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On Marketplace vs. Origin: ‘Like It or Not, We Are All in This Together’

coffee farmers in Africa sort beans

Creative Commons photo by Coffee Management

We spend a lot of editorial energy on this site covering issues related to origin, and more specifically, issues that affect the smallholder farmers on which the specialty coffee industry is entirely dependent.

Frequent Daily Coffee News contributor Michael Sheridan is personally and professionally invested in these issues as much as anyone in the industry, having spent the past 10-plus years working on behalf of Catholic Relief Services on numerous smallholder development projects throughout the South and Central Americas.

Reflecting on the recently released full schedule of this year’s SCAA Symposium, the April 23-24 annual seminar and workshop series that leads into the SCAA Event, Sheridan yesterday shared some interesting thoughts on the very concept of origin issues. From Sheridan’s CRS Coffeelands blog:

First, I want to acknowledge that the very idea of “origin issues” is largely artificial.  A construct of convenience. Or perhaps laziness. I use it in my SCAA previews because I need to help growers and partners and colleagues making their first visit to the event choose the lectures that will deliver most value for them now. Let’s face it, a lecture on wastewater treatment at the mill is clearly more relevant to growers than one on water titration at the café.  So in that context, the “origin issues” distinction has a certain utility.

But in reality, there are no “origin issues” and “marketplace issues,” only “coffee issues.” If we have learned anything over the past 10 years from our work in agroenterprise generally — and in coffee more specifically — it is this: what happens in the marketplace matters at origin and what happens at origin matters in the marketplace. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together. The essence of a supply chain is interdependence. A grower doesn’t need to know about water titration, but her fortunes are affected by how much the owner of the cafés serving her coffees know about it. And a café owner may not need to know the optimal level of pH for releasing treated wastewater back into local waterways, but her access to coffee that aligns with her corporate commitment to sustainability depends on the growers in her supply chain knowing it. So the proper distinction is not between origin issues and marketplace issues, but rather one of degree: how immediately relevant is this issue to me where I live and work?

Check out the full piece, including links to Sheridan’s other farmer-focused previews of SCAA 2014.