Cup of Excellence debate: How well are money spent

Klaus Thomsen blogged the following about the Nordic Barista Cup in Iceland:

My favourite moment was during the Q&A; when someone asked whether some of the money the farmer gets paid throught the CoE auction could be ear-marked to improve the quality of their coffee. You could feel this is something Susie feels strongly about when she answered: “No! Why should we decide how they spend their money? We don’t want anyone to decide how we spend our money, do we?”

I think it’s such a common misconception that the farmers don’t know what they are doing and that we from the rich west should help them manage their farms. Most of the farmers I’ve met know what they are doing. They know better than anyone what equipment is missing or needs replacing at their farm. They know if a new house for their family of a new de-pulper is most needed. Not us! We need to build a relationship with farmers based on that we are equals. Not that we should micro-manage their income. Now, if we can provide assistance and education to help them improve their own economy that’s great, but let’s start with paying them appropriately for their quality coffee.

Being the one who asked the question, I feel obliged to comment further. The background was a visit a few years ago to a CoE#1 winner, a trip I was looking so much forward to as it was one of my all time favourite coffees at that time. The disappointment was huge. They didn’t appear to have invested any of the vast sum of money they earned in the farm.

yes, all good. but how do we spend the money?

The argument presented by Susie Spindler was that noone are entitled to tell the farmers how to spend their paychecks. (“I know I wouldn’t allow anyone to tell me”)

I see it differently. First of all the money paid to the farmer isn’t his paycheck. It’s part of that particular farm’s received payment for the coffee harvested that year.It’s the farm’s income, and it’s main feature is to pay the farm’s expenses – among them the farmer’s salary.

It’s not just a discussion on how we can get all good coffee farmers to think about quality, but also how we can make sure the best ones do even better. I agree with Klaus that most farmers know how to spend their money in a good way to improve their farm, but I am also sure there are other examples than my own experience that CoE-winners might never use that money to improve coffee quality. And my argument is that these might be farms with exceptional terroir that might not yet show it’s full potential. The farm I visited was an example of that terroir going to waste.

If we can force the top 20 coffee producers in a country to spend 15-20% of it’s profit from the CoE to improve facilities  at the farm,  they might be angry at us, as they might be angry at government regulations and taxes. I just fail to see why we should care more about that than improving coffee quality in general.

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5 Responses to “Cup of Excellence debate: How well are money spent”

  1. David Walsh Says:

    The CoE itself should incentivise increasing standards and quality. That may not be the case in every example, but you would hope, looking at the bigger picture, that would be the case.

    I agree with the sentiments of Klaus and Susie. It’s the farmer’s business how he spends his hard-earned money.

  2. Alex Says:

    To demand this from the farmers is not COE´s intention. It is the farmers ground, and he has no obligation to do with it as others pleases. If the terroir goes to waste, it is none of our business.

  3. Klaus Thomsen Says:

    Hi Rasmus

    It all comes back to what I wrote about being *equal* in the transaction. I would never dream of calling up my cup supplier and telling him how to spend the money I paid for my porcelain cups. It’s the same way with the farmers. Why do you feel the right to micro-manage their business?
    This is why we do Direct Trade and visit the producers every year – to build up a relationship where we can share our ideas and values. And by paying a high premium directly to the farmer we can see we get a much higher quality the other way.

    I can relate to your feelings about a certain coffee not living up to its full potential. It’s a shame for sure. As Susie said in the lecture the CoE spends a lot of time guiding the farmers and creating a platform where farmers and millers from around the world can share their knowledge.

    I am sure that when the farmer you visited see he doesn’t get a high price for coffee the next year or following year he will realize himself that he might need to do something about his processing or harvest or whatever the problem might be. And of course you can tell him that you were disappointed in the quality of the coffee the following year – to the farmers I’ve met that’s a very brutal thing to hear, but I think it’s more honest and respectful than managing their income for them.

    I guess my priority would be to improve the social conditions on the farm rather than thinking about the quality I could get via your model. If my travels to origin have taught me one thing it is that fancy machines does not produce quality. People do!

    I think you do fail to see that people being angry at us for micro-managing their business will likely hurt the quality of the coffee more. I don’t belive in forcing people to do things – I believe in sharing our values and ideas and that way bring the industry and the coffee quality forward.

    Best regards,
    Klaus Thomsen

  4. mie Says:

    Winning the Cup of Excellence auction can be a strike of pure luck – a number of coincidences happening at the same time – or a strike of geniality. In both cases, the work to develop the winning lot has been hard work, some farmers doing this more meticulous than others. I think Klaus says it pretty accurate: “machines does not produce quality, people do”.

    I want to point out something that has not been mentioned in the previous post, and that is that coffee production including processing, is most often highly dependant on culture and heritage. The fifth generation coffee farmer in Honduras might not know why the cherries growing on the middle of the branch in mid-harvest season yields the best cup, but he knows it’s worth a try even though he normally doesn’t cup the coffee he is producing himself. The agronomist in Costa Rica cups coffee regularly and knows that meticulous processing of a low-grown Caturra can resemble the cup quality of a higher grown coffee – and is thus more likely to invest in the proper tools to make this happen for the next crop. I can give many more examples, but the point is that cultural understanding is important for our trade.

    In particular as a woman working in coffee, I’ve (somewhat involuntarily) aware of our scandinavian egalitarian culture – both between the sexes. Also, the power distance in many coffee producing societies and cultures is very different from the cultural values I was raised to believe in and act out of.

    It is also a fact that luck just doesn’t happen to the same person many times in a row. If you consistently want to produce good lots of coffee to hit the speciality market niche, it takes only hard and meticulous work. If you use the incentive given to you by the Cup of Excellence auction right, you are more likely to make that happen for youself, your family and your workers again and again.

  5. Edwin Martinez Says:

    Dear Rasmus,

    I’m a bit late on commenting on this post, but it is a great thread! I think your intention is well appreciated and while no farmer wants to be told how to do what they do, in the context of a relationship one earns the right to be heard over time. You are correct that success in the COE is somewhat of a lottery for some. This is not to downplay the qualities of coffee in the auctions, they are VERY good, no doubt about it, in fact among the best. However it is THOSE specific coffees from their corresponding lots THAT YEAR, that won. Many will take care of a special piece of land for years with intent to submit it to the auction. Truthfully for farmers who understand the economics, programs such as COE are a priceless discovery mechanism that has it’s rewards not in the price paid in the actual auction, rather having a small bump in price paid for the over all crop in years to come. It essentially “puts the farmer on the map” and draws some attention. And THAT is why the CoE is worth every penny for the roasters and worth the time for the farmer. It facilitates development of relationships. Then it is up to the farmer what he does from there. And most likely the decisions he makes will have a direct impact on the price he will get. In any business there are activities that could be categorized as marketing that get people in the door, and marketing that gets people coming back. While placing in an auction such as the CoE is something to be very proud of, the hard part is what follows. Producing great coffee AGAIN. But this is also the rewarding part. By putting out something great time and time again it shifts from being less about luck and more about being very intentional. And about disappointment at the farm, I think you’ll always find this to some degree. Just think about what a farmer might think if he had the same appreciation for quality as you do and he visited everyone who bough coffee from him. What would he have to say about the quality of the roast and the quality of the beverages served by the baristas.

    I am so glad you asked this question, and I wish I was there to hear Susie respond. I couldn’t agree with her more, but I also think there is a huge lack of dialog between those who produce the coffee and those who roast, brew and serve it. And this conversation only happens when people take initiative as you have to speak up. Bold questions such as these make for valuable learning opportunities that should be shared in the industry.

    – Edwin Martinez

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