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by Jim Stewart, Guest Writer

The Death of Coffee Certification — Let’s Hope

Categories: 2012, MarchTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Author:

Editor’s Note: The ques­tion of the future need for social and envi­ron­men­tal cer­ti­fi­ca­tion – and their asso­ci­ated costs – is very much on peo­ples’ minds. Instead of the reg­u­lar “View” from us, we decided instead to devote this space, and much of the rest of this issue, to opin­ions from promi­nent mem­bers of our com­mu­nity. First off is Jim Stewart, co-founder of Seattle’s Best Coffee and one of our industry’s early pio­neers in how to do “spe­cialty.” Farther on we hear from Bill Fishbein, co-founder of Coffee Kids and Founder of the Coffee Trust; Sandra Marquardt joins in sup­port­ing Organic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion; and Fair Trade – USA™ par­tic­i­pates with a Q&A about their resent pol­icy changes. We hope you enjoy this exchange of opin­ions.
Kerri & Miles

In my opin­ion, cer­ti­fi­ca­tions in the cof­fee indus­try are a crutch used by roast­ers and to some degree, by pro­duc­ers as well. It facil­i­tates them not tak­ing the time to get on an air­plane, fly­ing to a pro­ducer coun­try, and form­ing their own close per­sonal rela­tion­ship with a cof­fee pro­ducer. Why should a pro­ducer pay a fee to some cer­ti­fi­ca­tion group, plus then an exporter and an importer each pay another fee to be in the pro­gram, and finally the roaster pays yet more fees, so some stranger can ver­ify their story? Why not tell it your­self? Surely, your cus­tomers will trust you! Let me tell you why. You get the lit­tle sticker so when Mrs. Housewife comes in and says I want Fair Trade, shade grown, rain for­est friendly, etc. etc. etc. cof­fee, Mr. Roaster can point to his lit­tle sticker or maybe 2, 3, or 4 lit­tle stick­ers and say, “yup” we got it lady. What a cop out!

Let’s back up
I live on Vashon Island in Washington State. A very unique place, in fact I expect the sec­ond com­ing to occur there. With lots of cre­ative, sen­si­tive, organic, earth friendly, results ori­ented, opin­ion­ated types of folks. They are on the cut­ting edge of many trends that are way ahead of their time.

So, early one morn­ing in Costa Rica watch­ing CNN, sip­ping my farm’s wild har­vest typ­ica cof­fee, on the screen appears a ring of 24 naked les­bians toe to toe form­ing a “cir­cle of peace” on the cold wet rocks of a Vashon Island beach. It was the first pub­lic nation­ally tele­vised protest of the Iraq inva­sion. As I said these Vashonites are the lead­ers of many trends.

I would say, it was maybe 5 or 6 years ago that some of these same peo­ple, pri­mar­ily the Vashon organic pro­duce farm­ers said “NO”! NO MORE, to organic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Why, they said, should we pay a total stranger in New York City who may not have as much as a flower pot in his or her win­dow a fee that says to my cus­tomers that I am an organic farmer? Further. I know my cus­tomers and they know me. They are wel­come to visit the farm and see first hand what my farm­ing prac­tices are. See my chil­dren play­ing in the fields and know for sure that it is safe. They can choose to trust me the farmer, their neigh­bor and not rely on the word of a total stranger. This is hard to argue with in itself and we have not even touched on the added cost to the con­sumer for this ser­vice. This cost, when push comes to shove, is meet­ing with high resis­tance at the con­sumer level. Fact is in my 40 years at SBC the cus­tomer never was will­ing to pay for all the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion costs and much of it was born by the company.

Several years ago, I stood up, totally out of char­ac­ter, and stated the above at a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion sym­po­sium in Costa Rica’s Sintercafe. My point being that I pre­dicted the end of the cof­fee cer­ti­fi­ca­tion folly in the next five years based on the actions of the Vashon Island organic pro­duce farm­ers. The room, mostly made up of pro­duc­ers and roaster retail­ers plus 6 to 8 of the var­i­ous cer­ti­fi­ca­tion groups exploded in applause.

