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Drinking Coffee With Coffee Farmers

Drinking Coffee With Coffee Farmers

Hello and good day!

Noah is short, slender, darkly tan, and missing most of his upper row of teeth.

He has a scruffy black beard that runs underneath his long, thin jaw line and culminates in a tuft on his chin. He wears a baseball cap to cover thinning, matted down, stringy black hair.

He is a widower whose wife passed away three years ago, and he is now raising a teenage daughter and two young sons on his own.

They all live together on an extremely remote high-altitude coffee farm.

Noah’s brother, Levi, is a corn and cacao farmer who lives in the district of Huarango, where we buy cacao.

Levi and his wife Patty have been great friends of ours for going on 15 years now.

They are such good friends that, several days ago, they drove 25 hours from the jungle of northern Peru through the mountains, in the middle of a terrible rainstorm, to come and spend a couple of days with us at my father in law’s house.

Noah and his daughter needed a break from everyday life and wanted to get out of town, so they came along for the ride.

The trip would have been too long and rugged for Noah’s little boys, so he left them with their grandmother.

After 16 years in the business, I have a lot of knowledge about cacao farming and everything required to convert cacao into chocolate and then bring chocolate to market.

But I have relatively little knowledge about coffee farming and coffee supply chains.

After spending two days drinking coffee with Noah and hearing about the business of coffee farming, I now have a much better understanding about how the whole thing works.

Noah was kind enough to bring along two varieties of coffee from his farm for us to taste. He brought medium altitude Caturra and high-altitude Geisha.

My father-in-law is a coffee afficionado and has a small roaster in his back yard.

He fresh roasted the green coffee for us, brewed it, and we drank and drank.

I am a big-time coffee lover and to my untrained palate, both varieties were outstanding.

Here is an interesting fact about a lot of coffee farmers.

They drink much less coffee on average than a regular, coffee loving American.

For each cup that I drank, Noah only wanted a fifth of a cup.

I asked Noah if he drinks coffee every day and he said no.

He only drinks coffee 2 or 3 times per week and on those days, he drinks just one cup of very weak coffee.

I asked him how business was going, and he said that the life of a coffee farmer is never easy.

He explained to me that the two varieties of coffee that he brought for us to sample have both been cupped and scored by professional coffee judges.

Anything above 90 on a scale of 100 is deemed by experts to be world class coffee. Both of his varieties receive high scores every single year.

Last year, his Geisha scored 92 and his Caturra scored 85.

Also, his farm is organically certified.

In theory, he has done everything that he can possibly do to earn a good living as a coffee farmer. However, coffee farming has two significant challenges that are very difficult to overcome.

First, the price that coffee farmers receive for their crop is based on world market prices.

Second, coffee farming is very labor intensive.

From our experience with cacao, I have a good understanding of how the forces that drive world market prices can crush individual farmers.

The world market price encompasses the entire supply of coffee available the world over and the premium for high quality coffee is a derivative of the world market price.

If the world market price is low, because the worldwide coffee supply is high, the premium will be paid as a percentage of the low price, and the total will still be barely enough for a farmer to live on.

This puts individual farmers in a very precarious position. They never know in advance how much they will be paid for their output.

With regards to labor, coffee beans are seeds inside of small red berries that grow on bushes. Each berry needs to be plucked individually and the berry skins must be peeled off the seeds by hand.

During the coffee harvest, owners of coffee farms employ an army of laborers to harvest the crop.

Noah told me that unless the coffee price is very high, laborers almost always make more than the farm owner.

Labor eats up all the profits.

I asked him why he persists in owning his land if that is the case. Wouldn’t it be better for him to sell his land and work as a laborer?

He said that he would almost certainly be better off financially if he were to do that, but he inherited the land from his family and he loves his land.

Also, he loves that he has control over the coffee that he plants, and it brings him a lot of joy to grow the best varieties.

This, of course, sounds like many small business owners that I know.

Until you stumble upon the right business model, your employees might earn much more than you for a very long time. But you continue as the owner because you have a vision for the future, and you believe deeply in your products.

This is the case with Noah.

He has a strong hunch that one day he is going to catch a big break.

Somehow, some way, he thinks that somebody is going to recognize the quality of his coffee and try to do things differently so that he can make the money he deserves.

And he does deserve to make more.

I live near Seattle where the Starbucks headquarters is located.

The founders of Starbucks are billionaires.

Most of the people in management are making multiple six figure incomes and have top notch medical and dental plans.  

Meanwhile the folks who work the land and grow the crop that make the whole business possible can’t afford to go to the dentist.

There is a big problem with that in my opinion.

The disconnect is far too wide.

In general, where there is a big problem and a big disconnect, there is also a big business opportunity.

We know from our experience in the chocolate business that the answer to these supply chain and distribution disconnects is cutting out middlemen.

This frees up money to pay farmers more and it also provides the funds to sustain your business.

I don’t know exactly what the solution is here, but I am certain of the problem.

And I am certain that there is a huge opportunity for the right kind of entrepreneur to do a lot of good for coffee farmers and for the coffee loving public by reworking a coffee supply chain.

If I had the time, I might just do it myself.

Maybe I need to make the time.

Before I sign off, I want to leave you with this.

If you drink coffee regularly, please recognize that there are real people, real hard-working people, living out on remote pieces of land, struggling to make a living to support their family, and these are the people who make your coffee possible.

They are missing teeth because they can’t afford to go to the dentist, and they live at the whim of large markets that they have no control over.

There are two things you can do even if you can’t buy coffee in a way that helps coffee farmers economically.

You can have extreme gratitude and enjoy every cup of coffee to the utmost.

Breathe in the aroma and savor every single sip.

And you can keep these good, hard-working folks in your prayers and send good tidings in their direction.  

Thank you so much for your time today.

I hope that you have a truly blessed day.


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