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Coffee Break Questions - Michael Sheridan

We find Michael one of the most inspiring voices in coffee. Marta was delighted to sit down with him at the Nordic Roasters' Forum this year in Copenhagen for Coffee Bird's inaugural Coffee Break Questions.

Michael Sheridan has worked in coffee for Catholic Relief Services since 2004. Since 2007, he has worked with smallholder farmers in the coffeelands throughout the Americas. Michael is currently based in Quito, Ecuador, where he directs the Borderlands Coffee Project in Colombia and Ecuador and advises other CRS coffee projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. From 2004-2007 Michael led the CRS Fair Trade Coffee Project. He publishes perspectives from the intersection of coffee and international development for the CRS Coffeelands Blog.

Copenhagen, November 2015

Marta Dalton: So, just to start off:  Who would you most like to have coffee with in the world and at any point in time?  Doesn’t have to be a coffee person.

Michael Sheridan: There's a guy called Paul Farmer. He’s the former director and founder of an organization called Partners In Health in Boston. He’s a Harvard-trained doctor, a brilliant guy, and he is the subject of a book written by a famous journalist called Tracy Kidder called Mountains Beyond Mountains. He was doing anti-retroviral therapies for HIV/AIDS patients in Haiti in the mountains at a time when anti-retrovirals were very complicated; you had to stick to a strict regimen and everyone told him it would never work. But he was stubborn and he stuck to it and he succeeded in delivering great care to those patients and he also built a world class health facility in a rural outpost in Haiti.

I heard him speak once and he talked about conversations he had with friends on the faculty at Harvard where they asked him “Is that really cost-effective? Is that really sustainable?” and his answer was something like  “F--- you.”  I am sure he said it in a more polished Harvard way, but that was the spirit of it.  He told them, “When your kid gets sick you take him to Mass General or to Boston Children’s hospital. It’s easy for you to ask that because you have access to great health care.” The thing that I really admire about him is that he's never lost his indignity at what he encounters among poor people in Haiti. I’ve been working for a development agency for almost 15 years and when you encounter poverty a lot it can cease to afflict you the way it should, and I admire that about him. He’s been face to face with miserable conditions, with people who have been affected by infectious diseases and he’s still pissed off all the time, he’s really angry about what he sees, and I admire his ability to continue to be angry. I think he is brilliant and I just love the way he challenges the power structure and the assumptions that we make in our privileged culture.

MD: What is the average price the coffee in your city? You don't pay for coffee outside the house do you?

MS: [Michael is a home roaster] I confess! I don't ever buy commercial coffee. I can honestly say I don't think I’ve ever paid for a commercial cup of coffee in Ecuador in almost five years.  I've bought coffee in Bogota and I think I’ve paid the equivalent of two dollars.

MD: Is there any connection between coffee farmer and coffee drinker?

MS: Does the average consumer pursue the connection? I don't know. Is there a connection?  Absolutely. I think we've collectively become more aware of the connections that we have with the people who grow and harvest our food than ever before, and I think one of the most exciting things about working in the food and beverage industry is to be working in a time when this awakening has happened. People come at it from different angles. There are people who come from the perspective of social justice and wanting to ensure a living wage for the people who grow and harvest our foods. And there are people who come in search of fine flavour, to preserve agro-biodiversity and with the idea that the search for flavour will “save the world” and save these ancient landraces and ancient varieties of food. So the connection is there. And it’s intermediated by people like you who intentionally connect the two ends of the chain.

Personally I love good food and I love to go to great restaurants and eat food prepared by chefs who are creative and really into flavour.  But I do struggle with the idea that the search for flavour will “save the world” because I think that a connection to growers and farm workers that fetishizes food and flavour in ways that are not connected to the reality of production is not really sustainable.  Coffee is living through a process where more and more young people are finding their futures off the farm and away from rural areas altogether.  Particularly smallholders are opting for different futures.  There are farm labour shortages in a growing number of coffee-growing countries.  So I think a search for flavor that’s disembodied from the human reality at the base of our production system is dangerous and narrowing.

MD: How do you think we could create a connection? Do you think it's of value?

