By Bob Fish
1. The black hole of coffee — Don’t know where it goes
Whether large or small, the likelihood of a producer knowing where their coffee goes once it leaves the farm is next to zero. What do I mean by that? Well, most of the time coffee is bought and sold on exchanges and through brokers that intentionally keep the producer and the end-user isolated and behind their respective curtains.
Coffee itself is considered a commodity. Once a product is commoditized, the individuality of that coffee is obfuscated down to perhaps a region of a country at best. More importantly, though, the people that produce that coffee are commoditized as well and remain faceless. Purchasing coffee on a Farm-Direct model lifts the curtain so that the coffee producer and the coffee end user can see and know each other. There are many inherent benefits to this. Perhaps the most important is that it creates a mutual bond of support, understanding, and care.
The first time we brought a coffee producer to the United States to visit one of our locations at BIGGBY COFFEE, it was magical. When he saw his coffee being served to the customer, he literally cried with joy at seeing the happiness and day-changing satisfaction that his product brings to millions of BIGGBY COFFEE customers.
From L-R, Hector Morales, Carlos Ferrey, Miriam Morales and Jorge Ferrey of the El Recreo Coffee Estate in Jinotega, Nicaragua, visiting a BIGGBY COFFEE cafe in September, 2022.
We often say that going on a coffee farm visit and seeing the 365 day effort that it takes to produce great coffee is a life changing event for most people. We can say the same is true for a coffee producer that has the same chance to visit the end user. The busy café, its baristas, and the customers are all there because of what the farmer created from the soil and the sun. To be a true Farm-Direct relationship, not only do we need to visit the farm, but the people of the farm must visit us. We call that ‘Full Circle.’ It creates a two-way mutual understanding which is the key to great relationships and, therefore, great coffee.
2. There’s no crying in coffee — Nobody ever shows up
We have met coffee producers that have been working their lands for 20 plus years, and their families before them working the land for another 40 plus years before that, who have never seen a buyer show up to walk their lands with them.
Juana Hernandez told us that in the 30 years that she and her husband, Pascual, have been in coffee, never has a buyer come to visit them and walk their land in the El Chich community of Chiapas, Mexico. (Photo by Ivan Vasquez, edited by Kim Zahnow)
The coffee industry as a whole is riddled with middlemen. Some of them add value though processing or transportation, but many are nefarious, unnecessary, and take advantage of the system, with the producer being the most likely victim. The producer is often in a very remote region, with no access to transportation, and with no visibility into the full coffee marketplace.
So, what happens is somebody, that nobody really knows, shows up at the farm in a truck offering a price to the producer. That person in Central and South America is often referred to as a ‘Coyote’, and they are not concerned about quality, work conditions, or whether the farm is economically or ecologically sustainable.
By the way, it’s a near 100% likelihood that the price offered will be way below market value, and possibly even less than what it cost to produce. But the producer takes it. Why? Because they need to feed their families.
We never knew how pervasive this was until we started showing up on coffee farms. Our rules are that we can’t buy coffee from you until we have been to the farm, walked your lands, talked to your people, and visited the community. We want to get to know you, the producer, first. And then we’ll talk about your coffee.
Sharing a meal prepared by Martha Vazquez, one of the small producers in Chiapas, Mexico that is a part of our Farm-Direct relationship with Finca La Fortaleza. (Photo by Michelle Fish)
We have climbed to the top of more coffee mountains and foothills that rest at about 1,500 to 2,000 meters (5,000+ feet above sea level), than is probably reasonable. We do it because first we trust what we see with our own eyes (no label marketing). And second, because it is powerful for the producer. To be seen, heard, accepted, and connected are some of the most powerful human needs of all time. If you’re not sure if that is true, just think about the popularity of a social media provider like Facebook and how we count the number of likes and loves we get on the posts we make.
Now let’s go back to the producer, who for decades and in remote regions has never walked their lands with somebody who would like to buy their product (an end-user). What do you think will happen? Tears. Yes, tears that are unexpected, very emotional, and from deep inside. The first time we saw this happen, I was not sure we knew what to do. Now, we expect it, and we put our arms around them and give them a big hug.
Photo by Ivan Vasquez, edited by Kim Zahnow.
Coffee comes from places and people that the world has forgotten, and when you show up from far away and walk the lands, and meet their families, and share bread together everything can change in a milli-second. Hope and opportunity are restored, humanity seems real, relevance is palpable, and the why of what you’re doing gains immense clarity. Who wouldn’t cry?
3. The power of a hug –The human touch
We travel a lot, a lot, for Farm-Direct. Some would even consider it unreasonable and possibly even detrimental to the environment. Keep in mind our definition of Farm-Direct (or Direct Trade), which is when the end-user, (in our case, BIGGBY COFFEE, the retailer selling by the cup) buys directly from the producer, which is the coffee farmer. In that process of buying coffee, we reduce the number of hands touching the coffee that are not actually adding value to the supply chain and the coffee itself. By reducing the redundant hands in the coffee trade, we are also reducing the cost of the coffee, but we return that savings to the producer where it rightfully belongs. It gives them a chance to be economically sustainable and profitable.
