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The Origin-Focused Preview of SCAA 2015 in Seattle

seattle washington convention center

The Washington State Convention Center, home of the 2015 SCAA Event. Photo by Ewen Roberts.

By Michael Sheridan of CRS Coffeelands Blog

The 27th SCAA Event opens one month from today, which means it’s time for my annual SCAA preview and picks for the show’s best origin content.

This year’s preview, which ran a little longer than last year’s, is thematic in focus. If you are in a hurry, or prefer a chronological format that presents the best origin lectures on a session-by-session basis, download the summary version of this post and bring it with you to The Event.

CLIMATE CHANGE: THE sustainability issue for coffee and beyond

There is only one lecture in the SCAA Event lineup this year that addresses the challenge of climate change head-on. “Coffee and Climate Change: Farmers, NGOs and Industry Perspectives for Strategies and Mitigation” (Saturday, 11 April—10:30 AM—room 304—Spanish translation) features the familiar dual focus on both adaptation strategies and technologies that mitigate the impacts of coffee on climate change. Panelists include the great Rick Peyser, currently with Lutheran World Relief after nearly 30 years with Keurig Green Mountain, Nespresso’s Jerome Pérez, Jeffrey Hayward from Rainforest Alliance and Aquiles Espinosa of the Nicaraguan coop UCPCO.

Climate change, of course, is no longer a stand-alone issue. Rather, it is one that we must address in the context of every aspect of our operations since it has profound implications for everything that happens in coffee. The observation may be cliché, but it is no less true for its repetition. From breeding in the lab and agronomy on the farm to processing at the mill to sensory analysis and sourcing decisions in the marketplace, we need to climate-proof our supply chain.

The SCAA Event addresses the implications of climate change obliquely in other lectures (profiled below), including those exploring the varieties of coffee that can thrive in a context of climate change and the implications for cup quality, yields and farm efficiency. We need to collaborate to address the implications of climate change in these and other facets of the coffee trade. I don’t think it is hyperbole to suggest that the future of specialty coffee — and our species — lies in the balance.


There has been a lot of hand-wringing in specialty coffee in recent years over the economics of the coffee trade, especially for the smallholders who constitute a majority of world’s coffee growers. This year’s Event offers at least three lectures that explore issues of smallholder profitability from different perspectives; the Event’s organizers thoughtfully scheduled them during successive sessions, meaning that participants focused on this issue can attend all three of them.

  • CST
    I will be facilitating the first of these: “What Difference Does Variety Make? Notes from a Sensory Trial in Colombia” (Friday, 10 April–10:30–room 304). When we began our work on the Borderlands Coffee Project in Colombia, the country was in the midst of a massive wave of renovation in which traditional coffee varieties made way for Castillo, a high-yielding disease-resistant variety developed by Colombia’s coffee research institute Cenicafé. Castillo was only released in 2005 but already represents the single most common coffee variety in Colombia. The Colombia Sensory Trial (CST) is a research initiative designed to explore the implications of Colombia’s dramatic varietal shift on cup quality and the market options available to its growers. The results will inform the thinking of growers, policymakers and industry. Mark Lundy of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture  (CIAT) provides data on grower perspectives and economics; Tim Schilling of World Coffee Research explains the research protocols; Intelligentsia’s Geoff Watts will share his perceptions of Colombia’s varieties; and Luis Fernando Samper of Colombia’s Federación Nacional de Cafeteros explains what the Trial’s results mean for more than 500,000 coffee growers.
  • COP
    The next day, the conversation shifts from CST to COP–costs of production–in the lecture “Cost to Produce vs. Price: Producers’ Narrow Margins” (Saturday, 11 April at 09:00 in room 304). This lecture will shine a light on the issue of what it costs growers to produce their coffee – an issue that is every bit as important to their profitability as what they earn for it, but has been overshadowed by growing attention to auction prices and the (excellent) trend among roasters toward greater transparency in publishing FOB prices. The discussion will draw on quantitative analysis of COSA’s expansive database (17,000 farms in 12 countries) and two smaller data collection efforts: one undertaken by London-based Integrity Research in connection with Long Miles Coffee sourcing operations in Burundi and another involving our collaboration with CIAT to gather economic data through our Borderlands project in Colombia.
  • CoE
    Finally, “Economics of Quality and Price: Insights from CoE Auction Data” (Saturday, 11 April at 10:30 in room 202) delivers a nuanced analysis of the relationship between cup quality and prices paid to growers – one that goes beyond the general positive relationship between high cupping scores and high prices to deliver more actionable insights. For example, is that positive relationship linear, or do returns to quality diminish? If so, at what point and how much? A collaboration between Adam Wilson, who works in sales at Thrive Farmers Coffee, and Norbert Wilson, an economist at Auburn University, begins to quantify the return on 1-point increases in cupping scores at different points on the scale. This line of inquiry has enormous potential to inform decision-making on the farm, where growers are making decisions about how to allocate their time and resources, what varieties to plant, and how to position themselves vis-a-vis the market. Less guesswork and more data-driven insight in this context regarding the return on a 1-point increase in cupping scores would be well-received.

