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418. My summer in coffee

2014 August 18

I am back in the office today after a long summer holiday in the United States.  The best thing about my annual visit to the States–after spending quality time with my family and friends, of course–is the coffee.

Street 14 Coffee–Astoria, OR.

This summer the coffee was especially good.  With this variation on the “what-I-did-this-summer” back-to-school essay, I want to thank the farmers, buyers, roasters and baristas who grew, sourced, roasted and served these extraordinary coffees and made this my best coffee summer yet.

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417. The Variety Intelligence Project

2014 July 15

I had the honor during this year’s SCAA Symposium of facilitating a panel discussion on the coffee leaf rust epidemic in Central America–a panel featuring some big names in coffee. In the end, some of the most memorable contributions to the conversation were made by folks not on the official agenda, including World Coffee Research Executive Director Tim Schilling.


In today’s interview, Dr. Schilling tells us a bit more about the Variety Intelligence Project he mentioned back in April in Seattle.

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416. Colombia Sensory Trial

2014 July 14

Back in January, I described our plans to stage a side-by-side sensory analysis of Castillo and Caturra samples grown by participants in our Borderlands Coffee Project in Colombia.  Originally, we had planned to do this exercise independently. But as we moved forward in our planning and began talking to more and more friends in coffee about what we were doing, we realized that the study–both the methodology and the results–have broad relevance for the entire coffee sector. We invited World Coffee Research to partner with us to help make the approach more rigorous and the results more robust, and we were delighted when WCR accepted.

Castillo and Caturra cherry harvested for the Colombia Sensory Trial, a collaboration bewteen CRS and WCR. CRS/Andrés Montenegro.

The collaboration, now known as the Colombia Sensory Trial, will revolve around two panels at the Intelligentsia Coffee lab in Chicago, the first in October and the second in January 2014.  (Thanks, Intelli!)

Paul Songer of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence will lead the process.  Confirmed panelists include:

  • Aleco Chigounis, Red Fox Coffee Merchants
  • Tim Hill, Counter Culture Coffee
  • George Howell, George Howell Coffee
  • Doug Langworthy, Starbucks Coffee
  • Adam McClellan, Stumptown Coffee
  • Geoff Watts, Intelligentsia Coffee and
  • a-cupper-to-be-named-later, Keurig Green Mountain

For more information about our partnership wih WCR on the Colombia Sensory Trial, read the press release here.

415. Upon further reflection

2014 July 10
by Michael Sheridan

I have been writing for a long time. Extensively. As a student, a journalist, a researcher and a blogger. Since the mid-1990s, when I did a few brief stints at newspapers in Latin America, that writing has often been for external audiences.

In writing, I take great care in choosing my words. On this blog, I have addressed a lot of touchy subjects over the years. It is a source of some satisfaction that even when I have addressed difficult issues or taken unpopular positions on those issues, the dialogue has been (mostly) constructive. I think that is partly a result of the fact that I have been careful in how I have addressed those issues. In the words I have chosen. In the case of a post I published last week on farmworkers and Fair Trade, I did not choose my words as carefully as I might have.

In the original post, I wrote that the first of the SOAS report’s top three messages was “FAIR TRADE COFFEE’S DIRTY LITTLE LABOR SECRET IS OUT.” I knew the language was chippy, and considered whether I might soften it before publishing. I didn’t, but I should have.

Not because I don’t stand by the observations that follow about the fluidity of labor categories in the coffeelands. I do. As we collectively seek greater understanding of farmworkers in coffee, it will be important to understand that binary definitions are often ill-suited for realities that are messier.

But I think the language of the header distracted from those observations, and invited readers to respond in kind, especially on Daily Coffee News, where the post was republished under the screaming headline “Opinion: ‘Fair Trade’s dirty little labor secret is out.’”

