A sustainable future for St. Louis food producers
Ask Blueprint Coffee’s Andrew Timko about facilitating direct trade relationships in specialty coffee, and he’ll almost immediately talk about another dark, crumbly matrix: the soil in which coffee plants are grown, thousands of miles away, in farming regions clustered along the equator. Often, the improvements Timko, Blueprint’s co-owner and green buyer, plans with the company’s grower partners center on maintaining soil biodiversity that’s essential to all kinds of sustainable agriculture, not just coffee.
Direct trade in coffee is touted as an ethical model of business, but stories like Timko’s show how engaging in direct trade can inspire a more holistic view of the whole production process, from plant to customer. Suddenly, “product quality” stretches beyond the borders of the brick-and-mortar shop to account for ecological health and fair labor. “If I am restricting my partner’s ability to self-invest, to improve their soil and cultivation, then I am directly affecting the quality of our product,” Timko explained.
Generally, the term “direct trade” encompasses a shortened supply chain between a farmer growing a commodity crop like coffee, tea or cacao, and its eventual consumer drinking their morning cup. It also refers to a partnership model that assures mutual benefits for both buyer and seller. In the same way a household might invest in a CSA from a local farmer, in direct trade, a company pays futures on a crop from a specific farmer, essentially buying a crop before it’s been harvested. As Jamie Jeschke, a co-owner of La Cosecha Coffee Roasters, pointed out, roughly 90% of the world’s coffee is grown on small family farms. “They just don’t have the resources to get these coffees to market themselves” at a fair, above-commodity price, he explained.
Direct trade isn’t a strictly defined category of practices; there’s no institutionalized certification process required for a chocolate maker or a coffee roaster to call a product “direct trade.” But for direct trade buyers, the lack of bureaucracy can signal other opportunities, such as boosts in quality, for them and for the farmers they work with.
Futures are rare in commodity farming; most small farmers work at the subsistence level and have to spend heavily all year just to get the crop to market. For a farmer, a long-term commitment from a known buyer can enable investments in equipment and methods innovation that can increase yields, improve soil quality and make working on the farm more sustainable.
“Farmers cannot take the risk of improving quality on their own unless they have access to a market or commitment from somebody purchasing their product,” Timko explained. For Blueprint, making such innovation possible through profit-sharing measures that go directly into the soil in turn enables the coffee to get better year-over-year. “We share commitment and risk with the farmer,” Timko continued. “In my mind, it’s their coffee. We are partners in their work.”
All of the businesses interviewed for this piece spoke at length about the importance of site visits, of being able to witness farmers at work in cultivating, harvesting and preparing crops for market. For commodities like chocolate, tea and coffee, that means abiding by a series of careful and often regionally specific practices for drying, fermenting or curing crops before they can be packaged and shipped.
“We know that people are using our product as a healing product,” said Lisa Govro, CEO and founder of Big Heart Tea. “So when we go to growing sites, we’re looking for biodiversity, we’re looking for good relationships. But overall we are looking to make sure that the product is coming from a place of health.”
In most cases, commodities farmers are at the mercy of the markets at which they sell their goods for fixed prices. But by cutting out some of the middleman activity, direct trade enables small farmers to find the right buyer at fair prices, which buyers of specialty-graded commodities are often happy to pay. Kaldi’s Coffee’s retail training manager and director of coffee, Andrew McCaslin, noted that for the company’s Relationship Coffee line, they generally buy from their partners at about 30% above market price – money they see going into the management of the farm for future crops. And with a long-term partnership, “the farm can plan out their own harvest and processing much better, because they have a better idea of what their internal cash flow is going be like,” McCaslin explained. “Rather than producing and then trying to find a buyer, they can start to invest back into their farm.”
On Kaldi’s side, partnering farms are then in a better position to be consistent in terms of quality. Even if the climate and terroir shaping harvest change year by year, a farmer able to improve their facilities can work to control against crop hazards, leaving more room for the kinds of shifts in flavor profile that both roasters and customers geek out on.
