Week Nine: Final Touches and Exit Interview

Most of this week has been finishing up the final touches on my supplier profiles project, copy-editing and things like that. It feels good to compare how things look now to how they did when they got here, but the process isn’t too interesting to write about.

I also had my exit interview with Sustainable Harvest’s CEO David Griswold this week, so I’ll share some excerpts of that (the interview was recorded, and then transcribed).

DG: What were your main tasks this summer?

TB:  My main task was improving Grower Information Form site (GIF 2.0), particularly writing narratives for producers in cases where we didn’t have narratives in English but did have information with origin offices or forms growers had filled out. In some cases I was able to interview producer organizations directly and hear their story, which was a lot of fun. I also linked to all relevant blog posts.

I created a document showing where things are now with GIF, which active suppliers have narratives, missing pictures, blogs, etc. Things are pretty good, just missing a few suppliers that I haven’t been able to track down information on. Six profiles missing, four of which are Brazil. But we can link those to profile of the exporter, Bourbon Specialty Coffees, which is a pretty solid profile.

DG: Is that all you did?

TB: No. I also did some translating, reformatting training materials, Green Mountain mailing (haha, although that was not supposed to be quite such an adventure), research for the harvest update, other research projects for Sara. For example, looking into Nicaraguan banking policy.

DG: So Sara could come to you with a new project and you could sort of juggle that?
TB: Yeah, it was great. I get frustrated when I only have one project, even if it is a really great project. The GIF project was great, because even within one project there were a lot of moving pieces to juggle. With almost any project you can’t just sit down and do it, because there is a lot of waiting for information involved. So if there is a lot of things you can balance is a lot better.

My opinion is that is better to give the fellows more to do than you expect us to be able to do. It’s better to sort of overshoot the mark than to estimate what you think we’ll be able to do and sort of scramble if we get that stuff down. And if we don’t finish everything, then we don’t finish everything.

DG: What were some examples where you didn’t have enough information to do the project?

TB: I knew enough about coffee to know where to look for outside information when I needed it, and my main contact person (Sara) is awesome. The second week, which was before Sara got here, was sort of slow.  I was working on strategic relations with Lewis and Clark that week, which was fun but it was also sort of rehashing a lot of things I’ve already done. But that is understandable, because my manager is the supply chain manager and she travels a lot.

DG: What Worked?

I really loved what I was doing. I’m sort of fascinating by supply chains generally, so having the chance to work with Sara sit in on the supply chain calls and learn about the challenges and opportunities for a company like this was fascinating.  Basically, this is an industry that I want to be a part of, and things look really different from the outside. You can sort of look at what a company does and what their marketing materials but the rationale for a lot of the decisions isn’t made clear.

So it’s been great to sort of be on the other side of the curtain, and hear the explanations behind the complicated decisions we have to make every day. It’s just a higher level of thinking about things than what marketing materials say or, you know, “God in a Cup.”

My assignment was very basic, just do research about cooperatives and write about them. It was fun, I liked it, but the best part is sort of being able to sit in on Sara and have access to you guys has been the best part for me.

DG: What could be improved?

I had a great experience. I liked that I had a lot of projects, and access to a lot of information. The first week I was working independently was sort of slow, but I don’t think that’s a problem with the program necessarily, it’s just how things worked out.

DG: If you don’t have your supervisor in town, that can be problematic.

TB: It is fine to not have your supervisor around if you can meet her first and get a sense of what you’re supposed to be doing while she’s gone. Mostly the issue was the timing. But the upside of that is that I got to work with Katie on this really neat project for half of that week.

It was a price risk management project. It was similar to the GIF thing, in that what I was doing was pretty basic, but Katie explained futures markets to me in a way that made sense, which was just mind-blowing and awesome. It’s one of things that isn’t intuitive. Last year, you know, I knew it was really important but it’s really hard to teach yourself about that sort of thing.

Week Eight: Supplier Profile Example

I feel like I’ve been alluding to writing supplier profiles all summer without really giving a good idea of what they consist of. This week I wanted to share a grower information profile I’ve written for Sustainable Harvest about the cooperative coffees we import from Brazil. Brazil is in many ways a new, exciting, and difficult origin for specialty coffee from cooperatives of smallholders, and I wanted to address the challenges and possibilities of the Brazil origin in this piece. This profile is just one of the 25 or so new profiles I’ve written, in addition to the older profiles that needed updating.

