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439. The best of Coffeelands: 2014 in review

The CRS Coffeelands Blog turned five in November.

Here is the content from the blog’s fifth year that you, the readers, liked the best. Or rather, it is is the content you read the most, since in some cases you did not care too much for what I had to say.


The coffee market continued to be a topic of considerable interest for Coffeelands readers in 2014: the ways it seems to be working for growers, the ways in which it may not be, and strategies to make it work better for everyone.

  • 372. Is the coffee business broken? (published 18 November 2013)
    During Sustainable Harvest’s 2013 Let’s Talk Coffee event in El Salvador, the company’s co-founder David Griswold posed a provocative question to a panel of coffee luminaries: “Is the coffee business broken?”  Their answer was a resounding, “Yes,” and my reflection on that conversation was among the posts most frequently visited in 2014.
  • 405. It’s the market, stupid. (published 7 April 2014)
    I picked up the issue of the market again in the early part of this year when I suggested, in a post that was widely read, that so much of what happens (or doesn’t) at origin is driven by the incentives that are created in the marketplace (or aren’t).
  • 406. Counter Culture’s new approach to quality incentives. (published 17 April 2014)
    I suppose it should be a source of some encouragement that a post showing how market incentives are working well attracted more readership than one  suggesting the market is broken.  Counter Culture is aligning incentives around quality through a new approach to sourcing that privileges incentives over rewards.  Instead of waiting until after the harvest to reward growers who achieve high quality, Counter Culture is paying growers before harvest to implement specific practices on the farm that it believes drive cup quality.  The modest recalibration makes a world of difference, shifting risk downstream from smallholder farmers who can ill-afford to bear it to the roaster.
  • 408. Value. (published 5 May 2014)
    Finally, my coverage of the opening remarks of SCAA Executive Director Ric Rhinehart to the 2014 Symposium generated lots of traffic and some  discussion on this blog and elsewhere regarding strategies for positioning coffee to command more value.



Two posts that I published way back in 2012 as part of a series on water were among the 10 most-visited in 2014.  Readers had to do some digging to find them, suggesting perhaps that the time has finally come for deeper engagement in the marketplace around issues of water resource management in the coffeelands.

There has been some interest in this issue in recent years, but it hasn’t ridden the same kind of wave of industry engagement that other sustainability issues have.  It has surfaced (occasionally) in conversations among industry thought leaders.  It has appeared (infrequently) in articles in industry publications like this one.  But there was a swell of interest in the issue earlier this year when TOMS got into the roasting game and announced a partnership with Water for People to deliver water in the coffeelands instead of shoes.  The TOMS intiative was only one of a number of significant water commitments by coffee companies this year.

Will 2015 be the year of water resource management in the coffeelands?



I collaborated with colleagues from other organizations this year in a broader effort to bring the realities of coffee farmworkers into clearer resolution.  To help put farmworkers into the official transcript of specialty’s sustainability conversation in ways they haven’t been before.  This included a range of activities, from the macro (facilitating this farmworker panel at the The SCAA Event to help frame the issue broadly) to the micro (taking an in-depth look at the life of a single farmworker: a colleague born to a family of landless workers on a coffee estate in El Salvador).  But the farmworker post that was most-read by a long shot was on farmworkers in Fair Trade, which rubbed some Fair Trade advocates the wrong way, particularly the original language I chose, which suggested that “Fair Trade coffee’s dirty little labor secret is out.”



The blog has been dominated over the past six weeks or so by coverage of the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings, a series of blind tasting events involving more than two dozen leading specialty roasters and importers on three continents.  Participants cupped samples of two leading Colmbian coffee varieties–the hybrid Castillo and the traditional cultivar Caturra–collected from farms growing, harvesting and processing both under similar conditions.  This process parallels the Colombia Sensory Trial, our partnership with World Coffee Research to enlist some of the brightest lights in specialty coffee, research and philanthropy to support decision-making on the farm, in the public sector and in the coffee industry.

Readers followed these two processes closely in 2014, and were especially keen on three interviews in the CRS Colombian Varietal Cupping series:

But many readers weren’t satisfied with the 14 posts I published this year on Colombia’s coffee varieties, and drilled down on our past coverage of the issue to find more context.  My post on the origins of the Castillo hybrid, published almost two years ago, made the top 10 for 2014.



This interview with Ric Rhinehart made the blog’s top 10 for 2014 even though it wasn’t published until October.  It grew out of a passing observation he made about the role of public investment in the coffee sector during his presentation to Let’s Talk Coffee 2014.

He suggested that Panama, which played host to the event, is emblematic of what happens when the government keeps its hands off the coffee sector: you get a small number of mid-sized to large growers who are highly sophisticated and directly engaged with high-value markets.  He also further argued that Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia are examples of what happens when governments invest public resources in the coffee sector: you get high production and widespread participation of smallholder growers.  Our discussion was timely: it took place in the aftermath of a coffee leaf rust crisis in Central America that has left smallholder growers there reeling and seeking more support from their (weak) coffee institutions and against the backdrop of a heated debate in Colombia over proposals to scale back the mandate of its (strong) coffee institutions.  I for one would welcome a more robust conversation in 2015 on the appropriate role for the state in the coffee sector and the kinds of public policies and investments most likely to foster innovation and inclusion.



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