Essential Reading: Ethical Supply Chains

from Carla D. Martin, PhD

A number of recently published works reflect diverse scientific, social, and economic perspectives on ethics in supply chains.
  • In Boston Review’s recent forum “The New Nature,” a group of thinkers considers human influence on the environment and the significance of the food movement in defining a “possible model of the next politics of nature.”
  • Open Democracy’s latest policy debate asks several scholars and practitioners to answer the question: “Can corporations be trusted to tackle modern day slavery?
  • Earlier this year, my colleague Kathryn Sampeck and I synthesized the history of slavery, colonization, and inequality in relation to chocolate, and examined the influence of this history on the contemporary quality and ethics-focused fine cacao and chocolate industry.
Ethical questions abound throughout food production globally, though we’re often best served by first investigating the situation at home.
  • For a better understanding of café and barista labor in the United States, Saru Jayaraman’s writing on precarious tipped labor in food service is a must read, as is Patrick Abatiell’s response on the limits of entrusting labor reform to restaurant customers and owners.
  • Margaret Gray’s ethnographic work with exploited farm laborers in the Hudson Valley challenges us to more carefully consider the politics of buying local and supporting small farms.
  • Stories and images of farmers of color from Natasha Bowens highlight the intersectional voices too often neglected in our food and agriculture discussions.
  • Lest we all rush to tell the stories of farmers and farm laborers for them, this cautionary poston the politics of representation in development work covers some important principles that should also be applied to storytelling and marketing in specialty food.
Supply chains are complicated. The ethical solutions that specialty coffee is looking for aren’t easy to come by. But there’s no reason to balk at the hard work necessary. Just this week Jonathan Latham offered his thoughts on why the food movement, for all its messy complexity, is unstoppable. The more we learn, the more we can do.
If you’d like to read more on these topics together, or if you want related film, podcast, and event recommendations, connect with me on Twitter at @carladmartin.

Anxiety Doesn’t Own You

by Becky Reeves

image1I had my first panic attack on Halloween, 2015. I was at a house party I shouldn’t have been at, around people I shouldn’t have been around, and feeling very uncomfortable. What started as awkward discomfort quickly turned into panic, and then into physical pain. I ran out of the house, pacing up and down the sidewalk in the middle of the night thinking “What the hell is wrong with my body?”. The heavy breathing and pacing turned into shortness of breath and a sharp deep pain in my chest. I couldn’t see or hear anything, I couldn’t feel anything but panic and fear. In that moment, I thought I was dying. 

To those that have never had a panic attack, this may seem like an exaggeration, but those that have know what it feels like. Panic attacks are the result of panic disorder, depression, anxiety, or any combination of mental debilitations. A panic attack happens when your body goes into a hormonal ‘fight or flight’ mode even when there is no real danger. Flight or flight is a very useful natural sense for our bodies to have, but in the case of a non-threatening social event, it’s not only irrationally unnecessary, it’s embarrassing.

Anxiety has a way of trickling into every part of your life. What began as a seldom triggered social anxiety, turned into full blown social anxiety, and then into anxiety on my career path. I competed for the first time in the 2016 Barista Competition qualifying event, where I first experienced that “Oh my god what am I doing here? Who am I?” career anxiety. I did well, really well. I tied for second place in the west coast region, but when my score came out my instant thought was “Well, the judges obviously made a mistake and it’s going to be really embarrassing when they correct it.” Even after the top six was announced, with my name included, I still felt like an impostor. People all of the sudden cared about my opinion, and I felt like it was only a matter of time before I disappointed someone with my lack of knowledge or flare.

Going into the National Barista competition, I let that impostor syndrome eat at me, I let my anxiety make my decisions, and at nationals, I blew it. Now I know I didn’t actually ‘blow it’ I still did fine, but I didn’t do as well as I could have because I let my anxiety take control. I was too busy comparing myself to everyone else, I didn’t even try. Post competition I really felt that pressure to be ‘one of the best’. There were new expectations of me (mostly from myself) and new assumptions of my skills that made me doubt myself and my credibility even more. 