Specialty Coffee in Brazil

Specialty coffee production in Brazil is a relatively new and exciting phenomenon– Sustainable Harvest origins such as Costa Rica and Colombia have longstanding reputations as exporters of quality coffee, but Brazil has long been known as an exporter of large quantities of mediocre coffee. Though Sustainable Harvest has always had friends in the region, there wasn’t enough roaster interest to begin exploring the relationship coffee model in Brazil until 2007, when Sustainable Harvest staff started regularly visiting the country to get a sense of supplier needs. Our suppliers in Brazil have something to prove in order to be taken seriously in the specialty coffee industry, and they know it. In that sense, our Brazilian partners are exceptional because they are regional leaders who are willing to work extra hard to make a name for themselves and their country as a source of great coffee.

Our Export Partner: Bourbon Specialty Coffees

Since we’re still learning about specialty coffee production in Brazil, we’ve partnered closely with the specialty coffee exporter Bourbon Specialty Coffees. Bourbon was founded in 2000 in order to bring the best of Brazilian coffee to specialty markets around the world, and Bourbon coffees have frequently been honored in Brazil’s Cup of Excellence.
Our partners at Bourbon have connected us with some great Fair Trade certified cooperative coffees in the region. Bourbon assists producers with quality control and technical trainings, as well as dry milling the coffee and managing export logistics.

Suppliers

We currently source coffee from seven Fair Trade certified cooperatives located in the southern part of Minas Gerais and the northern part of Paraná.

The Path of the Bean

Land tenure patterns make Brazil slightly different than our other origins. In the regions of Brazil that produce coffee for Sustainable Harvest, the average landholding for smallholder producers is between 10 and 20 hectares. This is slightly larger than our smallholder partners in other countries, who typically manage fewer than 10 hectares.

Smallholders in Brazil typically depulp, wet-process, and sun-dry the coffee on their individual farms, and turn the coffee into their associations or cooperatives in the parchment stage. Unlike within many countries that are more established producers of specialty coffee, who stick to one or two tried and true processing methods, experimentation with processing methods in Brazil is normal. There are currently nine different styles of processing that are currently utilized by Brazilian specialty coffee producers, ranging from fully washed to honey coffee to naturals. Cooperatives or associations store the parchment coffee, and deliver it to Bourbon Specialty Coffees for milling, cupping, and exporting. Most of the coffee we source from Bourbon is exported at the port of Santos.

Week Seven: Meeting Producers and Pondering Quintales

I feel like a really good boss challenges you to try things you didn’t think you could do, and Thursday my boss did just that. I had just gotten back from lunch with my uncle, and was feeling quite full and a little sleepy. My boss came by and said, “Come on, we’re going out to lunch with some visiting producers, you should come!” Not wanting to miss the chance to get to know some of the very people I’d been writing about, or the chance to consume an incredible sandwich with fresh mozzarella at one of my favorite restaurants, I immediately agreed. I was so full by the time we stumbled back to the office, but it was a great opportunity to witness the importance of the personal relationships Sustainable Harvest cultivates with suppliers first-hand.

In addition to my ongoing work developing profiles for our suppliers, I was given the task of standardizing the production units that suppliers measure their coffee in. When we ask producers how much coffee they grow, they give us an answer in fanegas or quintales or bags, not in pounds. I needed to convert these units into pounds, which was a lot harder than it sounds. A quintal doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to a producer in Peru as it does to a producer in Guatemala. It was humbling to realize that just because I know a little bit about coffee supply chains from Guatemala, because I’ve lived there, doesn’t mean I know how things work everywhere.

Week Six: Harvest Updates

This week, in addition to ongoing projects, I did some research for the harvest bulletin that Sustainable Harvest will be sending out to all of its Central American suppliers and roasters about this year’s Central America coffee harvest. My research was wide-ranging, and included everything from studies predicting the impact of climate change on specific coffee-producing regions over the next 50 years to best practices for coffee cooperatives for fixing coffee prices. It’s been neat to try to gather information that will be relevant to coffee cooperatives, because it is definitely a different perspective on supply chains than I am used to.

