This is the second installment of a three part blog series about certification organizations. This second blog post will focus mostly on the 'Organic' certification and my experiences visiting coffee growing regions in Guatemala. The first blog focused mostly on the 'Fair Trade' certification and my experience visiting coffee growing regions in Mexico (link to blog post here). The final blog post will draw out some conclusions from both trips and from conversations I have had with coffee professionals and customers.
Tucked away in Antigua, Guatemala sits Fat Cat Coffee, a quaint coffee shop that served me a delcious macchiato complete with a latte art heart. Though the drink was good, I was there for the conversation. Next to me sat Michele, one of five sisters who own Fina El Paraiso, a Guatemala coffee farm I had visited earlier on in the day. 'Paradise Farm' is aptly named; the grounds are beautiful and lush with fresh vegetation including thousands of coffee plants arrayed neatly within a forest canopy. Though the time was quick, I enjoyed the June afternoon meeting. I then asked her a tough question:
"Would you say certification systems help or hurt you?"
Michele thought about it for a minute, which I appreciated, after which she responded, "I think they hurt our farm." She continued to clarify that she was specifically referencing the Organic certification, which their farm had at one point. However, La Roya, a coffee plant blight, ruined their farm in 2013, like most Central American farms at that time. The sisters decided to spray a fungicide to combat 'the rust' killer. Their tactics halted La Roya's progression, but lost them their organic certification.
"The certification cost us a lot, and it was frustrating having to lose that certificaton along with its value to save our farm," said Michele. "Our farm still utilizes organic practices, but we have not found it worth the cost to re-certify."
I have heard of such stories before, but never directly from the producer. There are many positive outcomes from certification programs and plenty of successful scenarios, some of which I reference in the first part of the certifications blog series. In fact, Michele was quite appreciative of the Rain Forest Alliance certification that her farm has. However, many producers simply do not benefit from these programs, either from lack of accessibility to the certifcation, funds or value from the certification.
Julio Martinez is the Guatemalan gentleman who coordinated my meeting with Michele. Julio represents numerous farmers across Guatemala, exporting and marketing their coffee. If one thing was obvious from my time in Guatemala, it was that Julio cares for his farmers and his farmers appreciate him. When talking with Julio about certifications, he had similar, if not stronger, opnions to Michele.
"I know many organic farms that cannot afford the organic certification. I also know a few certified farms that cut corners," Julio said while addressing the organic certification. When it comes to Fair Trade, Julio is still not impressed. "Coffee farmers are being told, 'Your coffee sells for $13-$14/lb in supermarkets, and you only get a fraction of that!' Well, cost of living and cost of production is higher in many of the final places where coffee is sold. Plus, there is value to be taken into consideration when considering how much farmers are being paid and how much roasted coffee is sold for." Julio continued, "Making famers believe they deserve more without any more effort is making some of them lazy and not willing to work hard."
I want to stress again that Julio is admired highly amond his peers, customers, and farmers. Everyone I met said he is fair and kind. Therefore, I respect Julio's perspective and greatly knowing that he has been doing this far longer than me and that he is NOT a corrupt middleman trying to take for his own. But his perspective drastically countered my perspective from Mexico earlier this year, which I discussed in the last blog post. I know of some scenarios where farmers are exploited and taken advantage of; where a certification like Fair Trade could make a big difference. After 2-3 hours of honest debating, Julio and I were able to find some common ground on this issue and begin brainstorming solutions. Hear some of our conclusions on certifications and empowering farmers in the final blog post coming soon...Philip Klayman
Founder, Three Tree Coffee