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401. Origin: What’s Symposium got to do with it?

2014-03-25 Comments Off on 401. Origin: What’s Symposium got to do with it?

The SCAA today released the full program for next month’s Symposium.  It is less crammed with obvious origin content than the Expo’s, but the issues it is addressing are no less important to the future of growers.

Two weeks ago yesterday I published this preview of the 2014 SCAA Expo, focusing on the content that seems most relevant to my work at origin.  Two weeks ago today I published this preview of Symposium, which focused less on what the vent would address this year than how its format is so effective, in my experience, at provoking the kinds of connections–bewteen people and issues–that we need to seize the opportunities and address the challenges before us.

Today, as the SCAA releases the full Symposium schedule, I want to comment on the event’s program,  specifically what’s in it for farmers.

First, I want to acknowledge that the very idea of “origin issues” is largely artificial.  A construct of convenience.  Or perhaps laziness.  I use it in my SCAA previews because I need to help growers and partners and colleagues making their first visit to the event choose the lectures that will deliver most value for them now.  Let’s face it, a lecture on wastewater treatment at the mill is clearly more relevant to growers than one on water tritation at the café.  So in that context, the “origin issues” distinction has a certain utility.

But in reality, there are no “origin issues” and “marketplace issues,” only “coffee issues.”  If we have learned anything over the past 10 years from our work in agroenterprise generally–and in coffee more specifically–it is this: what happens in the marketplace matters at origin and what happens at origin matters in the marketplace.  Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together.  The essence of a supply chain is interdependence.  A grower doesn’t need to know about water titration, but her fortunes are affected by how much the owner of the cafés serving her coffees know about it.  And a café owner may not need to know the optimal level of pH for releasing treated wastewater back into local waterways, but her access to coffee that aligns with her corporate commitment to sustainability depends on the growers in her supply chain knowing it.  So the proper distinction is not between origin issues and marketplace issues, but rather one of degree: how immediately relevant is this issue to me where I live and work?

The Symposium schedule may not have a lot that is immediately relevant to growers and organizations like ours that accompany them, but that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant to us.

The obvious “origin issue” on the agenda is the coffee leaf rust update.  But the theme of this year’s Symposium that may be most important to the long-term position of growers is “selling coffee better,” precisely because of the interdependence of everyone in the coffee trade.  The people in the room at Symposium–mostly importers, roasters and cafés on the market end of the chain–aren’t the only ones who sell coffee.  Growers and coops and exporters sell coffee, too.  If coffee is going to be sold differently (better) in the marketplace, then it needs to be sold differently (better) in origin countries, too.  If downstream actors will be asking for new or different things from upstream actors, those of us living upstream have to incorporate them into the way we work.  But perhaps most importantly, when cafés and roasters and importers are able to sell better, they will be able to buy better, and certainly those of us working in coffee-growing countries welcome that.

One of the most exciting (and challenging) recurring conversations in specialty over the past few years has been about price discovery–how coffee prices get fixed.  There is much chatter about the need for a Q exchange to parallel the C exchange, for permanent market adjustment, for higher and more stable prices for true specialty coffee.  To make any of that viable, we need–collectively, from the farm to the café–to position the market for deep changes.  To sell coffee better.

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The author is a 2014 SCAA Symposium Ambassador.