Our coffee begins and ends with our farmers, and the durability of the coffee bean is entirely sustained by the stewards of the coffee lands, from South America to Africa and beyond. This much is known by industry professionals, yet seldom spoken by the public, a narrative we can only hope to inspire. This year on International Coffee Day, we take our celebrations back to origin, where the real work begins.
Earlier this year, Ian Nelson and his team traveled to Guatemala for their annual assessment, visiting the lots of farmers like the Perez family to exchange notes on harvest, roasting, and the latest and greatest of jazz musicians.
The Perez name of Family Bonds has been a long-time partner for DOMA Coffee Roasting Company, operating five farms and working towards a sixth. It’s a symbiotic support system going on four years, and these trips to origin are vital to the success of the farmers and the roasters. “We visit Guatemala annually, and stay in touch with our farmers through WhatsApp,” Nelson said. “It’s more like a friendship… we talk nearly every week.”
The green team gets a fresh look at what’s brewing, while the farmers communicate what they expect from the roasters. The inclusion of checks-and-balances not only strengthens the overall cup, but it brings the brigade of workers that are responsible for our coffee into the fold.
“When visiting, it’s a lot of cupping, tasting, and traveling non-stop,” Nelson explained. “We travel with our importing partners, Onyx Coffee Imports, and even their owners have a farm.”
The Martinez family operates the importer Onyx Coffee and plays host to Nelson and his team when they’re in town. The days usually begin at sunrise, with hours passing between farm crawls. The sprawl of countryside they have to cover is made possible by a Range Rover nicknamed, “The Defender.” “It’s a beast,” Nelson said.
This year’s descent on the Southern coffee lands ran parallel to COVID-19, and the green team found themselves a long way from home as a pandemic crept in. Even still, the Perez family continued with their harvest, with the only setbacks drawn from shipping delays. “Guatemala got their first positive test just two days before we went home, which caused a bit of a panic,” Nelson recalled.
In response to the uncertainty of COVID-19, the DOMA team made sure to look ahead with their purchases from the Perez family, ensuring the survival, security, and well-being of their farmers. “We could always use the coffee even if our output wasn’t strong,” Nelson said. “We just wanted to make sure they were safe, and that they didn’t struggle.”
The coffee industry has braved the assault of consumerism for quite some time, only now the heat of a pandemic and climate change burn brightly below. The reality is that coffee farmers rarely receive what they put out into the world, with special cases like DOMA dotting the horizon. Many different factors play into this problem, one being the near absence of these farmers in coffee conversation completely.
Spencer Mahoney, the captain of roasting operations for Atomic Coffee Roasters, believes the real challenge unfolds closer to home, where the discussions are (aren’t?) happening. “The future of coffee is uncertain, especially when there’s not enough money invested to want to keep families in it,” Mahoney said. “It makes me think more about what’s wrong with the business side of things… how do you get the vast majority of people to think about coffee as a crop, and a livelihood for a family? How do you tell that story without getting preachy?”
Atomic Coffee is a Beverly haunt just outside of Boston, with their roasting facility based in nearby Salem. The pandemic took a shot at the family-run coffee shop, but business bounced back hotter than ever after a couple of weeks. “We were really fortunate to have a lot of different ways to approach the community,” Mahoney explained. “People still needed their coffee, we were just offering it in different ways.”
The gridwork of coffee farming often loses traction in coffee houses, or gets overlooked entirely. Perhaps the strongest weapon to combat strenuous climates for our farmers is to simply bring them into the spotlight.
"It’s pretty common in specialty coffee to put the name of the farmer on a retail bag, but the next challenge is understanding the bigger picture. Yes, that name belongs to a real person!”
“Connecting the dots is the hardest part,” Mahoney said. “It’s pretty common in specialty coffee to put the name of the farmer on a retail bag, but the next challenge is understanding the bigger picture. Yes, that name belongs to a real person!” Mahoney visited the farms of La Minita and La Pastora, both of which occupy the tropics of Costa Rica, just before air travel became taboo.
“Just a couple of weeks before flying was deemed ridiculous, I got the best of both worlds at origin,” he said. “I witnessed large-scale farming, as well as La Pastora’s processing center right on the lot. To see everything go from cherry to finished product within a 20-yard radius around me was wild.”
Mahoney also witnessed the provisions of family farms, as detailed by the maternal benefits La Minita offers its workers, from housing to on-site dental. “For such a large operation, they have awesome programs for the people working their farms,” Mahoney said. “You think about where coffee farms are located in the world, and in order to visit a doctor you’d have to take time off work, drive into the city… but there, they have their doctors right there on-site. It’s incredible.”
