean atravez de este vídeo que ellos nos puedan decir más o menos qué clase de café en la que ellos les gusta comprar la que ellos necesiten entonces y cuáles son las características o qué trabajo tenemos que hacer nosotros para poder mejorar y lograr ese mercado.

Peter Giuliano: Teresa says they want to know what they need to do to improve. If there are buyers who watch this video, she wants them to tell her what kind of coffee they are looking for and what work they need to do to get there.

Francisco KelelSi, nosotros lo que necesitamos, o lo que nos cuesta, es el mercado, pero nosotros estamos dispuestos a cambiar muchas cosas, las cuestiónes del campo para hacer el café, para que salga un buen producto. Y en cuestión del beneficio, tal como el café especial, a nosotros nos gustaría hacer más volumen, tal como este año, pues es poco, pero es para empezar. Ahora nosotros lo que queremos es cambiar un poco el beneficio, lo que todo lo que necesiten, o cortar el café en la mata que sea bien maduro, y para tener un buen producto.

Peter Giuliano: Francisco says what they need is a market for their coffees. They produced only a small amount of specialty coffee this year, but it’s a start. They have questions around how to grow the right type of coffee and how to process it.

Manuel Tzorin: Estamos más contento todavía y la gente están más contento y están más con gan de sembrar más, trabajar más con el cafe, mas para tener un buen futuro.

Peter Giuliano: Manuel says the community is happy to keep working with coffee and looks forward to a better future.

Taya Brown: So, that was Teresa, Francisco, Horacio and Manuel explaining to you their hopes for the future, explaining to you a little bit about their motivation, what motivates them and explaining to you some of the support and education that they know that they’re going to need to continue to succeed in coffee production. So, I would like to ask two things of the audience. We’re going to make pledges tomorrow but I’m going to go ahead and talk about it today, and I would like you guys to do two things. One is to think about this issue of profitability in these terms. Think about information and not just price and think about what we in this room, some of the most experienced and successful people in the specialty coffee industry have that we can share with producers. These farmers don’t know anything about specialty, but they want to know. They want to know what it means. They want to know how to assess it. They want to know how they can produce it. They want to know what varieties they need to plant. They want to know how they need to manage their fields and their post-harvest management of their coffee. That’s information that we have that we can share with them. So, that’s number one to think about the information issue, and number two is to make a pledge to share information over this next year with somebody who hasn’t had it. You’ll notice people that have this actual motivation and you’ll notice them trying and look at that situation and see what you can do and what you can add in the form of support or education to help that person do something more with themselves. I have personal experience with this. I know that it works. Thank you.

 

20:45 Outro

Peter Giuliano: That was Taya Brown at Re:co Symposium this past April.

Remember to check out our show notes to find a link to the YouTube video of this talk, a full episode transcript, and a link to speaker bios on the Re:co website.

Re:co Symposium and the Specialty Coffee Expo are coming to Portland in April 2020. Don’t miss the forthcoming early-bird ticket release – find us on social media or sign up for our monthly newsletter to keep up-to-date with all our announcements.

This has been an episode of the Re:co Podcast, brought to you by the members of the Specialty Coffee Association, and supported by Toddy.

Subscribe to the #SCApodcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, Pocket Casts, or RadioPublic.