The fact that this blog has succeeded (occasionally) in provoking constructive exchange on challenging issues in coffee and sustainability is the reason I keep doing it. I know from comments made online and off that many readers value the blog for this reason. So I will continue to write here about the challenges we face and the opportunities we see in our work in the field and our engagement in the marketplace, even if the issues I raise are uncomfortable. But I will choose my words more carefully in the hopes of keeping the comments constructive.

Meantime, I have changed the language of the offending header to read: “THE LINES BETWEEN LABOR CATEGORIES ARE BLURRIER IN REALITY THAN IN THE FAIR TRADE COFFEE NARRATIVE.” It is not as catchy, that’s for sure. But it is an accurate summary of the observations that follow. More importantly, it is the point I was trying (unsuccessfully, it seems) to get across.

414. CONPES 3763

2014 July 7
by Michael Sheridan

CONPES 3763 may sound like the name of a coffee variety, but it’s not.

(It’s not a Star Wars character, either.)

CONPES is the Spanish-language acronym for Colombia’s National Council of Economic and Social Policy.  It is part of the country’s National Planning Department and advises the government on issues related to economic and social development.  CONPES publishes reports, numbered serially, that inform public policy on key issues.

CONPES 3763, published last year amid upheaval in Colombia’s coffeelands, called for the government to create a “Commission of Experts” to analyze the country’s coffee sector and recommend measures to make it more competitive.  In keeping with the report’s recommendations, President Juan Manuel Santos convened the Comisión para el Estudio de la Política y la Institucionalidad Cafetera (Commission for the Study of Coffee Policy and Institutions) and tapped Juan José Echavarría, a former Finance Minister and Central Bank Director, to lead it.

The CONPES document also called for the Commission to deliver its final report before the end of 2013.  The report was originally scheduled for release in November.  But in November, Mr. Echavarría told reporters it wouldn’t be issued until February 2014.  Then February came and went without any public pronouncements from Mr. Echavarría or the Commission.  Soon after, it became clear that the report, whose contents will have real implications for the fortunes of 560,000 coffee-farming families (who vote), 800,000 families whose employment depends on coffee (and vote) and Colombia’s powerful coffee institutions, would not likely be issued until after Colombia’s presidential elections, which concluded last month when President Santos won reelection.

Our sources tell us that the Commission concluded its work last week and will be releasing the report soon.  Whenever that happens, we will publish here some perspectives on its contents and its implications for the future of Colombian coffee.  In the meantime, by way of a preview, we share a summary of the CONPES document that officially convened the Commission and framed its mandate.

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413. Farmworkers and Fair Trade

2014 July 1

In May, researchers at the Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction program at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London released a report based on four years of intensive field research in Ethiopia an Uganda whose findings were critical of Fair Trade’s record on farmworkers.   I only just got around to reading the full report.  I know I am coming late to the conversation, but today I share the three messages I consider most important in this report.  (They are not, incidentally, the ones the FTEPR researchers consider the most important.)

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412. Farmworkers on the record

2014 June 30

When I was an undergraduate, I watched more C-Span than I cared to admit.  The parliamentary protocols of the U.S. House of Representatives became almost as familiar to me as the rites of the Catholic Mass, and the language members used as they rose to deliver comments on the floor etched itself in my memory: “I ask unanimous consent to revise and extend my remarks.”  That is, to change the words they speak on the House floor before they are printed in the Congressional Record, where they are preserved for eternity.

I was reminded of the importance of the official record again in graduate school, when I wrote a paper on the decision of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to convict radio announcers who incited Hutus to genocide in 1994.  In its decision, the ICTR invoked language lifted from the official record of committee meetings held in 1948 to prepare the text of the Genocide Convention–language that participants decided NOT to include in the text of the final document.  It wasn’t so much that the language was wrong.  It was simply ahead of its time.  More than 50 years later, the ICTR revived it to help convict leaders of Rwanda’s “hate media” of genocide.

Getting on the record, it turns out, can be important.  Even if it may not seem to be at the time.

