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INTRODUCTION

We rode the long tail of 2022 and Covid-19 into 2023, with coffee prices at highs not seen in decades and spot positions growing long for importers and roasters alike. For many, revenues never returned to pre-Covid levels; costs increased across the board, straining decades-old relationships between producers and roasters, producers and importers, importers and roasters. Common challenges made us enter 2023 even more committed to build on those connections—and through conversation, collaboration and cooperation, navigate a difficult year together.

Coffee is personal; what it means to different people differs depending on their vantage in the value chain. In that context “quality” often has more to do with preference and perspective than provenance. Calibration, then, is finding a common language in quality that extends to both ends, connecting supply chains back into the circle they were meant to be. We’re in the business of personal: from match-making to relationship-building and bespoke imports, “personal” is the foundation of how we work at Crop to Cup.

We connect people through coffee because, to us, coffee is personal. That means face to face meetings, side by side cuppings, and extensive travel. Or it did, but since Covid we’ve needed to adapt and find other ways we cultivate connections through coffee.

Since 2006, before our first import, we’ve relied on extensive travel—between farms and points of export and roasteries—and gatherings of people at cuppings and events to connect over coffees and build community around them. In the age of Covid, travel is down, and events aren’t happening like they were before; in their place we have WhatsApp, Slack, DHL and new ways of staying connected. It’s a reality in 2023 that we simply get less in person time with our community than before.

But even before the world closed its borders and locked down, we were undertaking the effort of building local teams and systems to facilitate more direct and continuous connections. This started with setting up and calibrating with a decentralized network of community quality labs which we use as part of our normal sourcing now in Brazil, Mexico, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Indonesia.

When dealing with information-rich coffees, getting the right information to the right people at the right time is more of a logistical challenge than the physical movement of coffee. In order for us—all of us—to remain in touch with our suppliers, roasters and coffees—we implemented a new information management system built over two years of investment and development. Information about each coffee submitted by producers and evaluated by Crop to Cup-affiliated quality labs—from cupping sessions to green grading, moisture content, water activity and density—now lives in a new back-end database with the ability to manage, link, and, in some cases, automate the transfer of information from the farm to the cupping lab to our logistics partners and roasters. In the place of—and to complement—the physical presence of agents, our sourcing team and roasters, our new system uses technology to shorten the distance of time and space through cyberspace, offering traceability and transparency about every coffee.

These cupping labs and improved information systems have supported our overall strategy of a more granular approach to sourcing, resulting in an increase in farmer-facing promotions and farmer-specific lots from Mexico, Ethiopia and Kenya. Faster feedback, improved quality-essential capacities closer to the farm, more spoons in more coffees and more boots on the ground all helped make our sourcing efforts more supportive—and competitive.

As we head into 2024, we look to make progress on the work left undone and the work that never ends—creating equity in communities that produce coffees through collaboration, community, calibration and value generation.

Jake Elster & Taylor Mork
Cofounders, Crop to Cup

Our Work in Focus

In the coffeelands

We use a relationship and impact model of purchasing. This means we aim to: work as closely and directly with suppliers as possible; buy from those same producers each year; and provide support, financing or other resources to those partners based on the year’s commitments, toward improving both financial security and coffee quality.

Everywhere we work, we collaborate with teams of skilled cuppers, agronomists and logistics professionals who have the local knowledge, relationships, and experience to guide us toward impactful, scalable and sustainable projects designed to create more equitable economic conditions for coffee growers and their communities.

While you might need to travel to where the coffee grows to see the efforts outside of this report, we hope that the impacts of those efforts are tangible to the communities with whom we work.

Staffing and agents

While our workforce is dispersed across the U.S. with our warehouse and quality lab in Brooklyn, a second trading office and cupping lab in Chicago, and most of our team working remotely, some of the most important work we do happens outside of the U.S.: where the coffee grows. To maintain our work on the ground both in terms of producer and community support but also traceability, auditing and growing our network, we hired in-country agents to join our team.