As I started to open up and talk about these issues with other women in the industry, I realized just how common career anxiety is. Successful, beautiful, talented women that I look up to had the same issues as me. These were women who had their names on magazines, owned their own businesses and had tens of thousands of followers on Instagram, how could these pioneers of women in coffee deal with impostor syndrome and anxiety? I even remember reading an article about Beyonce and her experiences with anxiety. BEYONCE. If the most perfect women in the entire world can deal with an issue that millions of women work through everyday, why do some people feel so alone in this?

As I found out success doesn’t make your anxieties just disappear, it often amplifies them.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population. Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. Women are twice as likely to deal with an anxiety disorder compared to men. 

Anxiety is a real mental issue, not a wave of feelings you get every once and awhile. We should not feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about it. If we want to better our communities and create a safe place for everyone, mental disorders are worth putting into the discussion. Sharing and discussing is a way to build empathy for issues we may not understand and most importantly, a way to create environments where such issues can be managed. 

I’ve had a couple, smaller panic attacks since the one I mentioned, but now I know my triggers and I’m able to identify what a panic attack is. Even though I still get anxious and still feel dread doing basic, remedial tasks, I’m glad I can identify what is anxiety and what isn’t. Calling out and identifying my anxiety was a huge step for me. Being able to say ‘This is just my impostor syndrome talking, I’m good at this’ is a big up in freeing yourself from crippling fear. Now as I look towards my future, I think of how to take control and not let my anxiety get the better of me.

To those with anxiety:

Talk to someone. Tell your manager, your friends, your significant others. Be honest with your employer, “I have this illness and I’m working through it, but I need you to understand how real and difficult this is to me.”

Know your triggers. I can’t go to this really hip bar on Alberta St. I don’t know why, I just know that I can’t. Don’t push yourself more than you have too. You’re allowed to not want to do something because you don’ want too.

Breath. Alot. I often take small 3-5 minute breaks from work just to walk around outside. Don’t take your phone, don’t take anything from work; just go outside and breath for a couple minutes. Get your heart rate down for a few minutes before you can ever have any issues.

Watch what you eat and drink. Coffee, alcohol, sugar, comfort foods, those all make anxiety worse. Momentarily they seem reliving, but once that bottle of wine and 6 cookies settle, you’re left feeling more vacant and emotional. As a coffee professional I understand how hard it can be to not drink coffee, but I reiterate again to talk to your coworkers and your managers. No one will fault you for not wanting to do something for your health.

Treat Yo’ Self. As women this is a hard one. Do something you love just for you. Spend some alone time with yourself. Get a manicure, go for a hike, buy some shoes. Do anything that makes you feel good. Confidence is the prefect thing to combat anxiety.

Sleep. Seriously. Get enough sleep, it cures literately everything.

Do your best and be proud of yourself. When someone says you did a good job, take the credit! Hell yeah you’re good at your job! Go you!

You needn’t apologize for your feelings. When you talk to someone about how you feel end it with ‘Thank you for listening to me, I really appreciate your patience and understanding’ and NOT ‘Sorry I’m such a mess, sorry you put up with me, sorry, sorry’. Your feelings are valid.

Do something that’s uncomfortable, but in a good way. I recently did an improv comedy class. I didn’t know anyone, which made it so much better. It was so far out of my comfort zone, but I’m so happy I did it. Try a dance class, volunteer work, learn a new hobby. Put your mind to work on something positive.

Find a doctor who can help. I am not a doctor; I’m only telling you what works for me, and people I know. Handle your illness like you would any other. With a professionals help. There are people out there skilled and honored to work with you. Shopping for a doctor is hard, but it’s worth it. Sometimes talking to an unbiased third party is the best thing you can do for your brain.

 

Finding Your Dream Job

by Hanna Neuschwander

Dating is useful almost exclusively as an exercise in helping you understand what you don’t want out of your “forever life.” A necessary but torturous series of practice rounds for the real thing. Along the way, happily, you pick up some useful tricks: How to fold a fitted sheet, maybe, or how to navigate the hazy, shifting line between being an independent/confident partner and a selfish one. By the time you’re done dating (if you do ever become done with it), you’ve built a keen set of filters that help you sort out what’s likely to work for you. That guy? Nope. Him? No. Over there? Mmm mmm, no thank you sir. Nada. It takes a long time to learn how to say no so you’re ready to say yes to the right one(s).

