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Organic coffee - off the soapbox and onto middle ground.

When it comes to organic coffees, it seems that there isn't much in the way of middle ground. You either believe in them wholeheartedly, in which case you are probably sporting Birkenstocks, or you believe that they are just another marketing phenomenon and hardly worth the extra money (and you own a pair of wing tips).

According to a certain curmudgeon's point of view (one who has been involved in organic coffees for over 10 years), organic coffees represent an opportunity in an otherwise depressed market to add value to a commodity that is otherwise in the doldrums, and as such is welcome. He cites the well-known example of flavored coffees in the early 1970's as an excellent example of this phenomenon. While not specifically created in response to a low market, organic coffee fits the bill as a way of adding value; always at great expense to everyone as it makes its way from pristine fields to a politically correct cup.

But, there are those horror stories of the organic industry, where the value is added via merely wistful assertions. Indeed, there are stories of coffee farmers who, after having had their farms certified as organic, then become the leading, if somewhat clandestine, buyer in their growing area, given their ability to buy regular coffee at low prices and to sell it as organic for a premium. Given the tremendous differential in prices between "regular" and organic, especially in this clay tragic market, you would think that every coffee farmer in the world would be farming organically.

Dave Griswold of Aztec Harvests, a co-operative of small coffee farmers in Mexico, agrees wholeheartedly, "The outrageous prices commanded by organics creates a dangerous inequity."

Chris Shepherd of Clean Foods assumed a similarly stern tone when questioned about the price differential, "I'm personally concerned right now with the coffee that is on the market. I'm concerned that the organic coffee program is not moving in quite the right direction. It should be the farmer's desire to use the system because he believes in it, not because he's going to get more money for it. The premium should be an incentive for maintaining organic methods."

One of the reasons organic will always support a higher price is that, through the use of organic methods, the farmer is giving up 15% of his yield. But, the situation might very well be in the process of correcting itself. According to every person I spoke with in the industry, the supply of organics is increasing, so prices should reach a more acceptable, and less dangerous, level. However, don't count on it ever becoming cheap.

The chief problem with the whole issue of organic coffee, for both the faithful and the nonbelievers, is that it is extremely difficult, in most growing regions of the world, to grow coffee organically while attaining yields that justify anywhere near what it costs to produce. And, the curmudgeon tells me, with all the delicacy of an original Grim Brothers fairy tale, of farmers who (with foolhardy sincerity) essentially watched their farms wither and die as a result of practicing what they believed were good organic farming methods.

The whole concept of organically grown coffee produced in amounts that make commercial sense is, for many in the industry, an oxymoron. I would reluctantly have to agree. Fortunately for everyone in the industry, the world loves coffee, and unfortunately for the earth, organic farming methods produce far less coffee than is demanded by the coffee than the world. The coffee tree, in its natural state, is genetically disposed to conserve its energy and eke out a living in barren soil with infrequent and sparse rainfall, which means that its natural harvests are small, smaller, and nonexistent. Coffee produced "commercially" results from trees which are overfed and overwatered to produce larger harvests, much in the same way geese are force-fed to produce unnaturally large livers. Not a fan of foie gras and other such culinary silliness, I would argue that allowing the coffee tree to produce cherries in the amount that it finds natural could very well produce better tasting coffee. Instead of diffusing the tree's vitality through heavily laden branches, all the flavor components would be distilled in those few, but wonderful, cherries. However, I am the first to admit that I have not cupped a big enough sampling of organics to prove this true, and in those I have slurped, none have knocked my socks off the way one aged Tanzanian Peaberry did a few years ago, or the way a recent sample of an estate grown Brazilian did.

Ironically, producing coffee with strictly organic means - using absolutely no fertilizers or pesticides which are not derived from available naturally occurring materials - is more technically challenging an using the modern chemical formulations. This is the first of many reasons why it is so expensive. It costs a lot more to hire a dozen workers to go out and weed the field, then it does to hire one guy and give him a sprayer and some chemical herbicide. But the unexamined costs of the sprayer are, too often, a polluted water supply, increased illness among workers, and soil depletion.

There are other ways in which organics are beginning to make sense, even to the skeptics. To begin with, the whole issue of cup quality is now being pursued vigorously by those in the industry like Clean Foods, Elan International, Aztec Harvests, and Caracol Co.

"What is a mistake," says Griswold," is people buying organic coffee as a pity purchase. They should demand high quality and keep those people in the trade whose farms can support high quality coffee. This may cause the farmers in the lower regions to drop out of the market, but we believe it would be a real tragedy in regions where great coffee is grown to have trees being pulled out to make room for more profitable crops."