Before Covid, we traveled when we could to visit our partners, typically during the harvest or toward the end of harvest. We’d use our time in-country to calibrate and interface with our partners in the coffeelands—growers, processors, millers, exporters and agents—and would invite roasters to participate in these trips. Covid forced us to pivot; as travel restrictions and pandemic safety concerns grew, we looked to a different approach to maintain our presence with our partners and as we endeavored to continue our work in coffee growing communities.

By hiring local staff in the countries where we source, we’re able to travel less and rely more on the skill and talents of our in-country staff; maintain a constant presence through the calendar year; increase the speed and reliability of our bookings and contract confirmations; find another way to send money back to producing countries; and gain local insight and experience.

Our in-country staff is critical to the success of Crop to Cup’s work and provides on-the-ground support before, during and after each harvest. Their various responsibilities include:

  • Sourcing strategy;
  • Liaising with coffee producers and exporters to pursue opportunities for new relationships and coordinate sampling;
  • Local calibration and cupping of offer and pre-ship samples;
  • Oversee contracting, milling and export processes;
  • Providing agronomic and technical support; and
  • Distributing and allocating project funds and materials toward improvements for farmers.

In 2023, Crop to Cup’s agents included Moata Raya, Asnake Nigat and CoQua in Ethiopia; Raphael Prime and the East African School of Coffee in Kenya; Israel Paz and Joz Cortes of Denso Cafe in Mexico; and Septiani Trijayanti in Indonesia.

Cupping lab support

To overcome latency in feedback associated with shipping samples from producing countries to our lab in Brooklyn for evaluation, we rely both on agents on the ground as well as calibrated partner labs. In 2023, we expanded our support of labs in key supply chains and outfitted them with equipment to position them at the center of our sourcing efforts. Calibrated labs within producing communities—or as close as possible to them—improves the reliability and speed of feedback. This enables: better-informed purchasing; lot separation by quality; faster payment to producers; processing advice; and reduced rates of rejections.

In addition to calibration and training during our travels, we provided material support in the form of Arc S and Kaffelogic sample roasters, moisture meters, water activity meters, IR thermometers, funds for staffing, and best practices handbooks for drying and processing.

As of 2023, the labs we’ve provided material support to include:

  • Aequitas, Brazil;
  • CoQua, Ethiopia: funding for 1 staff, material support (moisture meters, water activity meters), 2 Kaffelogic roasters;
    Mustefa Abalulesa, Agaro, Ethiopia: training support and 1 Kaffelogic sample roaster;
  • Denso Cafe, Mexico;
  • Kinini Coffee, Rwanda

These labs are an asset not only to us as a buyer but to the communities in which they operate; our hope and expectation is that these labs will support not only quality improvements by providing rapid feedback through the harvest and informing lot separations but also serve as a way to calibrate producers with buyers’ expectations and improve their ability to market their coffees to prospective buyers.

Working Groups
In 2023, we introduced Working Groups—collaborations between stakeholders across the value stream including roasters, exporters, producers as well as Crop to Cup staff who volunteer their time to develop, fund and implement projects to impact producers and their communities. The groups meet quarterly to discuss the progress of projects being explored or executed across each supply chain. The primary funds for these projects came from money earmarked from our purchases; for each pound of green coffee we buy from a country, the project funds available for that supply chain increase. In addition to their time and expertise, roasters and exporters are invited to contribute financially in support of work important to them as well.

Our initial working group efforts focused on interventions with drying and processing as well as support of cupping labs within the producing communities of Agaro, Ethiopia. Through working groups, we found guaranteed homes for experimental lots such as anaerobic-style naturals that created safety for producers to experiment with advanced processing techniques without risk of rejections.

While our pilot in 2023 focused on Ethiopia and included just a handful of roasters, we expect to open participation to partners across all other supply chains in the years to come. Thank you to our pilot working group program participants: One Line Coffee, Crimson Cup Coffee, True Coffee Roasters and CoQua.

In the U.S.

Our H.Q., internal quality lab, offices and the majority of our staff are in the U.S.—as are the majority of our customers. As an importer based in the U.S., the U.S. is our primary market and area of focus, and thus the majority of our operating budget is incurred here. In 2023, we sought opportunities to bolster our team, infrastructure and capabilities and invested in creating a more dynamic company capable of executing our ambitions for sourcing in 2023 and the years to come.