Employment is a little bit the same. You work through a series of jobs in your youth that help you build skills, hard and soft, and help you figure out what you do and don’t like doing with your time, what you’re not good at and what you are, what is challenging in a fun way and what is challenging in a way that makes you want to gouge out your eyes with unsharpened pencils. If you’re a natural-born bureaucrat like me, you might discover an uncommon love of org charts and schedules and Trello boards. Or you might discover you chafe under rigid hierarchies and that you thrive on talking to people all day, and that you desperately hate wearing anything with a collar. These are the small realizations that accumulate to point you in the direction of your eventual career.

I, like most people, had no idea I’d end up working in coffee. I got a job as a barista when I was 24 because I had moved to a new city and I didn’t know anyone. It seemed like a good way to meet people. My professional ambition had always been to be a communicator. I had already worked at a publishing company, as a magazine copy editor, and as a medical editor by the time I moved to Portland in 2007 and got my barista gig. I simultanesouly took a job at the local newspaper. Since I was learning about coffee, they asked me to start writing about it. I said yes. I wrote some café reviews and met some fascinating, passionate people working behind the bar. A few months later, I got a great “real life” job as the strategic communications director for a college. But I couldn’t quite let go of coffee. I kept writing about it, freelancing for the paper and for our local city magazine. Then I got really lucky and a publisher asked if I’d like to write a book about it. I said yes. I wrote the book, and I pitched more stories to more magazines, leading a sort of double life, building my skill as a strategic communications professional, and following my curiosity about coffee down all sorts of rabbit holes. I got hooked on the big questions: What are the different roles that coffee plays in the social life of the 21st century? Why does it taste the way it does? How is it a product of a violent colonial legacy, and how is it uniquely capable of combatting that legacy? What will coffee be like in 100 years?

Writing about coffee allowed me to follow my curiosity about it. Along the way, I got to know some incredible thinkers and doers in the coffee world. It was increasingly hard to say no when people asked me to do something – to write an article or give a talk. There were so many things that fascinated me about coffee. It was equally hard to stop myself from pitching stories I didn’t have time to write. Coffee was taking up more and more of my energy and enthusiasm. I was realizing that my day job didn’t quite give me the same jolt. I’d been happy making my professional life separate from coffee for almost 10 years, but increasingly I was questioning that separation.

And then I got pregnant. I realized I would no longer have the kind of expansive free time I’d need to think and write about coffee. I tried on the idea of giving coffee up, but I couldn’t get right with it. So I started toeing around to see what was out there in the world of coffee and communications employment. I’d “dated” a lot of jobs. I knew what I did and didn’t want: I didn’t want to step down in responsibility; in fact, I wanted more. I wanted to be able to keep writing in some capacity. I wanted to apply my professional knowledge of strategic communications, if possible, not just find a job running as the marketing director of a coffee roasting company. I wanted, above all, to have the freedom—even the expectation—that I would keep learning more about the big questions that vexed me. I got offered a few jobs that didn’t fit my criteria, and I said no to them.

Eventually, about a year after I’d first started looking around, an email showed up in my inbox asking if I’d like to come have a chat about World Coffee Research. It hit all my marks. It hit more of them than I dreamed was possible in one job. On paper, it was perfect. I swiped right. It wasn’t exactly an interview.  I agonized over what to wear to the meeting. I needn’t have. From almost the first minute, it was like I’d known this team for years. We were trading ideas and actually started doing the work of building a communications plan in that first meeting. It couldn’t have been a better first date.

I said yes.

Removing Barriers: Empowering Women in Coffee

by Jenn Gallegos with support from Maria Hill

I have spent my entire coffee career selling the value of sustainable, specialty coffee to the masses. From my role at Coffee Bean International (now Farmer Bros. Coffee), where I was introducing specialty coffee to new consumers, to communicating the importance of integrating sustainability into global supply chains at Fair Trade USA. In my latest role, Vice President of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), I am selling women’s empowerment as a pathway to 100% sustainable coffee.

