Green coffee buyers, there are many reasons why you might want to visit a coffee farm or mill. Perhaps you want to do direct trade, understand more about the coffee and producers’ story, or see the quality control and production practices for yourself.
Whatever your motives, you also want to make sure this trip is effective. It’s an investment of your time and money – and the producers’. So I spoke to Henrik Rylev of the coffee importers John Burton Ltd., New Zealand, and Will Valverde, Senior Producer Support Officer of Fairtrade Australia New Zealand, to find out their advice. From equipment to itineraries, here’s what they advise.
Spanish Version: Consejos Prácticos para Visitar Fincas Cafeteras & Beneficios
Experiencing coffee processing at a mill. Credit: Fairtrade Australia New Zealand
Know Your Aims
Will tells me it’s important that buyers and roasters understand what they want to achieve by going on this trip. He suggests aims like identifying new coffees, enhancing relations, or just meeting farmers and seeing the processes.
He works with producers in Papua New Guinea and East Timor (as well as coming from a coffee-farming background in Costa Rica). He says, “Based on this understanding [of a buyer’s aims], we would work with the communities to work out what would be possible to see or do.”
If you know your aims, you’ll be able to plan the best possible itinerary. You don’t want to travel around the world to visit farms, only to return home and think “I wish I’d also seen the wet mill” or “I wish I’d asked the cooperative manager about environmental sustainability.”
Similarly, farm trips are normally short in duration. If you end up being taken to see things that don’t support your goal, you can waste both your time and the producer’s.
Is your aim to meet producers or taste new coffee? Credit: Fairtrade Australia New Zealand
Understand What to Look For
Henrik makes two to three trips to farms every year. He explains that recognizing quality takes time and experience, and the best way to learn is simply to do.
However, depending on your purpose, there may be certain things you want to look for. Will tells me, “A lot of our work [in Papua New Guinea] of late has been around helping farmers to establish good farming practices (pruning, replanting etc) and to move from just harvesting coffee as a cash crop to one that can provide a livelihood.
“We will look at the different stages of production, from pulping, dry or wet fermentation, washing methods and drying processes to see if there is consistency across the group,” he continues, “and that knowledge is being shared and replicated and that the best practices are being used to get the best results. Depending on the bean varieties, micro-climate, etc. these practices vary.”
Because you’ve established your aims, you can outline what to look for. For example, if you want to identify new coffee, you might be looking for certain cup scores, farm practices, or ways to export that coffee.
Coffee processing in Papua New Guinea. Credit: Josh Griggs
“No questions are stupid. You may only have one time to ask in person,” Henrik tells me.
This is especially true of growing practices and equipment maintenance and cleanliness. “It is perfectly okay to politely address something if you’re unsure of the standards. But that rarely happens,” he says.
He also reminds me that, unless you’re doing direct trade, there will be other people you can ask. “You’ll likely be working with a cooperative or Fairtrade organization that can help you understand the process.”
One of John Burton Ltd.’s major producers in Papua New Guinea, for example, is a cooperative that has over 2,600 members. Although it would be impossible to meet with all the farmers, Henrik asks the co-op leadership if he has any questions.
Drying coffee in Papua New Guinea. Credit: Josh Griggs
Consider Your Equipment
Will tells me, “Whilst there is a lot of expensive equipment you could take on a trip to origin (for example, a portable coffee roaster to do sample roasting), it really depends on what you are looking to achieve from the trip.”
If looking for coffee to buy, you’ll want to cup it. Consider what equipment you’ll need for this. Alternatively, Will recommends, “When I travel, I always pack an AeroPress and hand grinder – lightweight, easy to use, and great results for coffee on the go.
“It’s important to be flexible, adaptable and practical. I will often try coffees using local traditional roasting methods, which can sometimes yield interesting results which you may not have come across otherwise.”
An AeroPress is easy to carry when you’re visiting coffee farms. Credit: Ed Villamaria
Respect Cultural Differences
Henrik recalls that one of the first times he visited Papua New Guinea, he was thrown off guard by the cultural differences. “It’s not like the Western lifestyles we know,” he explains.
The people he met were incredibly happy, but their lives were very different from what he was used to. It was difficult to accept that, even though the living conditions weren’t the same as his, the community was truly happy and he shouldn’t attempt to alter their way of living.
Will tells me that he also takes this into account when planning trips. “As we work a lot in the Pacific region, we also take careful consideration of local cultural norms and traditions and the political environment before planning our trips.”
Visiting coffee farms in Papua New Guinea. Credit: Josh Griggs
Henrik tells me about a trip he took to Santa Marta in North Colombia. “It was this incredible indigenous area, very mountainous. The estate was over five hours of driving through the mountainous terrain, then at least a two hour walk. When we arrived we met with the spiritual leader of the area.”
Henrik says they would have never attempted such a journey without a guide, someone who knows the area and the people. Without building relationships and meeting people in person, meetings such as these would not be possible.
“Communication is so important in our industry, and it is easier and better when you know who you are working with.”
Take the time to make connections. If you know someone already operating in the region, ask them if they can introduce you to people.
Additionally, remember that not everyone will communicate in the same medium as in your home country. For example, many Latin American producers prefer to use WhatsApp instead of email.
Roasters visit coffee producers in Papua New Guinea. Credit: Josh Griggs
A visit to coffee farms and mills can be a great opportunity. You can discover new coffees, strengthen relationships with producers, understand more of the realities of coffee production, make recommendations for improving quality, and more.
But to ensure you get the most out of your trip, be prepared. Planning, communication, and cultural respect will go a long way towards establishing a long-lasting relationships with producers.
Written by Danielle Kilbride.
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