Staffing

In 2023, we invested in our team, adding two additional positions to the payroll: a full-time sales position based out of our Chicago lab, and a part-time QC position at our Brooklyn HQ tasked with physical analysis of incoming green coffees.

Internal Calibration

Part of the challenge of maintaining a distributed workforce is calibration. Before covid-19, we’d cup together frequently at our Brooklyn lab; the pandemic disrupted this. As we cupped through offer and arrival samples at our homes and remote labs, certain coffees challenged our calibration. In 2022, ahead of moving our quality lab to a new home in Brooklyn, we thought about how we engaged with quality evaluation and took the opportunity to invest heavily in equipment and infrastructure, building a modern lab equipped with tools and technology to empower us to deliver calibrated, meaningful feedback both to producers and exporters as well as to roasters.

But coffee is personal: how a sales person interacts with a coffee meaningfully impacts who they’ll present it to. Notes from a Cropster session are a poor substitute for personal experience when finding homes for coffees with roasters we know well. To create more opportunities for sharing reality around coffees we invested in complementary lab equipment in Chicago including brewing equipment, 98mm lab grinder, and reverse osmosis water treatment with equivalent remineralization, enabling our Chicago-area staff to routinely cup samples together, calibrate with the lab in Brooklyn, and host roasters for cupping sessions in the Midwest.

A focus on roasting

To optimize our ability to taste coffees similarly, speak about them from a shared experience, and present them to potential roasters in the best light, we supported our remote labs in 2023 to open feedback loops to our own lab in Brooklyn and share best practices and experiences. Part of these efforts included expanding our network of Arcs to include our Chicago office as well as staff remote labs; three Arc roasters were earmarked for the purpose of development, calibration and testing.

Additionally, we expanded the line of roasters sold through our Showroom brand by becoming the exclusive distributor of Kaffelogic roasters in the U.S. and Mexico, giving us another tool to support emergent labs both at roasteries and at origin.

Information systems
As a coffee moves through an import cycle—from type to offer to pre-ship to arrival, converted to inventory, financed and released through delivery order—the challenges of information management, quality and logistics feedback, and communication are compounded by scale and complexity. But Crop to Cup has grown substantially—in staff, imports, products and geographic distribution—since our systems for managing inventory and sample fulfillment were first built in 2014-2015, necessitating an overhaul.

To streamline communications, improve workflows and close feedback loops with both producing and logistics partners, we invested in our information management system over the last two years, engaging a developer to build the system that we deployed in 2023. This system integrates information from Cropster, Shipstation, our bookkeeping software, our website, and cloud storage and improves our ability to:

  • deliver feedback to suppliers including sensorial evaluation and green grading, with photo verification for each lot evaluated,
  • collect and share traceability and certification information as well as producer stories, photos and context,
  • track costs as coffees move through the supply chain,
  • manage inventory, contract generation, delivery orders, and inventory transfers,
  • onboard customers and assign interest in coffees ahead of booking or initial contracting,
  • request and dispatch samples to customers, suppliers and external labs, and
  • track information holistically about our imports, contract health, shipping statuses, and other KPIs.

This systems overhaul was a core strategic initiative for Crop to Cup designed as the operational back end to our cost-plus model, reducing expensive inefficiencies and protecting information and inventory integrity throughout the import and marketing cycle.

As we bring on new members of our team, rather than navigating a byzantine system of bloated spreadsheets, we can spend our time focusing on the real work: coffees and our roaster clients. By expediting feedback, we hope that our producer partners will better be able to calibrate to our needs and facilitate stronger relationships with those suppliers.

Imports

2023 IMPORTS

The timing of the previous year’s imports carried an outsized impact on our sourcing strategy for 2023. Our commitments to partner suppliers—and the persistent, slow nature of the work we do and the projects we support—requires that we show up every year. This, in turn, necessitates that we engage in decisions surrounding imports carefully, bearing long-term financial sustainability in mind. With import delays rendering spot positions late and large heading into 2023, the risk of holding financed past crop inventory into the new arrival seasons weighed heavily on our lot selection and overall import; rising interest rates and the cost of capital required that we, to manage risk responsibly, reduce our projected import volumes.

