Certifications Part 3: Conclusion

This is the final installment of a three part blog series about certification organizations.  This blog post will draw out some conclusions from both trips I took in 2017 and from conversations I have had with coffee professionals and customers.  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 second blog post focused mostly on the 'Organic' certification and my experience visiting coffee growing regions in Guatemala (link to blog post here). 

Before beginning, I must confess that the title of this blog post is misguiding.  Though I will make some conclusions about certifications from both of my trips to Mexico and Guatemala, this is a topic that we will continue to research, ponder and discuss as times change and the industry evolves.  But for now, I think it is helpful to disseminate all these experiences and conversations into a 'next step.'

In the last blog post, I introduced you to Julio Martinez, who lives in Guatemala City and exports premium grade coffee.  I would like to share a little more of his story.  Having worked with many agricultural products and producers for 15+ years, including coffee, Julio has quite a perspective on the production side of coffee.  I got to know him and his family pretty well when I visited Guatemala in June 2017.  I had heard about Julio from numerous coffee professionals and friends dating back to 2014.  Everyone seems to respect him, and since meeting him, I now know why.  Julio is simply a great person.  People WANT to work with him because he takes care of those he interacts with, including farmers.  Case in point: upon arriving in Guatemala, Julio and Claudia, his wife, made me a lunch of steak, salad, and fresh homemade tortillas having only known me for 1 hour.  Obviously, I took every opportunity on this trip to hear his perspective on many issues, including certifications, since he sees so much of the 'other side' of the coffee production chain.

After much debate (see last blog post), Julio and I determined that RELATIONSHIPS trump certifications.  It is not that certifications are harmful, though some may be less beneficial than others; however, relationships have more potential for empowerment. 

Let me give an example.  One of our customers at Three Tree Coffee messaged me a similar notion against the organic certification, saying, 'Organic [certification] is really only something that applies to middle-class Americans with disposable income...It all sounds warm and fuzzy to Americans, but not to the rest of the world when they lose their jobs and cannot afford to feed their families.'  This is preciously the scenario I saw with El Paraiso farm, which lost its organic certification to combat a La Roya (a fungus that attacks coffee plants) and could not afford to re-apply (or at least didn't find it worth the cost of re-applying).  And though El Paraiso is not certified organic, they follow organic practices.  I saw it myself while visiting their farm and I do not need someone else to confirm that for me.  The relationships I developed with the producers at El Paraiso cover the gaps that the organic certification can leave. 

Now, what is the trade-off with relationships?  If relationships are the 'solution' to empower marginalized people, then why do we not engage in them more?  Well...relationships are messy.  They require trust which takes time and money, especially when fostering relationships in another country.  From my perspective as a coffee roaster/buyer, relationships are risky whereas, certifications are easy.  But with a bold mission to 'Empower our Farmers,' we may need to take the more difficult path to accomplish that goal. 

Relationships are preciously how we are pursuing empowering our producers, specifically in Guatemala where we buy from Maria of Carmona Estate.  I got to visit her farm as well while visiting Antigua.  The farm is breath-taking and incredibly advanced compared to most farms I have seen.  For example, they handle the wet-milling and dry-milling processes directly on the farm.  There are many farmers who perform neither process on site due to lack of equipment and capital.  By visiting Carmona Estate, I got to see the result of empowered producers.  Julio has been investing in this farm long before I came on the scene, but I can verify through this relationship with Julio and Maria that our Guatemalan producer is empowered.  They are paid well, treated well, & pursuing sustainability well, all as a result of numerous buyers investing in this farm through relationship. 

Conclusion: Relationships are the heart-beat of our Gold Leaf Series coffees.  You may have seen these grey labeled coffees on our shelf which currently consist of Guatemala (Carmona Estate) and Ethiopia (Burka Gudina Estate), with some stellar Costa Rican coffees coming down the pipe.  Each of these coffees is pursuing empowerment through relationships and we plan to invest more in this relational method.  And though the past year has opened my eyes to the potential of relationships, we will continue partnering with Fair Trade USA.  You may be thinking, 'But I thought relationships are better than certifications?!'  My conviction is relationships have the greatest potential, and I believe Fair Trade carries out their certification process in a relational way, as I saw in Mexico.  Fair Trade also gives the farmers a tangible incentive for being certified organic through a higher premium, making the difficulties of organic certification less intrusive.  Lastly, Fair Trade has been the voice of ethical buying for decades.  If it wasn't for their marketing efforts, many would care less about how or where they source their goods.  In other words, I think they were a crucial stepping stone towards relational efforts you see popping up around the specialty coffee industry. 

What I have taken away from my travels to coffee growing communities thus far is that relationships are worth the messy investment, whether abroad or local.  What relationships do you need to invest in more?  It is neat to travel to various parts of the world and to come full-circle on the same principle we started this business on three years ago.  People first. 

Philip Klayman
Founder, Three Tree Coffee

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