Sprudge.com assistant editor Alex Bernson is attending the 2013 edition of Let's Talk Coffee, Sustainable Harvest's annual conference on coffee production and culture in Latin America. This year's event is taking place right now in El Salvador. We join Mr. Burnson via ethernet connection from LTC 2013.
Sustainable Harvest‘s David Griswold opened this year's Let's Talk Coffee conference in sunny Salinitas, El Salvador with an unequivocal statement: “This industry is broken. The C market [the price of commodity coffee futures] has more to do with mutual funds and macro economics than supply and demand. Governments are constrained in how much they can invest in developing quality coffee, farmers are constrained in investing in quality coffee. The average age of a coffee farmer is 45 to 50…children won’t go into coffee if they see suffering.”
Clearly, something needs to change. That has long been the theme of Let's Talk Coffee (LTC) and similar high-level gatherings of coffee professionals, but this year there seems to be a particular sense of urgency and specificity to that goal. The urgency of course comes from the epidemic spread of coffee leaf rust, or roya in Spanish, which has led to a 32% decline in overall coffee production in Central America over the last two years. The challenges that leaf rust presents are so large that Sustainable Harvest has devoted an entire additional conference to addressing them: Let's Talk Roya, which we will be covering as it runs immediately after LTC . While general concern over Roya hangs heavily over LTC, there is also a certain specificity to the questions being posed at LTC, a sense that many of the complex issues facing specialty coffee increasingly require not merely more information and awareness, but a keener focus on exactly what information is actionable and productive.
New York Times published journalist Oliver Strand's keynote address started the conference off with an excellent grounding in the consumer side of this question. He began with an example from the wine world: there are dozens of pieces of information that might wind up on a winemaker's offer sheet, but what is presented to the consumer on the bottle is the simple combo of vineyard, vintage, and variety. Using these pieces of data, a decently educated consumer is able to develop a clear understanding of what that wine is going to taste like before they buy.
Mr. Strand contrasted this with explosion of information on most bags of specialty coffee, and how useless that information often is for helping the consumer understand what the coffee will actually taste like. His speech included an excellent historical overview of how the wine world developed their approach to labeling over many decades, and ended with the conclusion that coffee is where wine was at in the 1940s-1970s: in the middle of a gigantic transformation, with an explosion of information, trying to determine what is actually useful to present to the consumer.
Mr. Strand's speech was followed by a roundtable discussion of his points. One thing that came up in that discussion was the idea of how certifications often lack of focus on actual coffee quality, and that taste can make the things certifications cover seem like a “charity” concern, as opposed to integral parts of the coffee quality equation for consumers. Another valuable insight was that Mr. Strand was able to understand what the wine bottle was telling him because of the opportunities he has had to become educated on that information as a consumer. An integral part of coffee finding its own version of vineyard, vintage & variety is the creation of clearer, more accessible educational resources and narratives for consumers.
While consumer focused concerns are important, Let's Talk Coffee is a more producer-focused event, and determining relevant, productive information is just as important on that end. Sustainable Harvest has recently started two initiatives to better measure the social impact of their “Relationship Coffee Model“. The first is the Relationship Coffee Institute, a partnership with the Bloomberg Foundation that seeks to bring Sustainable Harvest's social benefit business model to industries beyond coffee production and measure its efficacy using Bloomberg's focus on data and metrics.
The second initiative is a partnership with Juan Nicolas Hernandez-Aguilera from Cornell University and Colleen Anunu, Director of Coffee at Gimme! Coffee and also from Cornell. They are conducting an in-depth study to quantify the impacts of the relationship coffee model on smallholder grower's welfare, going beyond anecdotal feel-good stories to develop real metrics for demonstrating and improving the effects of more direct & quality focused trade models. I particularly appreciated Ms. Anunu's point that a lot of the actual work and price of extension services and quality improvement is not being accurately quantified and communicated to consumers.
Of course Let's Talk Coffee is not merely about information—it's also about celebrating all the members of the coffee supply chain. To that end, Sustainable Harvest introduced something new at LTC this year: “The HarVees”, a just-cheesy-enough awards ceremony recognizing the year's most outstanding producers in the categories of Growth, Consistency and Quality. Guatemala's Rio Azul took the big nod for quality this year, taking home bragging rights and a slick trophy.
Let's Talk Coffee is a massive event with acres of content. I'll be bringing you more coverage over the next few days from El Salvador, so watch Sprudge for all the latest from this wildly fascinating international event.