In spite of this, we pursued a strategy aimed at differentiating lots from returning and new producers to represent a diversity of qualities and cup characteristics. A focus on drying improvements and advanced processing protocols emerged from this approach to sourcing. We presented these coffees in new and novel ways to reach more cupping tables and grow the market for these producers’ coffees.

in 2023, we imported coffee from 12 countries.

Of our partner suppliers, 61.76% were returning, while 38.24% were new, a reflection of our sourcing strategies in Ethiopia, Kenya and Mexico.

CUP SCORES

PRICING

COUNTRY UPDATES

Brazil

Aequitas, our exclusive sourcing partner in Brazil since 2017, opened a quality lab during last year’s harvest in 2022 to enable them to engage producers in cupping and deliver feedback on separations and experiments more quickly; their lab was fully operational and staffed for 2023. Throughout harvest, our quality lab in Brooklyn calibrated with Aequitas’ lab, expediting the process of separation and selection of lots for booking or entry into regional competitions. With the lab, Aequitas is able to provide rapid feedback and technical recommendations for producers such as the evaluation of quality for: new cultivars; processing experiments; and microlot separations. With the lab in town fully operational for the 2023 harvest, Aequitas expanded their support of producers in their network.

At the start of harvest, Yuki solicited interest from producers throughout Cerrado (Campos Altos, Carmo do Paranaíba, São Gotardo, Ibiá, Rio Paranaíba and Patrocínio) for participation in a new program that in June began with harvest planning and then, in July, visited fourteen producers during harvest to check in on their post-harvest infrastructure, evaluate post-harvest processing practices, techniques, challenges, and experiments. Of the producers Aequitas visited, eleven had contracted post-harvest consulting services, twelve were using or had used unconventional processing (processes other than natural or pulped natural) in an effort to incrementally improve cup complexity, and all already produced some coffee for specialty markets but needed access to a calibrated cupping lab to accelerate feedback and knowledge transfer.

Aequitas organized an event, Aequitas Sharing Knowledge, to create space for knowledge exchange between buyers and producers and orient around market expectations and shifting demands. In attendance were different actors from the value chain: producers, cooperatives, a university professor, and bank institutions that finance Aequitas.

To further differentiate coffee coming through the Aequitas network from commodity specialty coffee, Aequitas developed and implemented a code of conduct and ethics for its partners, providing transparency for buyers and suppliers about Aequitas and its network. The code of conduct requires that all of its suppliers abide by Brazilian laws and includes a focus on environmental and conservation issues and serves as a checklist for postharvest practices, environmental and social issues.

Colombia

The disturbance of the local market inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic and suddenly soaring domestic prices impacted our sourcing work. Colombia was one country where we didn’t make progress in 2023; we were only able to maintain relationships with CENCOIC in Cauca and ABADES in Nariño for our import this year while working on the ground to support a restart for relationships we inherited from the Cedro Alto project. As we look to 2024, we will revisit our goals, strategy and opportunities to re-examine where Crop to Cup can add value in a market as competitive and well-established as Colombia.

Ethiopia

In 2023, we framed our sourcing plan for Ethiopia around re-energizing and rebooting our work in the country that produces what has become our largest import each year. Over a decade of working there, Ethiopia’s coffee export system has changed from a largely opaque, centralized system with nearly all coffee flowing through the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange to a more liberalized model allowing growers and private washing stations to, once again as before ECX, self-export their coffee and engage directly with buyers as a result of a 2017 proclamation from the government.

We changed the timing of our visit to Ethiopia—our first since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic—to arrive earlier, in December 2022, during the midst of harvest. We sought to proactively engage partners and potential partners ahead of contracting, early in the harvest, and provide support and technical assistance where requested. For our 2023 import, we focused on cultivating and growing relationships with individual smallholder-exporters as well as cooperatives who have taken the step to break away from unions and self-export. By eliminating layers of bureaucracy, we were able to ensure the premiums we pay impact the communities of the people producing the coffee, collaborate on processing experiments and lot separations, and grow our impact through projects executed by our roaster-supported working groups.