A hallmark for Mahoney this year was when a burlap sack arrived at the roastery with La Pastora’s owner, Minor Esquival Picado, grinning across the front. “Minor has done a great job marketing himself on his own farm,” Mahoney recalled. “He has a very recognizable presence, and when that burlap showed up at our roastery’s doorstep it had an image of him drawn into the bag. I was so happy, I had gotten to visit his farm just a few months prior!”
Though ideal, not every coffee lover can visit the mythic coffee farms of the world. To some people, these farmers feel leagues beyond the espresso machine sitting before them, shiny and new. Out of sight, out of mind. The amount of hands that work to bring coffee into the commercial arena is too many to quantify, and yet this understanding could drastically change the dialogue in the coffee houses and at home. But what if these farms were down the street? What if we could visit coffee farms the same way we visit vineyards?
Benjamin Myers, president of The Chain Collaborative and manager for the New Growers Program at Frinj Coffee, is working to sculpt the landscape of Southern California into the next coffee corner of the globe. With Frinj, Myers and his team oversee a whopping 67 working coffee farms along the coastal counties of San Diego, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo. Though most of the harvested farms (there are currently 10) are just shy of three years old, they’ve produced a combined bounty of 20,000 pounds of cherries to date.
“We design the coffee to be sold as a single farm to highlight the grower,” Myers said. “We offer tours of the farms we own, and I think in the future more of our growers will be offering tours of their farms as their production ramps up.”
This kind of groundwork peels back the curtains that cover much of the coffee industry to the general public, reinforcing this idea of "mystery coffee" in the cafés. “It’s a cultural challenge,” Mahoney said. “Most people don’t even know about half the food they’re eating.”
To know your coffee is to know your farmer, and what better way to understand the farm side of things than a tour? “If a farm does the eco-tourism thing correctly, it can be their highest revenue line item,” Myers explained. “Storytelling technologies are more abundant than ever for sharing the cinema verti of farm life.”
Coffee growers in California could change the way we appreciate and understand coffee as a product of the earth as well as provide additional leverage for the hands that knead the land. But it doesn’t end with eco-tourism.
“Coffee farming has never been a more challenging profession than it is today,” Myers said. “The biggest challenge is going to be the climate. When nature is out of balance, it becomes impossible to steward the growth of a fruit tree. The harmony of flowering leading to fruiting is like a well-composed orchestra that requires a synthesis of well-timed unfoldings.”
Snarling wildfires like those that swallow the West Coast are but one example of the kind of climate extremities that could pulverize the coffee industry, and any form of agriculture, for that matter. The crucial adaptations begin at the local level and start small, like with micro lots in SoCal or the endurance of family-run farms in Guatemala. It’s a delicate cycle that demands balance and call-to-action, by no loss but our own.
“It's not going to be any one thing, it’s going to be an all hands on deck call and response,” Myers said. “We need growers more than they need us.”
The best discussions are born with coffee, true story. So how can we, as coffee professionals and coffee lovers, stir the conversation to something that inspires? The future of the coffee sector in the hands of tomorrow’s youth, who are watching their parents and grandparents struggle. Sometimes, it’s about education. “That’s the biggest step we can take,” Nelson said. “I know the industry really pushes that, but keeping your baristas refreshed on where the coffee comes from could really shape the dialogue.”
Other times, it’s about innovation. “As green buyers, we get caught up in tasting amazing, insane coffees,” Nelson said. “We have to be aware that even if a coffee lands in a different cup profile than last year’s, you don’t just toss it out, because that hurts the farmers. You can still purchase coffee and use it in different ways.”
Most importantly, it’s about humanity. Sure, coffee is a crop, but it doesn’t grow itself. We need to recognize and promote the ecosystems that surround the coffees we enjoy, regardless if they’re in San Diego County or in the Santa Maria de Dota region of Costa Rica. Supporting the farmers will support the coffee, and the wheel keeps spinning.
Back in the Spring, in Guatemala City, Nelson and the green team found time to relax in their stoop after a day’s haul across the farmlands. The Onyx Coffee group open their home to the roasters, located downtown in a structure without a roof that soaks up the stars at night. A balcony overlooks a large graveyard nearby, where the tombs are splashed in vibrant colors and charms. On previous trips, the team took up an Airbnb that backed into a jazz club.
“One night we ventured into this club and a female-fronted group was playing Led Zeppelin covers,” Nelson recalled. A genre-bending musician himself, Nelson appreciates these tiny adventures that unfold during visits to origin. “The relationships make it fun,” he said.
The journey from seed to cortado is a long one with many stops, and the coffee farm is a production with dozens of stagehands keeping the show alive. It’s important for us to remember on this International Coffee Day 2020 that there’s more to your coffee than meets the eye, and in order for the brews to keep brewing, we have to hold all corners accountable. “How can I develop healthy wholes over healthy parts?” Myers said it best.