Both the COP and CoE conversations are facilitated by Ruth Ann Church of Artisan Coffee Imports, who is well placed for the task: she sources single-origin coffees and has studied with some well-regarded agricultural economists at Michigan State.

“NEW” CHALLENGES: Women, workers and youth

These issues are hardly new, of course—they are at least as old as agriculture, and in the case of gender equity, older still. But they have been framed in new ways and acquired new urgency for specialty coffee as a result.


Participants interested in the issue of gender equity in the coffee trade should go to their calendars now to block out the morning of Saturday, 11 April. At 09:00, the SCAA presents the leaders of Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union, winner of the 2015 SCAA Sustainability Award for developing the participatory Gender Action Learning methodology for gender equity and women’s empowerment. The GALS approach they developed in Uganda has been replicated across the border in DRC, throughout East Africa and beyond, with positive short-term impacts on women’s participation and empowerment, and untold future returns: thousands of girls in the coffeelands are reimagining their own futures on the basis of the examples set by their mothers, aunts and female neighbors.

At 10:30, an impressive array of sustainability leaders gathers to explore the impacts of increased gender equality on a range of important development outcomes, including income, food security, family health, education and natural resource conservation. Panelists include Colleen Anunu, formerly of Gimme! Coffee, Konrad Brits of Falcon Coffees, CQI Gender Equity Initiative lead Kimberly Easson, Lydia Mbevi-Nderitu of the non-profit ACDI/VOCA and Mars Drinks sustainability director Samantha Veide.

Both lectures will be held in room 305 and include simultaneous translation to Spanish.


Most coffee is picked by workers, but you would hardly know it if you have been tuning into the sustainability conversation in specialty coffee over the past decade, which has focused overwhelmingly on smallholder farmers. Last year’s Event marked something of a watershed — the first farmworker lecture since I started attending The SCAA Event in 2004.

“The Situation of Farmworkers in Coffee: Challenges and Opportunities for the Specialty Coffee Industry” (Friday, 10 April—09:00—room 305—Spanish translation available) picks up where last year’s conversation left off and continues to build the kind of broad awareness that is necessary precondition to action. Two of last year’s panelists return in 2015—Erik Nicholson of the iconic United Farm Workers and Miguel Zamora, who helped design Fair Trade USA’s estate certification and led that organization’s farmworker empowerment agenda before transitioning last year to UTZ Certified. The third panelist is Wilbert Flinterman from Fairtrade International, which addresses issues of farmworker empowerment in value chains including banana, cacao and flowers, but whose certification is not presently open to the medium-to-large coffee estates that generate most of the demand for coffee farmworkers.