Elevated cherry prices and foreign currency shortage resulted in downward pressure on quality; to overcome this obstacle and expedite contract approval and milling, we shifted responsibility for final sample approval to our agents in Ethiopia. This was our first implementation of this tactic, which we would partially replicate in other countries through 2023.

On the ground, we budgeted for the creation of new staffing roles in Ethiopia in support of producers in the West and the South to provide both technical agronomic and processing support as well as milling and sampling oversight. In order to maintain the value of the coffee we imported as long as possible, we supplied moisture meters, water activity meters and a drying best practices guide to kebeles and regional offices to enable coffee producers to monitor the drying process of their coffee and ensure stability, thereby decreasing rejections. We also provided a processing recipe book to partner producers, committing to purchase the resulting lots they produced in an effort to promote experimentation and differentiation in a year when Cup of Excellence did not operate in Ethiopia.

Honduras

For 2022, we imported our first containers from Honduras through two new partners, CAFESMO and Pacayal in a late harvest import that landed to the U.S. in August 2022. Our first imports from new countries of origin are meant to be exploratory: meaningful in the project and producers we select, but framed around building context and an understanding of a country for future work.

Often, the opportunity to import from a new origin arises out of a brokerage need from a client—or in this case, from a partner with whom we do work in other countries—but we always strive to approach filling or following a container with the same intentionality and values that serves as a compass to all of our sourcing work.

Our 2022 import was slow to find a market amongst our customers, reinforcing the lesson that “growth for the sake of growth” is not any more sustainable for importers than it is for roasters or producers; we re-evaluated our motivations for the import and strategically stepped back from Honduras in 2023. Heading into 2024, we expect to engage with our partners—past and present—in Honduras, and formulate a plan for harvest that aligns with our overall company strategy.

Kenya

In our Kenya Pre-Harvest Plan, we outlined our strategy to break out of the country’s traditional supply chains and establish relationships directly with producers, leveraging a partnership with the East African School of Coffee (EASC) to build a pipeline for finding and supporting quality-motivated producers for direct export.

In years past, we worked to build equitable relationships along the value stream, a team-based approach that relied on calibrating on the cupping table with export labs, and engaging them to purchase coffees from the same cooperatives year-over-year, following those producer groups as they moved between mills and marketing agents. Since the system in Kenya made it impossible to work independently and directly, we’d work transparently and consistently; building a bench along the way of the best exporters, mills, cuppers, agronomists, washing station managers, community leaders and farmers we could find. Changes to export regulations ahead of the 2023 harvest opened direct export pathways where prices are negotiated directly with buyers instead of through mills, marketing agents, auctions and exporters. These direct export channels require that contracts first be price-tested against the auction, ensuring that the prices that producers receive are equal to or greater than they would be if sold through traditional channels.

As part of our direct-export support program, we engaged an agronomist who visited each of our partners’ farmers 3-5 times through the harvest, conducted thorough audits and training at each partner estate and farm, providing guidance on good agricultural practices, lot selection, processing, drying and storage as well as social, environmental and safety concerns. Some of these efforts—such as interventions to ensure only ripe cherry was picked, guard rails on pulpers were installed, and fermentation tanks were maintained—resulted in immediate improvements; others, like those focusing on soil fertility and tree management, will take several years to actualize.

Our import volume from Kenya was lower in 2023 as a result of the delayed arrival of our late harvest imports from 2022; this empowered us to take a risk with our 2023 import strategy through the direct export pilot program. The lessons we learned from this year will inform the work we do in 2024, when we plan to engage more fully with direct export channels and explore new producer relationships with smallholders and small estates both in Central Kenya and especially the West.

Mexico

We’ve been working in Mexico since 2013. Based on its proximity, it would be easy to assume that of everywhere we work, Mexico should be the easiest. Yet, despite sharing a border and deep connections to the U.S., Mexico remains one of the most complex places we work. To overcome our greatest challenges working in Mexico—aggregation of coffee into lots of exportable size and qualities—Crop to Cup is committed to working through communities, allowing us to build mutual relationships and networks of trust. In our Mexico Pre-Harvest Plan, we outlined our strategy for this year’s import, reflecting on lessons learned from previous imports. For 2023, we introduced a new program—Good Coffee Program (GCP)—a quality-incentive and transparent pricing program built to provide:

  • Transparent pricing calculated based on progressively increasing cup quality incentives on top of a price floating above market price,
  • Direct contact with farmers who are producing for specialty at a 3 bag level or higher,
  • Rapid feedback from an impartial cupping lab, provided for free over the entire harvest,
  • Timely offers, and direct payments for coffee at collection centers,
  • Long-term contracts for selected coffees, and
  • Monitoring and advice on the separation, milling and export of coffees.