My sense is that farmworkers are getting on the record in specialty coffee these days in ways they haven’t in recent years.  In ways that could be important.

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411. The case of the yellow Maragogype

2014 June 16

Last November, the pioneering Colombian exporter Virmax published these photos from Oswaldo Acevedo’s Hacienda El Roble and wondered whether there is a strand of yellow Maragogype out there despite the science that says Maragogype produces only red cherry.


Since then, I have been pulled into a rich conversation with related to yellow Maragogype, but one that revolves less around genetic curiosities than smallholder farm economics.

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410. What generation gap?

2014 June 9

In my travels in the coffeelands, I hear a familiar concern echoed by coffee growers: relevo generacional.

All over the Americas, aging farmers are watching their children leave the farm for the city to pursue higher education and employment opportunities.  With the coffee leaf rust epidemic, volatile market prices, a changing climate, low productivity, limited access to agronomic and financial services, rising costs of food and agricultural inputs, who could blame them?

As a baseball fan, I sometimes think of the issue in terms of the farm systems of major-league clubs.  Successful franchises invest in young players and build their skills patiently over many years.  While the issue of relevo generacional seems to be on everyone’s mind in the coffeelands, there seem to be few examples of successful programs to invest in specialty coffee’s “farm system.”

Two weeks ago I had the enormous pleasure of introducing some friends to a plucky public school in a far-flung community in Colombia with a clear vision of how to turn today’s students into tomorrow’s coffee farmers.

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409. The coming crisis in the coffeelands

2014 June 5

The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) released another update on the food security situation in Central America last week.  I have not been working directly on our response to coffee leaf rust in Central America, and I have not been publishing much here lately.  But I felt compelled by a “lost-in-translation” moment in the FEWS NET reporting to weigh in today with an update for the English-speaking, coffee-focused readership of this blog.

The English-language summary of key messages includes this reference:

For the July to September period, food security will deteriorate in parts of western and eastern Guatemala, reaching Crisis (IPC Phase 3).

It is unsettling, to be certain. But generic.  The Spanish-language report for Guatemala is considerably more specific.  My quick-and-dirty translation follows:

Through June, municipalities in the east and in the western highlands that are highly dependent on coffee will remain Stressed (IPC Phase 2).  From July to September, these households will look to compensate for the food deficits caused by two years of poor harvests and lower income with negative coping strategies, classifying them in Crisis (IPC Phase 3).

This version of the story makes the situtaion more immediately relevant to the coffee industry.

The map of the areas moving into the Crisis phase includes important specialty origins.


And the reference to negative coping strategies–characterized below as leading to accelerated depletion of livelihood assets–means the coming months will test the resilience of tens of thousands of smallholder coffee farmers and hundreds of thousands of families who depend on coffee for their livelihoods.

The projections for El Salvador and Honduras are less grim, but equally plagued by translation gaps.

The English-language message for the July-September period is generic:

El Salvador and parts of southern and western Honduras will be Stressed (IPC Phase 2).

Again, coffee plays a more prominent role in the Spanish-language version of these storylines  Again, the translations are mine:

In El Salvador, the reduction of coffee income and the disappearance of existing food stocks (which regularly run out in March/April) lead to a Minimal (IPC Phase 1) classification for farmworkers and smallholder farmers in coffee-growing mountain ranges who will be supported by the World Food Programme from April to June; in the absence of food aid during the period from July to September they will be classified as Stressed (IPC Phase 2).

In Honduras, due to a lack of income from coffee employment and sales and the exhaustion of food reserves, households of farmworkers and poor farmers in the Western Zone and South are classified as Stressed (IPC Phase 2) until the Primera harvest in September.

If the FEWS NET projections are accurate, then we know that beginning next month smallholder coffee growers and coffee farmworkers are facing acute food security in Guatemala and need additional food aid in El Salvador.

Are we ready?