By far the strangest find for me was the fact that the United States Department of Agriculture publishes specific harvest predictions for Central American countries, based on the amount of land in production. However, these reports are only in English, which is strange and hilarious and typical.  So I translated them into Spanish so that the information so carefully compiled by the US government could actually be used by the people who depend on growing coffee for their livelihoods.

Week Five: Conversations with Producers

On Wednesday, we had lunch with Cate Barril, who has worked for Green Mountain Coffee Roasting and Fair Trade USA. Cate shared a lot of stories from her career, including negotiations she participated in to get Fair Trade Organic coffees in all of the McDonald’s in New England, and stories about the state of the world’s cocoa industry. She also made us really delicious Fair Trade brownies, which was neat because, for me at least, I don’t think of a brownie as having just one producer, which makes it easier to ignore where the brownie comes from.

Other than that, I continued working on sharing stories from our suppliers with the rest of the supply chain by creating and  updating cooperative profiles on our website. I’ve even gotten the chance to speak directly with some producers about their coffee, and share their perspective on what makes growing coffee a wonderful but challenging job. Many producers are frustrated by the way that coffee prices are determined, because prices don’t really have any connection to the work that coffee producers put in. Fair Trade used to give producers a bit more stability, and still represent a minimum price, but global coffee prices have been very high and very volatile over the past several years, which means that cooperative leaders are trying to figure out their costs and how much they will pay members for coffee before they know exactly how much money they will get. At this point, Fair Trade means that producers are getting higher prices than they would be otherwise, but they still have to deal with instability.

For this reason, some cooperatives are moving into microlot production, or separating out their highest quality coffee to process and ship with special care. This is because microlot contracts are frequently negotiated with a fixed price that is not based on the highs and lows of the global marketplace. The producer and the roaster negotiate a price based on the producers and roasters costs, and a price that has nothing to do with the weather in Brazil or the economic situation in Greece.

These conversations were fascinating, and definitely reinforced the fact that Fair Trade and a relationship-based coffee model are doing a lot to improve producer livelihoods. That said, the challenge of making coffee (and everything else!) production sustainable is a lot bigger than just the work of Sustainable Harvest.

Week Four: Diving Into Spanish

Unlike many coffee importers, Sustainable Harvest invests a lot of resources into offices and staff who are based in coffee producing countries. These staff are on the ground with producers, and collect massive quantities of information about where our coffee comes from, including: harvest conditions, cooperative infrastructure and quality control protocols, and stories of individual producers. A lot of this information is relevant to roasters and other clients, who want to make sure they’ve got a sustainable source of great quality coffee, but it is difficult to share because it is all in Spanish.

This week, I really focused on translating and organizing information that Sustainable Harvest origin staff had already gathered in order pass that information along the supply chain. I translated a harvest update from Colombia and organized a producer training manual on the subject of pruning coffee trees. In the process, I learned a lot more about the biology of the coffee plant, which is an aspect of the coffee industry that I know little about.

I also got started writing about the history, current projects, and coffee processing methods of cooperatives that we currently work with, which mostly involved translating information that origin staff had already gathered. In this process, I’ve definitely learned a lot more about the nuts and bolts of coffee production and the different ways that coffee is produced in different countries. Plus, translating is really fun!

Week Three: Sustainability and Measurement

This week, my supervisor was telling me how important it is that Sustainable Harvest maintains their commitment to sustainability even as they grow.

“So,” she said, “now we’re trying to figure out what sustainability means to us.”

I couldn’t help but laugh, because approximately 30% of my college career was spent wondering what sustainability was, exactly. In fact, one of the things that I was most looking forward to about graduating from college was never having to ask myself what sustainability was ever again. But I guess the challenge of thoughtfully operationalizing ambitious and amorphous goals (like Being Sustainable™) continues even off of Palatine Hill.

This week, a member of the Sustainable Harvest team who focuses on designing and communicating useful metrics for the company spoke to us about his work, and the importance of data and measurement at Sustainable Harvest. His talk was fascinating, and made me sad that I never took advantage of the Statistics courses at LC.

This week has also been neat because I’ve gotten to read through detailed information about all of the cooperatives that Sustainable Harvest sources coffee from. I’ll be going through the site and editing this stories as well as interviewing origin staff and crafting some new ones. In the meantime, the technical, trade, supply, and communications teams are working together to envision and implement a platform that will best share this information. Being a part of these discussions is very informative.