To take that idea and turn it into a reality takes a lot of work and time on the ground in the producing countries. Even though we can agree that removing unnecessary hands from the supply chain is good, it also create gaps between us and the producer that must be overcome. There are good people doing good things everywhere in this world, but to find them, check them out, and verify that they have the right intent and capability requires a square look in the eye and a visual verification.
That is one of the big reasons for all this travel, but it may not be the most important. Getting back to the coffee producers themselves, we just cannot underestimate the power of a physical presence and the human touch.
Most relationships that we develop start off with a good lead and introduction that could be considered formal and slightly uncomfortable. That’s the way it is when people don’t really know each other, and that is OK. There is great risk in our general proposition to the producer, that we will buy directly. The risk is not financial, but emotional and phycological.
The promise of providing a direct marketplace to the producer is typically something that they would dream of, or hope for, but doesn’t really happen. And if it does, it couldn’t possibly be happening to them.
“Is it real?” That is a phrase that we hear repeatedly. We understand that the skepticism that comes from those words is to protect them from the possibility of a broken heart and destroyed dreams. So many empty promises have been made by many before us. The producers we meet need to mitigate the possibility that this, too, just might not be true.
And that is why we go, in person, with frequent visits. It is the nature of a relationship that is not transactional, but personal. How personal? Enough so that we know the family, their dreams for their children, and their plans for their community. Enough so that we do not end the visit with a handshake, but a hug. Did you know, when you hug another human being, it releases a chemical in your body called oxytocin that can make you feel warm and fuzzy? Did you know that the personalness of a hug can generate feelings of trust, nurturing, and calm? Some believe that you can feel LOVE in a hug, and we would never debate that for one minute. You can’t give a hug on a phone call or zoom meeting, and so even though our travel might be considered by some to be irrational, we think it is about the most human thing we could do.
Visiting with the members of the Elevar Coop in Olancho, Honduras. (Photo by Elias Assaf)
4. What’s love got to do with it?
Buying coffee is so easy. All you have to do is pick up the phone, call a coffee broker, and say I want ‘x’ number of sea containers of, say, a Colombian washed with a rich body and a light citrus acidity. Then bingo, bango, boom, you’ll have samples on your desk within the week. You’ll be cupping before you know it and making your final decision. Pricing will be determined by the C-Contract plus or minus the differential and you will be on your merry way.
Those brokers will gladly supply you with a few cut sheets that describe the region, or maybe even a farm that the coffee comes from.
Certifications? No, problem. Do you want Fair Trade? Organic? Rain Forest Alliance? Or maybe the trifecta? Just add a few more tens of cents to the pound and it’s yours. Easy peasy. But is it right?
Photo by Elias Assaf
We would suggest to you that it is not. Why? Because coffee producers are leaving coffee farming in droves, for two basic reasons:
- Farming coffee is not profitable. As a matter of fact, it often cannot even provide a subsistent living standard for most small coffee producers.
- Climate Change is reaping havoc on the balance of life on coffee farming. Plagues and pests are the beneficiary, decimating crops, and yield.
We have seen this with our own eyes. Although the broker system isn’t necessarily doing anything nefarious, they certainly are not addressing these main issues, either. Maybe they can’t, or maybe they won’t, we are not sure. But they are clearly still a part of an old system of trading coffee that is closer to economic colonialism, exploiting coffee people and the coffee land for profit. There is no inherent or primary care or concern for people, planet, or community.
Of course, you might think that labels like Fair Trade, or Organic could solve that. Certainly as consumers, that is what we are led to believe. But frankly, those labels and certifications are just putting a lot of lipstick on the pig. They are dressing up a broken system, not addressing the needs of coffee producers and the planet.
Our solution? Start with the people, not the coffee. The fundamental difference is that we are interested in people, then planet, then community… and then coffee.
Why? We can buy good coffee anywhere, but we want to buy good coffee, from good people, doing good things in this world. When we find somebody that cares about the land in a sustainable way, cares about the people working the land and whether their kids can get an education, and cares about the community that it serves, then we know we are working with ‘loving’ people. We are working with the right people.
You might ask though, ‘do loving people produce good coffee?’ Of course they do!! People that care about the right things and do the right things, also do the right things when it comes to producing their coffee too. What does Love have to do with it? Absolutely EVERYTHING!!
Photo by Elias Assaf
Becoming true Farm-Direct buyers has been an amazing journey for us as people and for us as a company. We have learned so much from each relationship we develop, and we expect to learn so much more as we get closer to being 100% Farm-Direct by 2028. We have made friends all over the world and we all share an understanding that all people want is security and safety, health, prosperity, and something for the next generation. We all also share the belief that the world we live in is interdependent, and although our impact might be local, the consequence (positive or negative) can be felt around the world. Last, we also share the mission to build real and lasting relationships with dignity, respect, and equality for all. That is why at One BIGG Island in Space we look to put a name, a face, and a place to every cup of coffee we serve.
All photos by Kim Zahnow, unless otherwise noted.