MS: I do feel like there's kind of a bifurcation in the way that we communicate about coffee. I feel that there are people who communicate about quality and then there are people in the specialty coffee community who communicate about issues related to social justice and fairness, and I feel like we have poisoned ourselves a little bit by creating a pretty serious firewall between them. We are working with some roasters in the US who are regarded as pioneers on quality. For them to insert issues related to social justice into their narrative would be anathema to their customers, who are saying “Oh no! You're talking about justice, that’s means it’s crap coffee and we want to hear about what you’ve always told us about, which is the quality and what about the tasting notes and the elevation and the varietal!” and so they've sort of cornered themselves.

And then people on the social justice side are realizing – we’ve worked for a long time with fair traders - they can’t survive in this marketplace on the basis of the social narrative. They also need a really smoking cup of coffee! And their ability to enter into the quality narrative is called into question by people who see them as the social justice people who don't do quality. I think we tend to connect people around one of those two narratives and not both.

I also think that because of some of the challenges, particularly for smallholders at origin, but for everybody in terms of it being a low-margin business, our ability to continue to source great coffee depends on doing a little better on the sustainability side on environmental and social issues. And that means even the great quality people need to start introducing some of these issues into their communications with their customers without having the backlash of saying “You're now starting to compromise on quality because you’re caring about fairness!”  I don't think it should be an either/or and I think we put ourselves into a corner that way.

People have talked about the comparisons between coffee and wine and I think maybe even better would be in terms of the structure of the industry would be coffee and certain microbreweries, craft breweries.  One of the problems is that we were introduced to coffee as a commodity that was cheap.  And I feel like there's been this constant struggle in trying to adjust the price point upwards in ways that are more reflective of what it cost to produce a great cup of coffee in terms of the time, labour and expertise that goes into it. I think one legacy we are trying to outrun is that coffee is this dirt-cheap commodity that you should expect to get for next to nothing and it's not.  If coffee were just being discovered now I think it would be positioned more intentionally as something more like wine or craft beer. That is, with a price point that allows inclusion of different kinds of people in the supply chain, growers and workers, in ways that keep them from being always on the razor's edge of ruin.

MD: You've touched on this…. What does direct trade mean to you if anything?

A lot of people talk about it and we all mean different things. For me [direct trade] it conjures an image of buyers and growers sitting together, shaking hands and sealing the deal over a handshake. It's a very basic image but, in my experience, what direct trade means is to really be physically present.  And more than occasionally.

On the farm if you’re sourcing coffee you are going to take an active role in what happening on the farm [in direct trade].  Not to say that the roaster or buyer should dictate what is happening, but for me such an important piece of direct trade is the transparency that it creates. People talk a lot about market intelligence in the development community and often that is reduced to “people need to know what the prices are”.  That's easy, everybody knows what the prices are. Even in places with [more limited] telecommunications people have access to pricing information. That isn’t the market intelligence they need: [it’s] market intelligence on quality, market intelligence on volumes.  They need to understand what the expectations are in terms of delivery times and execution.

So all of that happens in that magical space created when there is direct engagement between buyers and growers. For me that’s what direct trade is, it demystifies everything that happens on the other side of the purchase point of coffee, to understand from the perspective of the importer or the roaster what the coffee means to them, the value proposition.   And then when they in turn sell the coffee to the customers, it makes clear to growers what roasters see as the value proposition of that coffee, how they sell that coffee, what that coffee means to them and to their customers.  So they can understand what the role they are fulfilling in the supply chain.  You can’t phone that in, that has to be transmitted in a face-to-face way.

I worked for four years on a fair trade program and I still believe in a lot of the goals of fair trade, but one of the things that I'm really clear on is if I had to choose between fair trade and direct trade I would choose direct trade every time.  And I if could choose someone who's a direct-trading fair-trader I would choose that every time.  But you know you can be a hundred percent fair trade roaster and never get out of your underwear.  You can just get an offer sheet online and just buy fair trade choices. That's a commitment to pay the base price which is noble and important but it's just such a small part of the whole equation.  None of the other things that can happen with direct contact [as in direct trade] can happen that way.  After the price crisis of 2001 I campaigned for fair trade as a really important tool for smallholder farmers and I continue to believe that. I think there is a perception that fair trade is always and everywhere the ethically superior option in the marketplace and I don’t necessarily believe that’s true. But I continue to believe it is an important tool.

