Note: I wrote this blog post before Christmas 2020 and never got around to publishing it at the time.
My coffee reading has thus far taken me to many interesting places, from the processes through which cherries go to become green coffee to how roasting works, but I’ve never read much about farm operations. Without coffee farmers who devote their time to growing speciality coffee, I would not be drinking such good coffee. I’ve always had a great respect for the farmers at origin. Coffeeography opened my eyes more to what goes on at an average coffee farm.
Coffeeography was written by Stephen Leighton, a green coffee buyer for Has Bean, a U.K.-based coffee roaster. This book is unlike any other I’ve read because it is a series of interviews. Leighton talks to farmers from all across the world, from India to Columbia, sharing how he built relationships with these farmers and how they go about producing speciality coffee.
At the start of each chapter, there is a brief description of the coffee industry in the countries where the farmers he interviews are based. I learned a lot from these descriptions. I learned that Costa Rican farmers often have their own micro mills, small mills on their own property. These reduce dependence on central mills where coffee is often mixed together and therefore loses some of its traceability. I learned that Bolivia is a growing coffee producer, although the country is suffering from coca growing, a cash crop that has an adverse affect on the soil on which it is grown.
Leighton interviews dozens of farmers. In many of these interviews, he talks about how he met the farmers. It is rare to get such an insight into green coffee buying. Many of Leighton’s partnerships were made through exporters or importers. For instance, Leighton met Dr. Brian Gakunga of Kenya through an importer. This was because Kenya has a unique auctioning system which Leighton struggled to use to foster long-term relationships.
Leighton also developed relationships with farmers through Cup of Excellence competitions. Ernesto Menendez of El Salvador won the country’s Cup of Excellence competition and met Leighton there. This makes me think that the Cup of Excellence is not just about buying coffee. It’s a way for green coffee buyers and roasters to discover new farmers with whom they can build relationships.
Throughout this book, it is clear that Leighton believes in long-term relationships. He has had trouble with a few farmers but he has continued to support them if their quality has improved. In one case, Leighton helped a farmer pay for the infrastructure they needed to improve their quality. Leighton, in many instances, pays a premium price for coffee that cups over a certain grade; this incentive encourages farmers to focus even more on quality. I get the sense that Leighton is not only a business partner with the farmers in the book: he is friends with these farmers. Leighton has played football with a few of them; he has exchanged beers and rum with others.
The interviews in this book paint a collective picture that there is no average “coffee farm.” Some farmers got into the business after working other jobs. In some cases, farmers had a family coffee farm, went to study, and then came back to the coffee farm. Everyone has their own story. I did learn that a lot of farmers were of the second or further generation in their family. One farmer was a fifth-generation coffee farmer. Many farmers remarked on how their parents and grandparents helped them learn what they know about speciality coffee; knowledge does not just come from classrooms but through the best practices built over years of growing coffee.
There were common challenges among farmers. A big challenge that came up was climate change. As the climate changes, rainfall becomes less predictable; this changes when coffee plants flower and how they can be processed. Leaf rust and other diseases were a problem. I learned that one farmer had concerns because their neighbouring farms had been abandoned which means that disease was more likely to spread through them. I never thought that much about how farming is a community effort: if farmers do not collectively try to tackle disease, it will spread quicker.
Most of the coffee farmers in this book spoke to some extent about community. One farmer used money from a Cup of Excellence competition to invest in a community football pitch which doubles as a drying bed (workers are usually so busy during processing season that they could not play, according to the book). Many farmers wanted to give more benefits to the people who worked on their farms if they were given a “blank check” with which they could do anything, which was part of a question Leighton asked to most farmers.
This book opened my eyes to experimentation on coffee farms. One coffee farmer made their own equipment. Another coffee farmer, based in Guatemala, started to process coffee using the honey method which is not usually used in the country. But it is experimentation that lets farmers distinguish themselves. All of the farmers in this book appeared to have a devotion to quality. Many talked about using different varietals, prised for either their cup quality or robustness.
In some of Leighton’s interviews, it was made clear that farmers often depend on their family for help. The extent to which families are involved on farms differs. Some farmers asked their children to help now and again; some children returned to the farm later to make sure that production could sustain. This book also interviewed women who worked on coffee farms, such as Daisy Fallas, which made me appreciate the diversity of people working in coffee.
Coffeeography is accompanied, as the title suggests, with excellent photography. I could see the farmers who were growing coffee. I saw how some coffee was processed. I was taken away by the vast areas in which coffee was grown; some farms can be massive. This is yet another point of diversity. Some farmers own one farm; these can vary in size. Other farmers owned multiple farms. Some farmers even owned their own mills which gave them more control over their coffee and assists in maintaining the traceability of the beans.
I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in coffee. It’s one thing to say that farmers grow coffee; it’s another to read about how they do it. This book made me appreciate all that goes into coffee farming. For many people, it is their life’s work, and involves adapting to difficult issues. Climate change and disease were only two of many issues mentioned; farmers need money to invest in infrastructure, some countries are safer than others. The photography in this book gave the words a visual edge, often with Leighton posing somewhere in the photograph.