Jenn bio pic from conv in Col

Studies support the assertion that women perform a majority of the labor on small coffee farms but, despite their contributions, women are often deprived the right to land ownership and excluded from household economic decisions. While we may see women physically present throughout the coffee value chain, their ability to become empowered as an individual is usually sidelined. This directly affects communities considering that when women manage household income they are more likely to invest it in education, healthcare, and other activities that promote family and community well-being.

While there is a high awareness of the gender disparity in agriculture commodities, defining the steps an industry and participants within a supply chain can take to empower, include, and value women is a complex process. While there is clear evidence that supports the economic benefits of empowerment, there is no quick fix for the current system. In order to truly address this issue we need to identify and break down the barriers to progress. Through my work with both Fair Trade USA and the IWCA these are the most common barriers I have observed that exist throughout the coffee value chain.

Cultural Influences

Social norms require a delicate balance of understanding and a more deliberate and disciplined approach. One of the biggest barriers we can remove is our own biases, and biased approaches to solutions. Too often sustainability initiatives are driven from the consuming-side of the industry and fail to take into account local perspectives.

Focusing Only On Producers

Women at all levels of the supply chain deserve the same opportunity to create a sustainable, and viable livelihood in coffee. As an industry we should be actively working to ensure that women are represented in every role from agronomists, to cuppers, to traders, to C-suite executives. Organizations that have strong commitments to diversity should reflect internally on policies and how they actually include and value women’s voices. Thanks to the hard work of of industry leaders like CQI’s Partnership for Gender Equity, the International Trade Centre, IWCA, SCAA, ACDI/VOCA, and Twin Trading, we will soon launch a set of gender equity Principles to hold more of the value chain accountable for improving gender equity in our sector and set an example for others.

Opportunity Gap

As I mentioned before there is no quick fix to women’s empowerment. The perceived lack of opportunity due to different working styles, absence of female mentors, and gender double standards can make career advancement challenging for women. As an industry, we have to work intentionally to not only to create a wide number of pathways for women, but support and encourage women to pursue them.

Accountability

Successful sustainability programs and standards are rooted in transparency. Similarly, as gender comes to the forefront of the sustainability conversation, transparency will be a major component as well.  We need to highlight the processes, programs, policies, and people that advance women’s empowerment, but also be willing to engage constructively with those that hold us back.

The key to removing these barriers is industry collaboration. Right now the conversation is insulated, it seems like small passionate groups are only talking to each other about the issue of empowerment.  To inspire real change and have an impact as an industry we need to have the issue of empowerment front of mind at every coffee conversation. We need to continue to include more women voices on corporate, advisory, association, and industry boards. We also  need to make the issue of empowerment more visible at industry events. Recently I was invited to speak on behalf of IWCA at the Women Peace and Security conference that focused on the importance of women’s empowerment in global conflict management, and negotiations. The keynote speaker was professor and author Dr. Valerie Hudson  –  she shared a thought that resonated deeply with me: “Women aren’t the canary in the coal mine. The canaries are poverty, malnutrition, ill health, explosive violence, and other problems”. Sound familiar? There are times that this work overwhelms and frustrates me because the barriers, to me, are very clear. There are days I think “yes, it’s only coffee,” but then remember, we are all connected and sharing this earth so working towards a more empowered, sustainable future is a big deal for all of us.

Cocktails Inspired by Coffee

by Mallory Leicht 

Coffee is a creative catalyst. We watch it unfold in our shops in the quiet website developer, the grad student, or the roaring work meeting. We hear about it from regulars, with a to-go coffee in hand, as they head out to impact their communities. We feel it in ourselves, as we excitedly dial in a new coffee, and work to find it’s best brew method. Coffee is our magic, our conduit, our connecting force. It’s always in motion and changing, which is great, because we are too. Our curious and adventurous palates are just the first step in our relentless pursuit of showcasing seasonal coffee offerings and sharing the depth of their beauty with others while we have them.

