by Rachel Northrop
At a time when so much of our days is consumed with digital, screen-based interactions, there is something refreshing about knowing that the industry in which we work is grounded in something tangible, something that comes from the ground itself.
To work in coffee is to work with an agricultural commodity, a seasonally changing plant that always has to be grown in the soil someplace. It is easy to forget this while obsessively watching the C market price or perfecting a latte pour, but no matter where we start from, when you trace coffee backwards it always takes us back to the land.
There are problems, though, that come from this way of thinking and always having to remember to trace coffee back to the land. In reality, coffee starts in the soil, and all other forms of coffee are the result of coffee moving forward. This shift in perspective is important; if we start by thinking of coffee in the cup and work our way backwards, then the land and the people who work it are the last thing the downstream end of the industry thinks of. The viability of coffee production as a livelihood and the land itself become an afterthought.
This is problematic because coffee producing lands are in crisis. Changes in climate render coffee growing difficult or impossible in regions where it previously flourished. New patterns of variation in temperature and precipitation promote pests and plagues that threaten coffee. Decades of lax or negligent land management in and around coffee farms create erosion and runoff disasters that contaminate water sources. But we have all heard this before; the gravest problems have diligently been reported.
What I am suggesting that would be new and meaningful is a shift in thinking to orient these problems first in our consideration of coffee not because they are inherently more urgent than problems that occur elsewhere in the chain (maybe they in fact are, but that’s a different argument) but because they come first in the reality of coffee. Because these challenges occur out of sight it does not mean they should be out of mind. The issues affecting the people and places where coffee originates are massive, looming, and complex. Part of the reason we tend not to think about them first, before concrete and contained challenges such as how to improve the flow of foot traffic in a shop or find the best roast profile for a certain microlot, is because they are much more overwhelming.
But recognizing and mulling over a problem does not obligate us to solve the whole thing; we can start by trying to work out the piece of the problem that applies to us. Mitigating climate change in the coffeelands is a staggering task, but asking ourselves if there is a reforestation project we can initiate on one of the farms we buy from is a manageable way to help address a larger problem.
Luckily, this is a moment in the industry when thinking about those larger issues is not quite as daunting as it could be. There are organizations with the scope and resources to affect change that are already at work on the very issues that most threaten the lands and lives that make coffee possible. World Coffee Research is actively sharing the progress of its multi location varietal trials and related research, which treats coffee production not as a quaint, traditional activity but as an agricultural enterprise deserving of accessible data to inform the decisions coffee landowners must make.
The SCAA is in the process of forming a Producers Guild to offer producers the same level of professional organization and representation that baristas and roasters already enjoy as part of the SCAA’s radius.
As a major portion of the industry participated last month in an event that celebrates the passion and joy we all derive from coffee, we must challenge ourselves to remember that this celebration is the grand finale of a chain that always starts with the complicated and unpredictable joys of agriculture. After a trade show where we were inundated with logos, slogans, branding, taglines, promises, claims, and lots of things that are not exactly tangible beyond the swag that bears them, let us remember that the reason we love coffee is because it is real, and so we must remember to keep the land and lives that produce coffee at the front of our professional perspectives.
Rachel Northrop is a trader with Ally Coffee and the author of the 2013 book When Coffee Speaks: Stories from and of Latin American Coffeepeople.