The premiere of the After the Harvest documentary at last week’s Symposium was followed by a breakout session joined by everyone interested in further exploring the issue. The participants — more than 20 in all — included well-known importers and roasters, celebrity estate farmers, non-profits working on coffee, and others more difficult to characterize. Most people in the room were moved by the film. But for many, even industry actors who have been traveling to origin for many years, the idea that so many farmers in the coffeelands cope every year with seasonal hunger was news. Assimilating this information was challenging enough, let alone making concrete commitments to address the issue. The good news is that the first steps to action can be small ones.
An important first step is simply broadening the conversation, going beyond cooperative leadership to the household level, and beyond coffee to include other dimensions of the lives of smallholder farmers.
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters has been a leader on this issue in recent years and made significant investments at origin to increase food security in coffee communities. But the company started on this long journey with two decisions that didn’t cost a cent and are available to everyone in the industry — it had the vision to ask farmers directly about issues not related to coffee, and the courage to act when it didn’t like what it heard in response.
Ideally, these are face-to-face conversations that happen at origin. In a farmer’s kitchen. Preferably off-cycle, during the thin months, when food is scarce and tummies are tightening. In this context, ideas for action will surface naturally. Remember, these are the same farmers whose vision and hard work got them into specialty coffee trading relationships to begin with — they are smart, resourceful and able. What they may lack are resources and partners in the process.
I talked with a small roaster last week whose business does not permit permit her to get to origin and have these conversations. I suggested she pick one origin to begin with and ask her importer to have these conversations for her on its next trip to source and report back. I suggested she ask her importer to connect her with other roasters who may source from the same communities she does and engage them in the conversation, broadening the community of concern as a first step and basis for future action.
While specialty brands may compete in the coffee trade, we all share a desire to see thriving communities where specialty coffee is sourced.
Please stay tuned to After the Harvest for more information about actions you can take to be part of an industry-wide effort to address this issue.