As women who work in coffee, we’re obsessed with deconstructing flavor in every cup. Adjusting variables along the supply chain that positively impact that flavor, the planet, and each other while learning how makers and producers in other industries do the same. That said, our affection for flavor is rarely limited to the coffees we love, grow, source, import, roast, brew, share. We love tasting. If a flavor experience sounds strange and interesting, our hands are usually up. If it sounds familiar and comforting, still up.

I caught up with a few wonderful coffee professionals and asked them to tell me about a coffee they’re currently crushing on. Together we tapped into this idea of seasonal coffee as a creative catalyst and applied it to another realm of flavor we love: cocktails. These aren’t coffee cocktails, but cocktails inspired by coffees. Think day-to-night fashion and putting an evening spin on delicious daily wears. The cocktails are built around the flavor profiles that stand out in each of these coffees. It’s not intentional that they’re all pink—although as a longtime fan of Molly Ringwald and Pretty in Pink I’m not too upset about it—they’re packed with coloring pops of blueberry, Aperol, blackberry, and so on, but we’ll get to that. First, glasses (and mugs) up to being flavor-obsessed coffee women, sharing that with others, and using coffee as a creative catalyst in the work that we do (all day, every day).


The Coffeewoman: Chelsea Thoumsin

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Photo Credit: Liz Chai

Chelsea Thoumsin is a coffee-driven wholesale customer-support-team member for Counter Culture Coffee. She may be a World Barista Championship Certified Sensory judge—and have visited the coffee farms Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama, and Honduras—but what she’s proudest of so far is prying the K-cup machine off of her mother’s counter and replacing it with a manual-brewing set-up. When she’s not planning her next trip to origin or teaching all things coffee, she can be found at her abode in Philadelphia, keeping honeybees and studying various insects (check out her side project, @PollinatorProject), volunteering with her therapy cattle dog, and writing.

Chelsea’s Coffee: Counter Culture Coffee Idido
Roaster: Counter Culture Coffee – Durham, NC
Region: Sidama, Ethiopia – Idido
Processed: Washed
Tastes Like: floral aromatics, silky smooth body, fresh squeezed lemonade brightness, light black tea finish

Idido Reconsidered

IdidoReconsidered
Intricate layers of balanced bitterness with citrus brightness, notes of concentrated black tea, caramel, rhubarb and orange, and a round, coating mouthfeel.

Fernet Branca rinse
1 ounce bourbon whiskey
1 ounce Apparel
3/4 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce black tea simple*
3 dashes orange bitters
grapefruit peel, garnish

For this stirred drink, chill a mixing glass (or tin) and a serving glass until ready to serve. Rinse your serving glass with about a 1/4 ounce of Fernet Branca. Swirl it about the glass until it’s fully coated then discard (or enjoy!) any excess. Next, fill your mixing glass at least over half way with ice, then pour the bourbon, Aperol, lemon juice, and black tea simple over the ice. Use a bar spoon to stir the drink, at least a minute, until the ice properly dilutes the drink and cools it down. Strain the drink into your serving glass and top with fresh ice and orange bitters. Rub the grapefruit peel around the rim of the glass, then place it in the drink for garnish.

*Black Tea Simple Syrup
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup unrefined sugar
10 grams loose leaf black tea
Heat water and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat just until the sugar fully dissolves. Remove from heat, add in loose leaf tea and steep for 30 minutes. Strain into a clean glass jar and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

The Coffeewoman: Bethany Hargrove

IMG_8274Bethany Hargrove makes coffee and, unless a lot of people are telling her lies, doesn’t suck at it. You can find her in Portland, OR, where she divides her time between looking for cool stuff in the forest and asking people questions over the coffee bar at Barista.

Bethany’s Coffee: Camber Coffee Honduras Migdoneo Enamorado
Roaster: Camber Coffee – Bellingham, WA
Region: Honduras – Migdoneo Enamorado
Processed: Washed
Tastes Like: wildflower honey, blackberry, lemon curd

Camber Gin Sour  

CamberGinSour
Sultry, quiet tones of blackberry, pops of floral honey, herbaceous complexity, and creaminess and brightness reminiscent of lemon meringue.

