Is Coffee Doomed? One Portlander's Plan to Save the Bean
Rainclouds sweep over a plateau studded with newly planted coffee trees. On a dirt road cutting through the fields, Portlander David Griswold herds about 25 people from 11 countries for a group photo.
For these coffee farmers from Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, and coffee roasters from Norway, Australia, and the US, this amounts to a pilgrimage. Griswold, the president and founder of the Portland coffee importer Sustainable Harvest, has led them to one of the world’s most storied coffee farms, Panama’s Hacienda la Esmeralda. Here, as Griswold puts it, “a watershed moment in coffee history took place.” A decade ago, Esmeralda almost single-handedly created a niche for high-end coffees with a varietal called Geisha. Known for its extraodinary flavor complexity, Geisha sells for up to $350 per pound, unroasted—compared with coffee’s average of between $1 and $2.50.
Griswold wants to help all growers earn more. And in the face of issues like climate change and rising land and labor costs, it’s essential that they do—otherwise, they won’t be coffee farmers much longer. “The issue isn’t just how coffee is grown, but whether it’s grown at all,” says Griswold. “We have to change the business model if the children of today’s farmers are to remain involved.”
Griswold’s company, founded in 1997, advocates “relationship coffee”: direct, transparent transactions between farmers and roasters. (Most coffee importers are middlemen in the traditional sense—trying to keep both ends of the supply chain in the dark so they scoop the highest profit.)
The autumn journey to Geisha’s birthplace is part of an annual gathering: more than 500 coffee specialists, invited by Sustainable Harvest for four days of face-to-face networking. The gathering is unique among major food commodities—there are, for example, no “relationship sugar” conventions. Griswold’s company works to enrich corners of the business much less glamorous than Esmeralda: a Peruvian region where coffee is slowly replacing coca; or Guatemalan farmers with two-hectare plots.
Conversations range from latte art to a fungus that’s killing Central American coffee trees. Portland Roasting’s Nathanael May meets with representatives of the Casil Cooperative in San Ignacio, Peru, and tells them how he roasts their beans and sells them to Oregon Health & Science University. “They were blown away,” May says later. “They were so honored that their coffee is served to doctors and patients.” Those customers are willing to pay more because they know specifically where the beans came from—and that means Portland Roasting can pay the farmers more.
As Griswold cheerfully arranges the group photo, the happily chattering coffee pros seem aware that personal connections are precious in an often-faceless trade. Everyone smiles.