MD:  Your comments resonate with me.  In 2012 I met a few large coffee buyers buying pretty large volumes at SCAA in Boston, and learned they had never visited a coffee farm.  They were sat an SCAA round-table discussing  farming as experts. I found it insulting.  And the argument was “that's what the coffee traders job is”.  So I really like all of what you said there.

Can coffee make the world a better place?

MS: This is probably a predictable answer! I work for a development agency but I've worked on coffee exclusively for almost twelve years.  So I wouldn't be doing that if I didn't think there was some value, not just for me but for the people we work with. I think unquestionably coffee’s got so much potential and it's so exciting. When I left our headquarters in Baltimore in 2007 and went to Guatemala, initially I wasn't actually working just on coffee, I was working on livelihoods.  I was the technical advisor for livelihoods, that is all kinds of income generating activities on the farm, and I kept seeking opportunities to work in coffee. My supervisor said “Hey you can’t just work on coffee because you're obsessed with coffee!” and fair enough, I’m guilty, I'm obsessed with coffee, but coffee is a laboratory.  There's no question coffee is a leader in the food and beverage sector and in everything we're trying to do in agriculture. For 25 years coffee has been working to build better, more inclusive, more sustainable business models and a lot of the things that are now starting to take effect in the [wider] food and beverage sector were done in coffee first, or they were piloted in coffee. There's always something innovative happening in coffee and that's relevant to our field of international development.

I think part of that is the fact that there is so much coffee that is grown by smallholders.  Part of it is that this is a competitive marketplace, particularly as the marketplace started embracing the the idea of specialty [coffee] and moving beyond countries of origin to regions of origin to communities of origin to single farms.  The whole model of specialty coffee pushes people to be in direct contact with the kinds of people we serve.

I think coffee really is a laboratory for a lot of the kinds of things that are going to be next generation models of sustainable sourcing.  I do struggle a little bit [when I ] see growers in places that have all kinds of potential for value added and for quality and not quite turning the corner. When the next generation isn’t better-off than the last one something's wrong.  I feel like there's this thing happening where some growers are having success and they're being pulled away from coffee because of their success and there are other people who are leaving coffee because they're not able to turn a corner and they’re not successful. There are people who will critique coffee as a colonial crop that depends on a large number of people who don't have better options and I want to resist that.  But when you see what's happening a little bit in places like Colombia where you can’t get enough people to pick coffee because of better options, then it is sobering.  It's a great thing for them but a bad thing for coffee. So I still believe in coffee’s power as a tool for development but I do think we’re not quite there in terms of the level of inclusion that we need.  A roaster or an importer or an estate owner can only do what the market will allow them. If there isn't enough margin along the way it’s hard to be inclusive and that speaks to the idea of repositioning coffee in the marketplace as a different kind of product. One that is higher-priced.

Someone who I really admire in specialty coffee talks about coffee as a “hero crop” and I think she talks about it in that way mostly because of the potential for economic impact but I’m seeing more and more potential for coffee as a hero crop environmentally. Guatemala I think is an outlier in Central America as I do believe it has got a significant level of conservation of forests.  But in El Salvador basically there are no forests left and the few forests that are left are all coffee forests.  Coffee is the only thing that's keeping trees up, and when coffee leaf rust really hit the in 2012-13 crop year we saw people cutting down the coffee forests to plant corn, and that’s an environmental disaster.

We've come to the realization here at CRS that everything that we do in coffee from now on will be built around this idea that good coffee management and good forest management and good watershed management should go together.  Particularly in a place like Central America, where the highest elevations and the catchment areas are usually coffee [growing] or it’s the areas just above the coffee line that are forested. The environmental future and survival of those regions really depends on coffee. I think we can do a better job in coffee articulating that not just to consumers but to donors and everybody. That we all inhabit the planet and we’re killing it.  And coffee’s one of the things that can save it.  So maybe [it’s a hero crop] even more environmentally than economically.  Therefore all the more reason to get the incentives right from the market back to the grower is that we need to save coffee.  Whether or not we believe its worth $X/lb we need to keep it up at origin or else we’re going to be looking at a very different planet more quickly than we thought.

MD: Right.  Thanks! I named Coffee Bird “Coffee Bird” to tell the story about El Salvador, about how eighty percent of the forests were destroyed and many indigenous birds went extinct or are threatened because of the increased deforestation.  And much of the forest left is where coffee grows. So coffee saves the birds! Thank you so much, I wish I had a whole day for asking you questions!


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