Companies that utilize direct trade methods often say that the mutually beneficial nature of the relationships builds over time, mostly because a longer relationship means that small-scale coffee and cacao farmers are empowered to demonstrate their own extensive expertise over their crops. Farmers often bring to the table an array of local and insider methods for soil health maintenance, fertilization and crop preparation, from picking to drying to some of the other post-harvest processes essential to quality, like the fermentation of cacao beans that is an essential process within the specialty chocolate market.
Within these relationships, buyers often defer to farmers on aspects of cultivation that directly bear on the quality of the end product. Lawren Askinosie, co-owner and chief marketing officer of direct trade chocolate maker Askinosie Chocolate, says that their company has gained incredible expertise from site visits by being able to witness the way that farmers care for their plants. “Our entire goal is to honor the farmers as the artisans they are. Their handling has everything to do with the outcome of the flavor of the bars we are selling.”
Ultimately, Askinosie’s company has benefited from farmer knowledge much more than it’s determined it necessary to “intervene.” The farmers are the experts, and part of her job is to get out of their way. “We trust our farmers implicitly at being experts at what they do. We are here to be a resource, but they are the experts at their crop,” she explained. McCaslin likewise noted a fine balance between the meticulousness with which Kaldi’s makes lot selections and the desire to respect the farmer and the ongoing relationship. “You never really want to tell a specialty coffee farmer how to produce their own coffee,” he said.
You might say the arrangement of direct trade – which requires ongoing communication between farmers and their buyers over time – makes it less likely that a coffee roaster will think of the goods they buy as “raw material,” anonymously harvested, dried, packed and shipped to the U.S. Much as it goes with wine, there are many steps of cultivation and post-cultivation preparation of coffee, tea and chocolate that affect the taste of whatever goes into a U.S. customer’s cup or candy bar. This emphasis on the very possibility that commodity producers – in this case, farmers – might be consulted on how their products will grow and taste is an upending of the status quo of buying and selling consumable commodities. An ongoing relationship, not a one-time transaction, is the model. “We’re not treating the market as it’s supposed to be treated,” Timko explained.
By foregrounding the wage structures that undergird production, direct trade runs against the grain of globalized commodity pricing. And, as both Askinosie and Big Heart Tea’s Lisa Govro pointed out, that can have feminist implications for small farmers, many of whom are women who run grow sites as part of managing their households. “In many cases, the cocoa shamba is like a kitchen garden,” explained Askinosie. “Cocoa might be a secondary or tertiary crop for farmers, often tended to by the woman of the household, who is responsible for harvesting and cultivation of cocoa, and is often doing it with a baby on her back.”
Making commodity farm work sustainable means ensuring that good labor arrangements stay in place, from compensating women equitably, to paying a fair wage to all harvesters and workers, to privileging the knowledge at these grow sites, to advocating for farmers to save money on the sell-side. In industries like chocolate and tea that are rife with child labor, slavery and human trafficking, those are revolutionary shifts. “For us it’s about doing business with integrity,” Govro said, while talking about Big Heart’s quest for partners as a way to work around tea’s “heinous history of colonization and maltreatment of tea workers.” Working directly with tea farmers in the Indian state of Assam and other regions, Big Heart has been buying and featuring single-origin teas even during the pandemic, and their partners often put them into contact with neighboring farmers and co-ops that might be a good fit for Big Heart – a practice many business owners cite as key to their ongoing searches for small farms.
Scott Carey, Sump Coffee’s owner and roaster, pointed to Le Palma & El Tucan, an internationally lauded coffee farm in Colombia that’s just as famous in its home region of Cundinamarca for its efforts to leverage its brand to increase the purchasing price for its neighbors’ coffee. “They can sell their green coffee for a hundred dollars a pound, and they’re such a strong brand they’ve been able to help tons of farmers in the surrounding area,” Carey explained.
