Education – working with producers who grow our coffee

First Published - September 14, 2012

We try to share examples of best practice from all the countries we source our coffee with other farmers around the world. Every situation is slightly different but we find that it improves our relationships and deepens their trust in us if we speak together regularly to update them about a range of subjects from agronomy techniques to labour rights, and to learn from them too. Pascale is researching socio-economic conditions for us and regularly conducts surveys and runs workshops with farmers to exchange feedback. It’s been interesting to see how certain aspects have changed. For instance, the increased role played by women in the coffee economy has developed greatly since the coffee crisis in the late 90s.

Labour conditions and equality

It is always difficult to gather producers together and give workshops, especially during the harvest. I am getting used to “the hora chapin”, the Guatemalan hour, and now realise workshops always start late. But they’re worth it – here we welcomed 62 producers, 45% women and 55% male. It is inspiring to see that level of female participation as Guatemalan culture is dominated by gender issues including so-called “machismo”.  It is culturally defined that the woman’s role is in the house taking care for her husband and kids. Historically it has been rare for women to get involved in events like ours, especially events related to education. The workshop deals with labour standards, but also briefly discusses women’s right to equal payment and their right to participate in events. Discussing these issues is very important in a mainly male dominated society.

Some women are working with their husbands, or sometimes in place of them. Many men from this area migrated to the United States for work.  Some remain loyal to their families and send money home, however unfortunately many of them disappear or start a new family in the States abandoning their families in Guatemala.

In Tuiboch Todos Santos, 23 producers participated in our workshop about costs of production and labour standards. I presented the results of my previous study on cost of production. To gain and keep producers’ trust it is important that we dont just come to do our study and disappear, but we also need to return and share our results.

Besides the workshop on the costs of production, I also discuss labour standards. Union Hand Roasted Coffee is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiativewhich works to protect poor and vulnerable workers, particularly children and day labourers. We discuss these standards with our producers. Producers often tell us that because of their economic situation children sometimes need to help on the farm, but say that these activities generally do not interfere with schoolwork. We explain that it is also important for children to play and rest – they can help on the farm but need time for themselves too.

Coffee training

We believe it is essential to equip producers with the knowledge that helps them to grade and cup their own coffee, and have done so for almost a decade now.

Esquipulas has two trained cuppers, Adriel Alfaro and Iliana Martinez. For any group of producers selling coffee having cupping experts is very important. Not long ago, growers would take a sample of their harvest to a local buyer, who offered the producers a price after cupping their coffee. If they were told that quality was poor, producers had no clue whether or not this was true – as I’d heard in Costa Rica, the cupping often took place behind closed doors and was surrounded with mystery and secrecy.

By training local staff, and making cupping sessions open to all growers and communicating cupping results to producers, things change. If a producer has doubts, he can try and taste his own coffee (one does not need to be a super experienced cupper to distinguish common quality issues such as heavily fermented coffee). Cupping results are shared with the producers and recommendations are made. This way the cupping process is very transparent and accessible to all producers. Cupping is done within eight days of delivery of the coffee, and if the coffee passes acceptance, the co-operative makes a pre-payment against the full selling price.

Knowing how to evaluate quality is especially relevant for the co-operative when they are considering applications from new producers who wish to join. In the past, some less scrupulous growers have wanted the benefits that the co-operative offers, particularly around price guarantees in difficult seasons, but they are not reliable or don’t produce beans of sufficient quality. Cupping expertise also protects the co-operative when they are selling their crops as they can judge which beans are premium and should fetch the highest price.

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