The topography of Mexico and diversity of languages and cultural traditions can create obstacles for communication. Access to specialty markets often passes through intermediaries—for example, coyotes who purchase coffee from communities of smallholders, offering immediate payment though perhaps lower prices than a grower might receive in a more competitive environment. Quick payment is crucial for the financial security of coffee producers; since coffee offers only one harvest per year with a long tail of expenditure that extends beyond the timeline of harvest, with a producer making necessary investments in equipment, inputs, labor and transportation to ensure success the following year. Without rapid payment, a producer may—if it is available at all—rely on expensive financing, but with costs rising in an inflationary economy and the traditional commodity index price on the C-market stagnating for much of 2022-2023, this would expose smallholders to risk.

With GCP, we introduced a transparent pricing model with premiums over a base price calculated based on cup quality and payment turned around within two weeks of delivery of a representative sample. We updated the base price every two weeks based on local market pricing to ensure that the prices paid through GCP were always higher than prices offered by coyotes. Using radio, we broadcast pricing weekly to overcome topographical and geographic challenges quickly and maximize distribution of pricing communications.

For coffees scoring higher than 86 points at our lab in Puebla, we offered progressively increasing premiums, beginning 10% above and capping out at 150% above base price for coffees scoring 89+. This progressive premium model was designed to ensure that coffees were kept separated to maximize their value as export coffee as well as to incentivize smallholders to deliver samples to us rather than testing the price offer elsewhere. Because we communicated the price expectations transparently, offered quality feedback, and paid quickly, we hoped to receive coffee from the smallholders returning over multiple rounds of submissions. Crop to Cup brought on staff two local agents, Israel Paz and his wife Joz Cortes—both of whom are skilled, calibrated cuppers with deep connections to producer communities in Mexico—to oversee GCP.

In total, Israel spent nearly a month—27.5 full days—in the field in support of GCP over the three months of harvest. Joz led the cupping process in Puebla, evaluating 11 rounds of samples. Through the five periods of submissions to GCP, we cupped 193 samples from producers in Veracruz, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla, ultimately contracting coffees from 137 producers. Of those, 43 came from existing relationships in Lachao; only 4 coffees submitted did not meet moisture content requirements.

The highest scoring lot—from Fermin Temoxtle Rodriguez—scored an average score of 87.88 between the two evaluating labs and came from Puebla, a region not well-known or established internationally for specialty coffee. The average score of submissions was 85.91 and median was 85.88; standard deviation for score was 0.90 with a variance of 0.82. Compared with the base price—calculated weekly against the internal market reference price—Crop to Cup paid an average premium of 15 pesos per kg above local specialty reference prices through GCP. Expressed in USD per pound of green coffee, this average premium translates to $0.51 per pound over local market prices, or a difference of 20%.

While many of our imports from Puebla represent first-year relationships, we deepened relationships with returning partners like Red 5 de Diciembre and Coro in Oaxaca (partners since 2020).

Papua New Guinea

Last July, we were devastated to learn of the death of Brian Kuglame, the general manager of the AAK Cooperative. The diversity of disparate culture groups and languages across the highlands has traditionally made PNG a uniquely difficult place to organize producers into cooperative export structures, but Brian, an improbable personality, organized an improbable collective of smallholders—1698 members spread across 64 communities in the highlands—and kept them energized and motivated through his charisma, optimism and seemingly endless travel schedule. As much as he gave purpose to AAK—a group whose name stands for Apo, Angra and Kange, the word for “Unity” in the three major local languages in the Western, Central and Eastern Highlands—Brian gave our work purpose in Papua New Guinea.