Companies that structure their business model around direct trade make a point of visiting grow sites each year to check in on production. That’s a model touted by flagship names in direct trade like Portland’s Sumptown Coffee and Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee. But during the pandemic, partners have been able to maintain strong relationships through a flurry of online activity. Askinosie admitted she never thought her company would have gone over a year without visiting its farmer-partners; but the longevity of those partnerships has been somewhat of a buffer against Covid’s many disruptions, she said. And for smaller businesses for which regular visits aren’t always feasible even under normal circumstances, technology has changed the game for how direct trade works: now, St. Louis companies can use WhatsApp and Zoom to check in with their partners, survey production and equipment, and talk shop. “Technology has been huge for people in commodity industries,” Kaldi’s McCaslin pointed out. These technologies have been essential amongst farmers, as they communicate between themselves about pricing and innovation, searching for buyers who will pay fair prices for specialty goods and trading knowledge, McCaslin continued.
For smaller companies, working with direct trade wholesalers is one way of mitigating costly risks. While flagship direct traders insist that the “purest” form of direct trade is buying a small farmer’s entire crop for the season in advance, that model can be an impossible investment hurdle for a start-up business. In addition to the costs of international travel and partnership investment, direct trade buyers have to be prepared for steep shipping costs, many of which are volume priced, meaning that little guys with smaller shipping lots are paying the same fees as a company that can afford to bring in massive quantities. “I think in my next life, I’m going to run a logistics company,” Govro joked. “There’s such a lack of transparency in the chain from getting your product from point A to point B. With every shipment we think we get it right, and then there’s something.”
“It’s expensive to be small,” said Cam Loyet, who co-founded Honeymoon Chocolates with his wife, Haley Loyet, in 2016. The couple has had success using direct trade wholesale companies like Uncommon Cacao and Meridian Cacao, both of which operate long-term relationships with cacao co-ops and farms and adhere to a variety of standards for fair labor and agricultural biodiversity. Specialty importers enable purchasing on a much smaller scale, making it safer for small businesses to purchase and experiment before committing heavily to a particular region or lot. While these companies aren’t as well-positioned to enable the profit gains for farmers as some direct trade companies, it’s a start, both for the farmers and those that buy from them, and a useful education in how to build a growing business around more direct partnerships with producers.
“Everyone’s goal in this business seems to be to support small farmers eventually,” Honeymoon Chocolates’ Haley Loyet said of the craft chocolate industry. “There’s a sense of pride within the industry when one of us graduates to that next level.” Honeymoon, which produces chocolate sweetened with honey as opposed to cane sugar, initially sought out local apiaries for their honey; similarly, it wants to maintain that small production integrity by partnering with smaller cacao farms as soon as their production level makes that feasible. “Our goal is to start forming those relationships as soon as possible,” said Cam Loyet.
Sump Coffee’s Scott Carey also cited some risks and pains with engaging in the direct trade model, especially for a small business owner in an industry with slim profit margins. Carey explained all of the coffee he can sell in a year might fit into a single shipping container, but throwing that weight behind purchasing a single crop would make it impossible for him to buy across regions and climates, in turn limiting Sump’s menu offerings. Citing one experience with purchasing a Guatemalan crop in which he negotiated price directly with the farmer, Carey also paid for milling and processing the coffee, then waited anxiously as the shipment slowly made its way from seaport to seaport, arriving in Houston months behind schedule. “At this point, we’re out of pocket, and I still have to buy and roast and sell at Sump. That was a big deal for me, just like it was a big deal for that farmer to sell that coffee.”