I hate to com­plain if I can­not offer an alter­na­tive or a solu­tion. I went on to explain that I, in 1977 as a tiny break-even-at-best cof­fee roaster retailer got on a plane and trav­eled through­out Central and South America vis­it­ing cof­fee exporters and pro­duc­ers and how that trip lead to buy­ing directly from pro­duc­ing coun­tries (always thru exporters). I formed per­sonal busi­ness rela­tion­ships and friend­ships that I still keep today. I spoke directly to farm­ers about my con­cerns and rec­om­men­da­tions with regard to the envi­ron­ment, tra­di­tional prepa­ra­tion, the vari­ety of tree, social well­be­ing, etc. etc. etc. You see I was the buyer offer­ing to buy their prod­uct at a pre­mium when my sug­ges­tions were fol­lowed. I was not from some cer­ti­fy­ing orga­ni­za­tion charg­ing for my ser­vice, and leav­ing the farmer with a dream that buy­ers would be clam­or­ing for their cof­fee and pay­ing mag­nif­i­cent prices because they had some stamp of approval. I went on to explain how these rela­tion­ships lead to the for­ma­tion of The Vashon Island Coffee Foundation (the sec­ond best kept secret in the cof­fee indus­try). Thru this foun­da­tion we returned some of the inter­na­tional value of the cof­fee we pur­chased directly to cof­fee pro­duc­ing com­mu­ni­ties in many coun­tries but in par­tic­u­lar to Santiago de Atitlan in Guatemala. In that com­mu­nity, we built two schools, a water sys­tem, a road, and a clinic. You see we did that because we thought we should, because it was right, and not because it was a mar­ket­ing strat­egy. You guys can do it too, you can, and I know you will, in time, just like those Vashon Island pro­duce farm­ers did.

The mod­er­a­tor then gave the cer­ti­fy­ing guys a chance for rebut­tal and I will never ever for­get what Chris Willy of The Rain Forest Alliance said! “We don’t want you build­ing schools!” I was so shocked I could not respond. “‘Scuse me ‘scuse me, what did you just say?” I was so stunned that I never did go to him for clar­i­fi­ca­tion. We were so proud of the work we did, those projects changed lives, and they were the great­est projects. What could he have pos­si­bly have meant?

I made these com­ments after I had sold SBC and was very clear then as I am now that these are my per­sonal feel­ings and have noth­ing what­so­ever to do with cur­rent SBC pol­icy, sup­pos­ing they have any policy.

I more or less for­got about it, went on about my busi­ness of enjoy­ing life and then about three years ago I began help­ing two roast­ers, one on Vashon Island and the other on Whidbey Island buy cof­fee directly from pro­duc­ing coun­tries. These roast­ers are con­tin­u­ing my per­sonal rela­tion­ships and mak­ing them their own. They have trav­eled to the farms that sup­ply their cof­fee to wit­ness first hand the ded­i­ca­tion and pas­sion. They also tes­tify to their own com­mit­ments, pas­sion, and appre­ci­a­tion for the producer’s effort. The roast­ers use the expe­ri­ence to edu­cate their cus­tomers thereby sup­port­ing and jus­ti­fy­ing the value and price of the prod­uct. This fur­ther cre­ates a great feel­ing for the cus­tomer for their con­tri­bu­tion to rais­ing the stan­dard of liv­ing for cof­fee work­ers in devel­op­ing countries.

You can imag­ine my glee when this January I asked the roast­ers how much cer­ti­fied organic cof­fee they wanted and they both said, “none!” Independent of one another they both said we are drop­ping cer­ti­fied organic. “The gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions have become too dif­fi­cult, too expen­sive, and we do not need the aggra­va­tion. The vol­ume does not sup­port the headache and the cost. We are devel­op­ing our own pro­grams based on our trav­els and explain­ing this to our clients directly face to face, one on one. The folks like it bet­ter to be shar­ing with us our per­sonal expe­ri­ences and feel a real con­nec­tion to the cof­fee farm­ers. Quite hon­estly there has been a lot of resis­tance to the added cost of certification.”

Food for thought!

Jim Stewart, along with his brother David, founded Seattle’s Best Coffee within their ice cream par­lor called the Wet Whisker. Seattle’s Best grew to become one of the pre­em­i­nent spe­cialty cof­fee com­pa­nies world-wide. An early true believer in spe­cialty cof­fee, Stewart is truly one of our industry’s great­est luminaries.