As we mourned the loss of our friend, we also worried what would become of the cooperative that was his life’s work. So we did what we had the power to do as buyers: we showed up, and reaffirmed our commitment to purchasing from the group and continuing the work we’d started together. A year later, we’re nearing the end of a new harvest. The AAK Cooperative, now under the steady leadership of Regina Lusaro, carries on—propelled by the same vision for quality Brian ignited.

Now entering the twelfth year of purchasing from AAK, we expanded our support, building on the successes of previous years while working to simultaneously promote quality incentives, improve infrastructure, and further accelerate speed of payment.

For 2023, we nominated cluster groups for specific improvements depending on their needs. Waingar and Koglai clusters were selected for wet mill improvements including tubs for cherry flotation—to replace the small buckets they previously used—as well as roofing sheets for their wet mill. Like many structures in PNG, the sheds were originally constructed of bush materials; over a decade into their use, those buildings had begun to deteriorate, exposing coffee in various stages of processing to weather. The storage sheds at Kosionte, Nupgamimi, Kerefa and Keiya clusters were in similar condition, so we provided materials to replace the roofs on the storage shed where parchment coffee was held.

Like we did in Ethiopia and Mexico, to best ensure that the lots that arrived to the U.S. represented their initial qualities at export, we invested in drying practices, providing a best-practices manual for drying as well as material support in the form of Draminski moisture meters and infrared thermometers to AAK clusters.

Because of how remote many of the clusters are and the difficulty of moving coffee via truck in PNG, to expedite aggregation, milling and export (and thus, payment), many of the collections are transported to the mill via air, with airplanes carrying coffee running from remote airstrips to the mill. Almost one third of the coffee sold in 2022 was freighted from remote flying zones. To ensure that this critical infrastructure lifeline remained intact, we established a revolving fund for air freight from remote regions, providing initial funding for the first round of coffee deliveries; when that coffee was sold, the charter fund was recouped to book the next charter.

Finally, as in 2022, we offered a premium over current market pricing based on the volume of clean/specialty quality coffee delivered. This premium was meant to support properly cleaned, properly dried, and properly stored/handled coffee and to incentivize producers to dry their coffee down to 10-10.5% moisture. We accelerated this second payment for 2023 to motivate producers to pursue the best practices outlined in the materials we shared in support of processing and drying for the 2023 harvest.

Rwanda

Two weeks before we arrived in Rwanda for our visit to Kinini Village, the Agriculture Ministry suspended its 2016 regulation requiring that coffee growers sell cherry to collectors within their designated zone. The change, which allows farmers to sell their cherry anywhere in the country without restrictions, coupled with a March regulation from the National Agricultural Export Development Board requiring that cherry be sold at a fixed price of RWF 410 per kilo rather than above a minimum price, aligns with government strategic plans to enhance quality, increase production, and improve collaboration between farmers and exporters—all in the interest of growing coffee exports.

In 2022, during our first visit to Kinini since before the pandemic, we took the opportunity to dive deeper into the operations of Kinini, calibrate with their quality lab and meet cooperative groups who sell cherry to the Kinini washing station. During our time with Jackie, Malcolm and Kinini, we worked together to identify areas where Crop to Cup could continue to support Kinini—and talked about where Kinini hoped to make improvements. Some of those improvements—like sealing and waterproofing their warehouse and adding humidity monitoring; and changing from rainwater to mountain water for washing their coffee—were implemented ahead of the 2023 harvest. Others—like deeper collaboration and support of the cooperatives and exploration of lot separation by cooperative—were efforts we targeted for the 2023 harvest and beyond.

For 2023, Kinini implemented cherry flotation at all collection sites in addition to the wet mill, resulting in more uniform collections and higher quality. They successfully paid off their final bank loan—part of their 2022 goals—freeing cashflow for other work. Internally, Kinini made investments in staff, hiring a new cupper, elevating a new quality manager, promoting pickers into field workers, bringing former union cherry collectors on staff to collect cherry for Kinini, and contracting an agronomist, as well as organizing casual laborers—100% of whom are women—into a cooperative.

Collectively, this restructuring will ensure that Kinini has the workforce it needs, protect the most vulnerable members of the labor force through organization and provide farmers with support.

