Part 1: Your Relationship with Coffee
How long have you had coffee in your life? Is it a new hobby? Or is it something you’ve loved for a long time? What is the function of coffee in your life? Do you sip on it, savoring every drop, evaluating the flavor as it cools? Or do you need it, can’t live without it, need-it-now kind of relationship? Or is it both? However your relationship with coffee feels to you, I encourage you to reflect on how much you rely on it, and what is it worth to you.
Now, let’s consider the relationships that people behind the scenes in the value chain have with coffee. The most interesting and most important relationship to share is that of the relationship between the coffee farmer and coffee industry the last fifty years. At one time, coffee farming was lucrative. Not unlike the labor-heavy industries like coal mining and manufacturing in the US, there was a time when coffee farming was lucrative and booming.
Coffee farmers come from generations of producers. Their connection to the soil and the product is deep. The rise of specialty was a promise of change for some producers. While that promise has been fulfilled by companies who purchase based on quality or cost of production, the majority of coffee producers in the world have systematically been devalued in the marketplace. Specialty coffee is at a turning point where all of our relationships may fundamentally shift in the next five years. Let’s talk about how we got here, and how you can help.
Part 2: Cost of Production
Without a doubt, the most pressing issue in coffee is price. How much should coffee cost? Like any business, that number should come from an understanding of how much it costs to produce the product, plus a margin to become profitable instead of breaking even.
A great way to contextualize this cost of production issue is looking at a specific farmer’s data. One issue with determining price based on cost of production, is that it’s not common for a farmer to concretely know all of their costs because it requires meticulous record keeping. Maria Bercelia Martinez is a unique producer. She was an entrepreneur before she transitioned to growing coffee, and her daughter graduated from college with an accounting degree. She keeps detailed accounts of her expenses for her farm, Finca Los Angeles, in Acevedo, Huila Colombia.
In the 2017/2018 season, Maria and her partners, Collaborative Coffee Source, conducted a cost of production study. Maria is an extraordinary producer – with 70% of her crop meeting the highest quality standards of the industry. While the other 30% may be below those quality standards, those lots require just as much labor and expenses to produce. Together, they found that it cost $1.71/lb to produce both categories of coffee. Adding margin to make it a profitable business, it would not make sense for Maria to continue producing coffee year to year if she received less than $2.50/lb.
Part 3: C-Market Volatility
Although there are people in the specialty coffee world calling for a change in buying practices, the majority of coffee purchased in the import and export world is not based on the cost of production. Instead, it’s based on something called the C-Market. The C-Market price is taken from the International Coffee Exchange in New York City. It’s similar to the stock market, where futures are traded and bets are hedged.
As such, the C-Market price is extremely volatile. It relies significantly on speculation and is based on very short-term projections. The price can go up or down based on information of yields and volumes, even jumping based on weather patterns in Brazil, a major producer of commodity grade coffee. The most consistent aspect of the C-Market is that is has been below cost of production for decades, while companies in developed countries who trade on the C-Market reduce their risk and make quick gains.
Since the 1990s the C-market price has dropped under a dollar a few times, the longest for about 200 days. In August of 2018, it dropped below a dollar a pound again, where it still remains today. Generally speaking, the coffee prices have not raised since the 70s, while the cost of production and costs of living have gone up. For example, in both 1976 and 2019, the lowest C-Market price of the year was the same: .87/lb. The value of the 1976 price by today’s standards of inflation would be $3.92/lb.
So, what does that mean for the majority of the world’s farmers, who don’t have access to high value buyers that work outside of this system? They will not make money on their harvest this year. They may need to sell their farms or go into debt by taking a loan to get through the next year. In short, if the system of coffee trade isn’t fundamentally changed in the next few years, we will see a shift in quality, quantity, and price because farmers will no longer grow coffee the way they do today. Or grow coffee at all.
Part 4: Changing Your Relationship By Brewing at Home
The word sustainability is thrown around a lot these days. It’s become a blanket term for eco or green, without having verified practices around what that means with direct measurable outcomes. The truth is that paying more for coffee is inevitable. Whether we do it now, or later, it’s going to happen because coffee will eventually be too expensive to produce and farmers will grow other crops. And I don’t blame them. Would you continue running a business model that put you further in debt year to year?
I know this is heavy, but there’s a few things you can do. The first is understanding the supply chain (Check! Look at you reading articles about supply chain!). The second is to understand how much you are able to spend a week without cutting corners, and create a new relationship with coffee.
Going out for coffee every day is expensive! Depending on the city in which you live, it’s very unlikely a coffee purchased over the C-Market price will be below $3 per cup. If you can afford it, make sure you’re going to a place that pays well over the C-Market price. Not sure? Ask! If someone on staff can have a conversation about the C-Market, you’re likely in the right place.
Third is purchasing full bags of coffee directly from roasters and brewing at home. Brewing at home is a great way to spend less than $3 per cup while buying coffee from roasters who source responsibly. How will you know how they source? Just ask if they pay over the C-Market price for their green coffee. Another way to know if the coffee is traceable and was likely sourced responsibly is if the bag includes the farmer’s name. By purchasing directly from roasters, you are allowing their margins to increase and be reinvested in their alternative buying models.