Meanwhile, Carey has worried about the optics of marketing coffee through a direct trade story, because for a small business like his, it’s impossible to handle every stage of the crop between picking and its arrival to St. Louis. “There’s so many links in the chain – I know none of the seamen on the cargo ship, there’s so many hands along the way, and I don’t want to pretend I’m managing any of that,” he explained. At this point, Carey has a workable model of buying current crops through forward contract purchasing that hews to the ethics of ensuring a better price for farmers while hedging against the risk of purchasing a crop that is mishandled or that never shows up. “My theory is: I don’t know anything about farming, and it would be presumptuous of me to say I do. I’m here to make exceptional cups of coffee,” Carey said. He worries that some of the buzz around direct trade is implicated in the ongoing power imbalance between commodity buyers, most of whom are white Westerners, and Black and brown farmers worldwide; as coffee roasters look for an edge in the market, their presentation of the farms they’re improving can, in the worst of cases, look to him like white saviorism. “I don’t like taking photos of people working when we go to origin,” Carey said. “I don’t want to exploit anyone brown and I don’t want to exploit a culture I don’t participate in myself.”
The unspoken heroes for smaller businesses looking to buy at origin are importers. In specialty coffee and tea, small importers were crucial to Kaldi’s, Blueprint and Big Heart, who all leveraged their existing importer relationships in building their direct trade partnerships. Most direct trade practitioners interviewed for this piece rely – at least initially – on valuable relationships with specialty importers to broker the shipment of goods, make introductions to farms and regions, and generally open the door to a particular growing region. Other companies, particularly in coffee, like La Cosecha, Sump and Coma Coffee Roasters, purchase green coffee from importers who focus on single origin specialty coffee, and build on that relationship to ensure that pricing is fair for the farmer, and that the conditions for specialty coffee selection and processing are being met.
Daniel Bueno Gomez, co-owner of Urbania, a locally operated importer of Colombian specialty coffee, has sourced beans for local roasters including La Cosecha, Sump, Northwest Coffee Roasting Co., Coma and Coffeestamp, which is one way that coffee roasters can invest in sustainable partnerships with small farmers without the extensive risks of forging their own direct trade relationships.
There’s a lot of work in coffee importing, from technical expertise to leveraging grower networks to sourcing good beans – especially considering that in Colombia the average coffee farm is between 1.5 and 3 acres. “In the majority of cases, coffee is just one of their income streams,” Bueno said, noting that many farmers they buy from just as often sell cow’s milk, cacao and other cash crops every year. Beyond finding these farmers, Urbania also tastes lots on the hunt for specialty coffee and then incentivizes farmers’ investment in implementing practices that will increase quality and yield over time by buying at 35% over the commodity price and offering interest-free loans for equipment purchasing. He also partners with local non-profits to encourage sustainable and fair labor practices on farms. This has meant everything from working with a group that builds jaguar-safe barriers around coffee farms, to helping farmers divest from cultivating coca plants to growing coffee. “Facilities on small farms are very precarious,” Bueno noted. “In order to maintain quality, our job is to make it possible for these farmers to make investments in their equipment.”
Even though the crops are, by necessity, grown far away from St. Louis, there’s a locavore spirit to buying direct trade coffee, tea or chocolate, at least because small ventures here and small producers far away have a shared desire to work against the tide of globalization to ensure worker security and ecological sustainability. These are the “ways around the edges,” said Carey, that can make possible the sustainability of small farms abroad and small businesses here: “Farmers have the same pressures that we roasters do: to put food on the table.”
Askinosie Chocolate, 417.862.9900, askinosie.com
Big Heart Tea, 314.875.0040, bighearttea.com
Blueprint Coffee, 6225 Delmar Blvd., University City, 314.266.6808; 4206 Watson Road, St. Louis, blueprintcoffee.com
Honeymoon Chocolates, hmchocolates.com
Kaldi’s Coffee, multiple locations, kaldiscoffee.com
La Cosecha Coffee Roasters, 7360 Manchester Road, Maplewood, lacosechacoffee.com
Sump Coffee, 3700 S. Jefferson Ave., St. Louis, 917.412.5670, sumpcoffee.com