3 blackberries
1 1/2 ounces gin (London dry style)
1 ounce wildflower honey syrup*
1 ounce lemon juice
1 egg white
1 dash Angostura bitters
blackberry and lemon peel, garnish

Add blackberries, gin, honey syrup, lemon juice, and eggwhite to a Boston shaker and shake for 20 seconds, to crush the lightly blackberries and emulsify the egg white. Add a scoop of ice and shake an additional 30 seconds. Strain into a serving glass over fresh ice and garnish with a dash of Angostura bitters, a blackberry and lemon peel.

*Wildflower Honey Syrup
1/2 cup wildflower honey
1/2 cup water
Heat honey and water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk until the honey melts and is fully integrated into a syrup. Remove from heat and let cool completely. Transfer to a clean glass jar and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

The Coffeewoman: Björg Brend Laird

BjorgBrendLaird

Björg Brend Laird is the host and producer of Coffee Awesome, a podcast available on iTunes dedicated to coffee people, the product, agronomy, geography, history, café business, brewing, science, and taste. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism, interning with DR, Denmark’s Radio, for a year and a half before she left the radio world and got into coffee. She served as the co-organizer of the Nordic Barista Cup from 2005 until 2013, a collaborative coffee workshop and international competition dedicated to creating a forum where attendees can meet, exchange ideas, and learn together. Björg relocated to San Francisco Bay Area in 2013 and co-founded Supersonic Coffee. As VP and Project Manager at Supersonic, her job is to support her Supersonic colleagues to be awesome at what they do, including anything from long-term planning and day-to-day organizing, writing/editing, text, internal communication and company mind set.

Björg’s Coffee: Supersonic Coffee Guji Natural
Roaster: Supersonic Coffee – Oakland, CA
Region: Sidama, Ethiopia – Guji
Processed: Natural
Tastes Like: blueberry waffle, mango, dried plum, prune sweetness

Guji After Hours

GujiAfterHours

Soft smokiness with ripe and juicy mango and blueberry, earthy tanginess and sweetness, and intriguing effervescence.

1 ounce mezcal
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
3/4 ounce mango maple shrub*
1/2 ounce blueberry syrup**
1 ounce white ale or heffeweisen
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
blueberry, for garnish

Add mezcal, sweet vermouth, mango maple shrub, blueberry syrup, beer, Peychaud’s bitters, and a scoop of ice to a Boston shaker. Shake vigorously for at least 30 seconds. Serve in a chilled coupe glass and garnish with a fresh blueberry.

*Mango Maple Shrub
1 cup fresh diced mango
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup unrefined sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
Combine mango, vinegar, sugar, and maple syrup in a mixing bowl. Stir until well combined then transfer to a clean glass jar. Seal the jar and let the shrub steep for at least 3 days. Press the shrub through a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Repeat as needed to ensure all solids are discarded. Pour the shrub through a funnel into a clean glass jar or bottle. Seal the container and shake vigorously. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

**Blueberry Syrup
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
1/2 cup unrefined sugar
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon lime zest (careful not to include any white pith)
Combine blueberries, sugar, water and lime zest in a small saucepan. Bring ingredients to a boil over medium-high heat and simmer for 20 minutes while the blueberries burst open and the liquid reduces. Remove from heat and let cool completely. Strain the syrup into a clean glass jar and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

MalloryLeicht-2

About The Author 

Mallory Leicht is the founder of Chase the Flavors, a food & beverage blog and event planning brand celebrating seasonal recipes and resourceful cooking. Mallory serves on the Competitions Committee for SCAA and as a USBC Head Judge and spoke at the inaugural event for The Coffeewoman on a panel discussion about coffee competition. She’s about to relocate from the mighty Midwest to the Bay Area to work with Blue Bottle Coffee as a Retail Trainer and is equally excited about the forthcoming road trip across America. You can find her trying to DIY her way through a creative obsession, taking photos of her food, your food, and a complete stranger’s food, and talking your ear off about how awesome libraries are.

Back to the Land – Supply Chain Perspective

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.

RN Monte Copey

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 - Headshots

Photo Credit: Landon Yost

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.