Another sensitive issue for those outside of the organic interests is the inherent contradiction in the marketing and distribution of organic coffees by certifying organizations which are compensated by the entities that they are supposed to be regulating.

When a certifier pays a site visit to a tropical coffee producing area, the travel, hotel, meals, and of course the per diem, are paid by the farmer desiring the certification. In the curmudgeon's view, the real business of the certifying organization is selling certificates asserting that the farm practices organic methods. Hence, the organizations are not likely to be rehired if they don't deliver the product they are selling. Thus, it is rare for a farmer, who has taken the trouble to hire a certifying organization, to be denied a certificate. In all fairness, the farmer would not likely take the risk of advancing the required thousands of dollars if he were not likely to pass muster. In any event, it is seldom that the relationship between inspector and farmer is adversarial, a point that makes the curmudgeon think that a look-the-other-way, you-need-to-work-on-this tenor is very often the order of the day when these two get together.

My contacts in the organic industry unanimously, and rather surprisingly, don't take offense at this idea. Shepherd said that he would be the first to admit, "There is room for improvement in the certification process, and we need to have more consistent standards as to what organic means. For instance, it would be to everyone's benefit if organizations like OCIA and Demeter could apply the stricter, more on-hand practices of a big five accounting firm. The situation we find ourselves in now with certification is that the inspector visits the farm on a yearly basis and stays a day or two. This, of course, opens up the certification process for questioning."

As Shepherd points out, however, to answer all the doubts of one like the curmudgeon would require a live-in inspector who oversaw the picking, processing, and bagging of the coffee. Needless to say, organics would quickly become a thing of the past.

As Mark Perkins of Elan International points out, "The costs involved in the certification process to legitimize the program is immense. There is also a tremendous amount of paperwork such as 10-page questionnaires to be filled out by every farmer. We keep an audit trail that goes back to each specific bean in each and every bag, from seed to cup, so to speak." In other words, this is not the smoothly paved road to riches that skeptics might think it is, it is a lot of hard work.

For importers of organic coffees, the safest route, and the one that allows you to sleep at night, is knowing the farmer. For Clean Foods this means ascertaining that the farmer has plans and ideas for soil maintenance and is convinced that the organic system is part of his long-term plan. "If the guy is full of it," says Chris Shepherd, "you can tell this in a short period of time."

For Tom Handman of Caracol Co. this has meant making the farmer a partner. Handman entered a joint venture with Jorge Ricardez who is a third generation coffee producer. This particular coffee estate was first planted with coffee nearly 40 years ago, and has been maintained since then without any agricultural chemicals. The same man is ultimately responsible for everything from the nursery seedlings to the final harvest, a point both Handman and Shepherd feel strongly enhances their confidence in the coffee. Meanwhile, for buyers of organic coffees, the latin phrase caveat emptor is still the rule of the day. Dave Griswold of Aztec Harvests is quick to suggest that "The buyer should look at the contacts his organic coffee agency has, and examine the integrity of the company. People should feel free to ask as many questions as they need to feel confident about what they are calling organic."

The final point that must be addressed by everyone from importer to retailer is how to handle this specialized coffee within a specialty industry" In the curmudgeon's camp, is the long-held opinion that being in the organic coffee business requires a roaster to essentially set up an entirely new product line with its own distinct marketing and distribution. It is true that the customers, who are interested in buying organic coffee are, not surprisingly, often found in health and natural food stores as opposed to regular specialty coffee stores and grocery chains.

Additionally, the average specialty coffee retailer is not interested in offering a product that essentially asserts, by its mere presence, that every other coffee in the store is laden with carcinogenic, environment-ravaging chemicals. Mark Perkins addresses this issue, "We have to face on a daily basis, what does our coffee say about other coffees. I believe that the key is education. In my opinion, organic coffee should represent one selection of many. If the consumer decides to buy organic, great; if not, that's fine too. Not offering organic because of what it might say about the rest of a line is a cop-out. There are ways of marketing organics where everyone wins, and the bottom line is that the consumer should have those choices. The important thing is to make sure that the quality is there and that related issues are addressed. I believe that when organic coffee becomes a more viable option this may be all that some people choose to sell, but right now the retailer would be pretty limited."

Caracol's Tom Handman may have found the most logical and ingenious approach to this problem yet, "We sell Pluma Coixtepec for what it is, one of the extraordinary coffees of the world. It is an estate grown, meticulously handled coffee. We look at the La Minita[TM] plantation in Costa Rica for direction in how a coffee should be handled. It puts us in an interesting dilemma because we are deluged by orders from the organic quarters, but our primary drive has been to establish the product as an estate coffee. The certification is just gravy."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
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Author:Moore, Wendy Rasmussen
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:Organic coffee: a trend or a new tradition?
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