The second part of our continued interview from the February + March 2016 Issue of Barista Magazine with Intelligentsia’s Geoff Watts
When we had a chance to interview Intelligentsia Coffee‘s V.P. Geoff Watts about his history in the coffee industry for our February + March 2016 issue we were left with more of the exchange than we could fit on the page. (You can read the February + March issue e-pub online for free here, or you order a hard copy through our online store here.)
Yesterday we published the first part of the continued interview here. This is the second part of that extended interview.
Barista Magazine: What have been some of the most special projects you guys have done at Intelligentsia with your producer partners over the years?
Geoff Watts: If by special you mean most impactful, I’ll say the Extraordinary Coffee Workshop (ECW) is the most special by a long margin. It has delivered so many benefits to everyone involved, and has become so substantial that it has taken on a life of its own at this point.
By creating an active network of farmers, and taking the time each year to think and talk about coffee quality together as a group, we’ve unlocked some energy that has had a profound impact on our mutual success. The secret is synergy–when you get all of these talented coffee farmers together in one place to exchange ideas and strategies, amazing things happen.
We started doing this in 2009 in Colombia and have done it every year since in different places. Sometimes we bring in outside experts to share their knowledge, and often we just tap into all the collective wisdom that already exists within the group.
A lot of the power comes from the feeling of community that has developed–farmers from very distant countries and very different backgrounds have become good friends because of the ECW and are now actively communicating and helping each other throughout the year. Chasing quality can be a frustrating endeavor sometimes, but it becomes so much less so when you aren’t doing it in isolation, but as part of a global family of producers who are all climbing the same hill together. Making changes to the way you run your farm feels less risky and is less daunting when you know a lot of others who have already done it or are making those changes themselves and who can help guide you through the process. And seeing is believing–I would run around the world showing people pictures and explaining different farm systems, processing set-ups, and innovations that I’d seen in other places, but hearing about them is nothing like witnessing them firsthand.
One of the inspirations for ECW was that I wanted the farmers we worked with to have the same experiences I did, to travel to other countries and see things for themselves. So that’s what we do now–ECW is world tour for our Intelli farmer network. We go to a different country each year, check out examples of model farms and study techniques that everyone can take back home with them and put to use. But it isn’t limited to coffee growing–I am convinced that it is a huge advantage in this business of quality coffee to have a well-rounded skill set and perspective that extends beyond your core role in the supply chain. For that reason we’ve held some of the ECW’s here in the US, and focused on developing roasting, cupping, and barista skills.
One of my favorite memories from ECW is from 2012 in Chicago, when we spent two days working on extraction technique and espresso preparation, and then everyone divided up and went to pull shifts at our stores. It was kind of amazing, seeing all these farmers working the bar and serving coffees to customers. They took a lot from the experience, because it really helped give them an appreciation for how much detail we have to look after in order to optimize quality on our end as roasters and baristas, and in some small way it validated all of the extra efforts they make to produce quality at the farm. Some of them have put those new skills to even greater use–several of the farmers we work with now operate their own roasting and retail shops back home.
Other standout memories: When we held the ECW in Los Angeles we all went to visit a wine farm in Santa Barbara to learn about viticulture and draw some inspiration from expert winemakers. Some of the things we saw were shocking to most of the group, like the the idea that someone would purposely cut flowers from the vine and intentionally reduce their production in the hope of increasing quality. But it made sense in context.
Three years ago we went to Brazil and watched something similar, where farmers practiced Safra Zero and took chainsaws to whole blocks of coffee trees as part of a systematic, long-term agronomic strategy to maximize production efficiency. It was horrifying at first, but totally reasonable once the benefit was understood. The following year we took the whole group to Ethiopia to create the most startling juxtaposition–from riding on the top of giant mechanical harvesters amidst endless rows of perfectly manicured coffee fields to walking through forested garden farms where tall, spindly coffee trees were growing wild and producing tiny amounts of cherry. These trips really help everyone to put their own experiences in a different perspective, and to go back to their farms armed with new ideas and a renewed motivation to succeed.
BMag: Regarding climate change, where do you think we are now? What’s the future for specialty coffee? Are there any projects you’re actively engaged in to combat the effects of climate change, i.e. experimenting with lower-grown coffees, hybrids, even GMOs?
GW: Those are some gigantic questions. There is no doubt that the changing climate is already disrupting the ‘normal’ and causing farmers to adjust their strategies, and that will surely continue.
I’ve seen a lot of very detailed and deeply researched modeling that is worrying because it indicates that the areas where specialty coffee production is viable will shrink, dramatically, and most of these models are consistent in predicting a radically different landscape even just 25 years from now.
It’s a huge issue, and I’m convinced that a significant part of the solution to rising temperatures involves identifying and making available to farmers a range of different coffee varieties that can thrive in slightly warmer conditions and tolerate some of the expected changes. For that reason I’m very excited about the work that World Coffee Research (WCR) is doing right now–it has enormous potential value, and is way more important than most people realize.
And this idea of varieties–plural–is critical IMHO. Never in the history of the natural world has monoculture been a good idea, and coffee is no different. Farmers should be cultivating a number of different varieties, both as an insurance policy and as sound business strategy. Diversity is the best way to manage risk, in just about every context.
But that’s only part of it. As important as varieties are in the scheme of planning for an uncertain future, farmers’ basic capacity for resilience is even more critical. Sometimes, in all of the frenzy to talk about the changes in the global climate that are coming, we forget about the fact that in an acute sense climate change–and massive volatility in general–is something that farmers have always had to deal with.
When Hurricane Mitch came along in 1998 it created chaos and havoc for thousands of coffee farmers, especially in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. And in a merciless second punch, the market crashed and began the coffee crisis that didn’t relent for almost five years. Hurricane Stan came along in 2005 and devastated farms in Mexico and Guatemala, a crushing blow for those who had just begun to get back on their feet after the earlier setbacks.
Every year there are farmers in specific regions around the world who experience once-in-a-generation climate abnormalities like torrential, seemingly endless rain or extended drought, unexpected frost or powerful wind that knocks cherries off the tree. Whether they are able to get through it depends mostly on both their individual resourcefulness and their access to external support. When they’ve got an adequate level of both (or an abundance of either), they can make it. If not, things get dicey, and no super-variety or plant-breeding breakthrough will be enough to keep them in business.
I suppose what I’m really trying to say here is that the key to a good future for most farmers, in my opinion, is developing partnerships with the marketplace that can help them achieve some level of income security and manage the changes and surprises that will inevitably come along–environmental, political, economic and other.
Most farmers I know have a tremendous amount of ingenuity and have battled their way through all kinds of crazy obstacles that might have foiled lesser humans. I’ve seen so many of them fight their way through the leaf rust epidemic for the last several years and emerge in good shape, and one of the reasons they were able to do so where others have failed is that they’ve got reliable market support, plenty of access to good information, and a recent history of profitability that helped them get traction and build reserves.
There are a lot of powerful tools that can be used to mitigate the impact of climate change: the use of irrigation systems, water conservation technology, agro-forestry systems, better understanding of nutrient cycling and soil health. All of these, in tandem with the work to develop more choices of variety and encourage diversity, will allow farmers to succeed in the future. But every single one of them has an associated cost, and it is the responsibility of coffee traders, roasters, shop owners, and consumers to recognize this fact and collectively adjust the way coffee is valued in order to make sure that farmers are in a position to pursue these strategies.