Last year in this article in Daily Coffee News, I explained that everywhere I travel in the coffeelands, I hear a familiar lament: Young people are leaving the farm to pursue opportunities in the cities or overseas. I also suggested that an industry that doesn’t invest in the next generation of coffee farmers is like a baseball franchise that doesn’t invest in its farm system — both can probably expect a grim future. In “The Young and the Restless: Youth, Rural Communities and the Future of the Coffee Sector” (Sunday, 12 April—10:30—room 304), veterans from the coffee, banking and non-profit sectors explore the tenuous relationship between youth and coffee farming and identify promising approaches for making the coffee trade appealing and profitable for the next generation of coffee growers.


As an international development professional working in a context of poverty, hunger, conflict and climate change, I am loathe to write of “solutions” to the big challenges we face.

But as an international development professional focused on practical solutions and tools that have proven to be effective in addressing those challenges, it is hard NOT to get excited about “how-to” lectures, financial incentives for conservation of natural resources, programs to make business practices more sustainable or successful efforts to bring positive change to scale. Here are four lectures that hit those marks:

  • How-To
    “How to Mitigate Coffee Price Volatility: A Case Study”
    is offered twice over the course of The Event, once in English (Friday, 10 April—09:00—room 204) and once in Spanish (Sunday, 12 April—10:30—room 302) by Julio Sera of INTL FC Stone, which sets the standard in farmer-friendly risk-mitigation strategies in a context in which increased price volatility is a source of significant market risk for growers.
  • Aligning economic incentives and environmental conservation
    While it may not be a surprise that smallholder farmers regularly rank their acute short-term economic needs (food, shoes, medicine, school) as higher priorities than the longer-term implications of their natural resource management strategies, it is nonetheless a source of considerable concern. Farming families that degrade their natural resources for short-term economic gain ultimately undermine their own longer-term economic prospects. PES, or payments for ecosystem services, has been hailed in recent years for its promise to deliver financial incentives that align short and long-term thinking, but PES schemes have not delivered on the scale their advocates had hoped. “Understanding Payments for Environmental Services as Value Creators and Brand Differentiators” (Friday, 10 April—10:30—room 302) addresses challenges and opportunities associated with this potentially game-changing approach to aligning economic and environmental incentives.
  • Innovation for sustainability
    “Sustainability in Practice: How Sustainability Professionals in Specialty Turn Good Ideas into Better Business Practices”
    (Friday, 10 April—09:00—room 303), I have the pleasure of facilitating a conversation involving five sustainability professionals regarding their efforts to innovate for sustainability in some of specialty coffee’s most important supply chains: Sarah Beaubien of Farmer Brothers, S&D Coffee and Tea’s Tracy Ging, Kelly Goodejohn from Starbucks, Counter Culture’s Kim Elena Ionescu and Shauna Mohr of Volcafe.
  • Taking innovation to scale
    Finally, “Starbucks Journey to 100% Ethically Sourced Coffee” (Saturday, 11 April—09:00—room 303) offers a welcome opportunity to hear about the specialty coffee giant’s strategy for achieving the audacious goal it set for itself back in 2008 — source 100% of its coffee ethically by 2015 — from the intellectual and material authors of that strategy. Bambi Semroc of Conservation International — a longtime Starbucks partner and co-author of its C.A.F.E. Practices standards — joins colleagues from Starbucks leading the charge on sustainability all along the supply chain, in functions including agronomy (Carlos Rodríguez), trading (Tim Scharrer), quality control (Andrew Linnemann) and ethical sourcing (Kelly Goodejohn). While few of us ever achieved 100% of anything, Starbucks is well north of 95% of its goal — an extraordinary feat when you consider that the company sources 400 million pounds of coffee a year from a supply chain that includes more than 1 million people.

(Download an expanded version of this review HERE for a chronological listing of times, locations and overviews of the best sustainability lectures at the 2015 edition of The SCAA Event.)