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317. Questions on the great Robusta debate

2012 November 8
by Michael Sheridan

Over the past two days I have summarized recent contributions to the current debate over the appropriate role for Robusta coffees in the specialty market and provided some context for our promotion of quality-differentiated Robusta.  Today, some questions about aspects of the great debate that left me scratching my head.

As I explained here yesterday, CRS committed to help family farmers in Ecuador access the market for quality-differentiated Robusta coffee after careful analysis suggested it might be their best hope for growing Robusta sustainably and profitably.  But the publishers of Coffee Talk magazine are convinced not only that this strategy won’t do a thing to benefit the farmers we are working with — they  believe it will undermine the specialty coffee industry, too.

In their September editorial, the publishers of Coffee Talk make reference to “the carefully crafted value systems upon which the specialty coffee industry and especially the Specialty Coffee Association of America are predicated.”  CRS respects that tradition deeply and is a proud member of the SCAA.  The success of our projects in helping thousands of farmers improve the quality of their lives depends on the kinds of sustainable trading opportunities that the growing specialty coffee market creates for smallholders.  So we certainly don’t want to do anything that would undermine the specialty concept.    But I am not yet convinced by the arguments advanced against fine Robusta that it holds so little promise for farmers or so much risk for the specialty brand.

I do hope to better understand these critiques to ensure we are moving forward in ways that balance the needs and aspirations of the farmers we serve in Ecuador with the limits of what the market will bear in the United States.

WHY NOT ROBUSTA?

In its October editorial, Coffee Talk fairly praises the commitment of the U.S. specialty community to uphold the “carefully crafted value systems” referenced above:

We as an industry have encouraged farmers of Arabica coffees to improve quality, improve practices, and improve conditions in their communities with the assurance from us that we will pay them well for their efforts.

The authors imply that that same level of commitment and care can’t be applied to Robusta.  It is not clear to me why.

MARKET GROWTH BASED ON STANDARDS.

In September, the authors suggest that the R program will position commercial roasters to “use Robusta beans in their coffee without restraint on quality requirements.”  In October, they note that “Robusta coffee is typically harvested as naturals.”  It is my impression that the R program is designed precisely to foster growth based on stringent quality standards; to avoid the increased use of Robusta beans that don’t meet those standards; and increase reliance on the wet milling process if that is what most consistently produces coffee that does.

BENEFITS FOR FARMERS.

I also can’t understand why the authors are so convinced farmers won’t benefit from Robusta quality improvements.  They write:

The farmers will not be paid more for their Robusta coffees because all the improvements to the quality take place at the mill level after the growers have delivered.

I struggle with this statement for a number of reasons.

First, it assumes that farmers all sell coffee cherry to washing stations or commercial mills.  While this is true for many farmers, it is far from universal.  In my experience with smallholder farmer organizations in Mexico and Central America, farmer-managed mills were more the norm than the exception.  The affordability and increasing popularity of micro mills suggests that more and more farmers will control the milling process over time.  Helping create farmer-managed mills is certainly part of our project investment strategy in the coffeelands.  When farmers own and operate their own mills, they capture the value they create through improved processing and coffee quality.

Second, it discounts the importance of everything that contributes to cup quality before coffee gets to the mill.  Certainly, there is great peril in the milling process and potential for loss of quality and value when it is managed badly.  But I have come to understand from people much more knowledgeable than me about coffee quality that what happens to coffee before it gets to the mill goes a long way to defining its quality potential.  I published two posts on this issue a couple of years ago.  The key point of the posts: milling is crucial, but environment, genetics and husbandry matter, too.  All of this refers to high-grown Arabica, of course.  But what little we have learned so far about fine Robusta suggests that despite the great genetic difference with Arabica, many of the drivers of cup quality are the same.

 

 

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