Traditionally, most people who make their living on farms of this very small size are very poor, have never traveled, do not speak English and do not have a computer. And that is how it will stay if these certification programs take root: At least that is how it looks to me. Please call me a liar, I do not want to believe this myself, it sounds so good and the intentions so genuine and simple. But, has anyone considered the small guy - I doubt it.
So, mostly, I have a growing unease around the ethics of 'green' certification programs for coffee. They are important, my own family members insist on them. My step-sons say it is critical for me. Whole Foods Markets (A high end grocer in USA) coffee shelves are stuffed with product smothered in the blessed things. My twitter feed is full of reminders to only buy Sealed in Your cup. The consumer in me is taking notice.
So is the coffee farmer, and it looks really different from a small farmers point of view. It feels like these organizations are creating an industry in regulation with certification costs associated with that. They are only cost effective for big players, big importers or big exporters, and so only the big boys benefit from the marketing advantage. The small guys stay poor, they can not buy into them to sell directly to the consumer. Frankly, it feels like a flat tax and how many of my readers here honestly support flat taxes?
If they actually work, and consumers only buy these, then the taste of coffee will suffer quite a bit as well. This is because some of the best coffee is often the coffee produced by small farms. Right now consumers are hardly ever getting to taste them on their own, vs in a blend. If they are basically not able to market their coffee direct themselves the consumer rarely will. Sometimes, a trendy roaster will buy this small farms coffee and put it up for sale - but the margin associated with the certification will stay with the buyer roaster, the small farmer will stay poor.
Perhaps, most importantly, I think the average consumer has no idea about the coffee industry, no idea that in supporting these labels they are supporting big companies at the cost and maybe extinction of small farms! Certainly, their voice is never heard. In context, a $500 annual membership fee for a certification program (never mind cost of getting it in the first place) is very significant in the land where a subsistence farmer could be living on $3000 a year or less.
At least in Panama, small farms are disappearing rapidly as anything other than a piece of family history jointly supported by siblings, a part time thing to be worked on weekends or as retirement or second home properties to folks who are not depending on them for feeding families.
Small farms mostly sell cherries to beneficios - this is a cyclical market. This year it is very good, but future years probably not. Sooner or later they owe the bank too much money or someone comes along to buy the land for development. The coffee cherry market is a commodity market not a quality one. ie. no incentive here for any environmentally friendly practices at all. For example, using herbicide is much cheaper than paying labor to clear weeds under coffee. For these farms, the certifications have no influence whatsoever, they are incapable of making a difference here. Beneficios do not ask you at the door if you use pesticides or not. Having said that, many small farmers are so cash strapped that their farms are organic by default, they are 'certifiable', but they will never get the credit for this in the market.
For small farmers, those who can not make enough volume to turn small margins into large profits at the green bean stage: The only way to guarantee a good year is to sell your roasted beans directly. The obstacles for small farmers getting into the roasted bean business are many:
- Manage a cash flow and be able to pay workers (especially pickers) before they sell roasted coffee around 6 months later. Most live week to week let alone being able to fund 6 months of business activities out of cash on hand.
- Invest in machinery for processing and roasting which in the long run is cheaper than renting it. There are now micro processing machines available but for most they are still too expensive.
- Know how to market to consumers and retailers. Unfortunately, most small farmers are not on the internet, do not speak the consumers language and do not understand how to do this.
- Figure out how to export. Distribution costs are high for small volumes. How to share containers, or even posting bags at a time through the mail and to do this quickly enough to ensure fresh product.
BUT perhaps this is changing. Many of these farms, like mine, have already moved on from being subsistence farms. The world is getting smaller and certainly in Panama we can do this internet thing. + There is growing interest from the consumer in understanding exactly where their coffee comes from. They want to taste terroir, varietal and so on.
One last thing: The FAIR TRADE label. This one is supposed to reassure the consumer the farmer is being paid a fair price. I do not think there is any Fair Trade presence in Panama (Let me know if I am wrong). In any event, the farmer could still be shafting his workers and pickers. In the end though, Fair Trade is a poor substitute and really not the same thing at all, as being given a fair crack of the whip at making the higher margins associated with exporting well priced roasted coffee and selling it to consumers.
I would like credit for running a bird friendly, herbicide, pesticide free farm. I need it to be cost effective as my farm is currently loss making. So, guys how can you help me? Any low rates for people like me. Sort of like a pensioners or student discount. The alternative, will be to go direct without and by pass this certification thing. In the end we can be the ultimate in transparency for the consumer -we are the farm after all, come visit us. We have an address with coffee plants on it and an airport near by.