Partner Farm Purchasing and How it Impacts Sustainability

The holy trinity in the coffee supply chain is a tripartite contract between roaster, farmer and exporter/importer. The roaster knows they have a secure (and often exclusive) supply of coffee from a particular farm they have carefully chosen from the great many available.

   5 Minutes Read

By Joanna Lawson

Europe Sales Director

The holy trinity in the coffee supply chain is a tripartite contract between roaster, farmer and exporter/importer. The roaster knows they have a secure (and often exclusive) supply of coffee from a particular farm they have carefully chosen from the great many available. The importer can count on the business of a buyer for the farm they represent, and on the coffee supply of a reliable partner for their valued customer. The farmer, finally, often after years of selling to different markets, has not just a buyer for their coffee, but a business partner.

While he or she may have always had a business partner in Caravela, the coffee purchased is sold in different markets throughout the world if a roaster does not order the same coffee again and again. To have found a partner roaster who will commit to buying from the same farm every year, and to be able to produce coffee with that particular business partner in mind, is something very different for the farmer.

The challenge then comes when this partner only wants the good stuff (especially when we like to think it’s all pretty good). In these heady days of competitions and processing innovations, it’s tempting to flit from one coffee to another, to show that you too are on top of the latest trends in coffee, or to meet demand from an eager customer base. Or if a commitment is there, it’s often just for the microlots while the more economic coffees required for blends or more economical products are sourced elsewhere.

We’re all proud of the achievements of the specialty coffee world. We are paying high prices for coffee, and promoting and recognising farmers for the work involved. But while we strive to find the 90+ coffees, what happens to the rest? We proudly brandish the high prices paid of 5 bags of Geisha, but what about the remaining 95 the farmer took just as much care in producing? Another buyer must be found.

So we would propose a different approach: why not consider the full range of qualities available from one farm and allocate them to your different product lines?

Caravela’s minimum purchase score is 84, and all coffee must meet the right level of moisture and water activity to pass muster, indeed many farms only produce coffees above 84 points. With this in mind, and given our handy classification/grade system, it’s possible to allocate each lot a farmer produces to a different blend or product; to use all the coffee available in some way or another, knowing it has all been subject to the same rigorous quality control procedure.

When we talk about sustainability it’s about more than paying high prices. Purchasing a wider range of qualities from a producer or group of producers deepens the impact and shifts the dynamic of the relationship between farmer and roaster.

B-Corp holds as one of its key values the notion of co-dependency. Not a glamourous description, but a relevant one. In any given year a farmer hopes to find a good buyer for their coffee but is consistently at the mercy of fashion, competition and caprice; a roaster meanwhile can pick whatever they like from the offerings of all the world with only the constraints of quality and price.To go into partnership with someone however, is to make a commitment, and to acknowledge that you both need each other; that you are co-dependent.

When Caravela first started back in 2003 the idea of paying and separating lots according to quality was the backbone of the business model. The specific aim of this structure is to offer the full range of qualities at prices which recognise their corresponding value in the market place. It takes the guess-work (and the risk) out of what the quality will be from a particular farm each year. Knowing an agronomist member of our PECA team has been regularly visiting and advising, and that any sample arriving on the cupping table has already been checked for water activity and humidity and has already been cupped at two different stages, reduces the margin for quality risk exponentially and allows the roaster to think strategically about how each of these different grades could be used within the product range.

An example of how different quality grades could be used:

84 points – Single Origin Espresso

85-87 points – Filter

87+ – Limited edition, subscription etc.

We have a great many examples of successful Partner Farm purchase models. Often farms partner with two roasteries in different markets (e.g., one in Australia, one in America). This way they are not competing with each other in the same region, and the farmer minimises the risk of putting all his or her beans in one basket.

We all have the great privilege of working in the specialty coffee industry; no one needs to ever buy substandard coffee. But we all have businesses to run, and different price points to meet for our different products. Why not incorporate the same high standards of traceability and consistency we demand for our microlots for the lower grades too? Why should the ethics be any different?

There’s a lot of talk about sustainability, and doing a good thing, but let’s also talk about partnership, about doing business together, and all the glorious rewards and challenges that brings.