Tanzania

During our visit to Tanzania in December 2022, we calibrated with our export partners at Taylor Winch and provided support for implementing tracking of water activity and moisture of coffee samples. As in other countries where we operate, we began to implement standards for moisture and water activity across some of our supply chains in Tanzania in an effort to promote shelf life, reduce fade and increase quality. Based on lessons from past imports and the success of a central processing strategy at Mwika North, our strategy for 2022-2023 focused on sourcing centrally-processed cherries from smallholder groups that traditionally collected home-processed parchment from members.

During our second visit to Tanzania in 2023, we supported this strategy by calibrating with our partners on best specialty practices for washed coffee and beginning dry processing experiments in Southern Tanzania where water is more scarce. The work primarily focused on our long time partners at Iyenga AMCOS, but also brought new groups into the fold, that included a newly organized women’s group at Hezya AMCOS.

We aspire to demonstrate the quality potential of Tanzanian coffee—a place where coffee has been grown for nearly 200 years and where traditional cultivars like Bourbon grown by smallholders at high elevations forged the country’s historical reputation.

Uganda
Uganda is the country where Crop to Cup began, and its teachings remain at the heart of our sourcing philosophy. Our 2022-2023 Uganda Harvest Plan aimed at rebuilding our presence and partnerships in Uganda, both of which suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic and continued consolidation of multinational exporters.

Ahead of the harvest, we assisted our partners in securing pre-crop financing, with built-in incentives for greater separation of lots, removing the last hurdle towards this being the year we all get to taste the fruits of their labor. We continued to support a network of grass-roots organizations and independents and collaborated with partner organizations to provide pre-crop financing, understanding that financing would lead to lot separations.

we’ll see you in the future 🚀

Mexico 2023 Pre-Harvest Plan

Our 2023 Mexico Pre-Harvest Plan builds on last year’s explorations into lesser-known producing regions of Mexico while doubling down on our historical work with supply chains in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz. For the first time, we are introducing a quality-incentivized transparent pricing program across the country to encourage early and repeat delivery of parchment from top producers and break out of traditional aggregation models which restrict many producers’ access to the specialty export market.

At the farm of Don Pedro in Oaxaca, a picker walks through a plot of coffee trees during picking

Background

We first started working in Mexico back in 2013, focusing our efforts in lower-lying areas in Central Mexico along the Pacific coast like Colima and Guerrero—places relatively unknown to specialty buyers in the U.S. Back then, we brought in beautiful dry processed coffees (uncommon in Mexico) from a cooperative called Leyva Mancilla in Guerrero and washed coffees in one of the first lots ever exported from Colima. From there, we began exploring the upper ranges and outer environs of Oaxaca, where the ties of community and operational complexity are as palpable as the potential for quality.

Based on its proximity, it would be easy to assume that of everywhere we work, Mexico should be the easiest. Yet, despite sharing a border and deep connections to the U.S., Mexico remains one of the most complex places we work.

First introduced by Spanish colonizers in the 18th century, coffee in Mexico initially grew on large plantations owned by Europeans and worked by Mexican laborers. Following Mexican independence, wealthy landowners wielded “modernization” as a rationale to abolish communal and corporate land rights, stripping indigenous communities of their lands to form large estates. Agrarian land reforms following the Mexican Revolution began a process of redistribution of land from those larger private estates back to smallholders through the ejido system, which established communal land areas dedicated to agricultural production.

In 1973, to promote coffee production on these newly created lands, the Mexican government established The Mexican Coffee Institute (Instituto Mexicano del Café, or INMECAFE), providing technical assistance, equipment, transportation and credit so that coffee producers could deliver their coffee to the international market. By the end of INMECAFE’s first decade, coffee was the largest agricultural export in Mexico, accounting for 35% of all agricultural exports.

As part of his neoliberal policies, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari abolished INMECAFE in 1989, the same year that the International Coffee Agreement collapsed—exposing smallholders to price volatility and leaving them without access to credit or government assistance—and in 1991 ended ejido land reform policies, again forcing smallholders to abandon lands they’d farmed, dispersing many into remote or mountainous areas.

After the ICA collapsed, so too did prices for coffee; the Coordination of Coffee Grower Organizations estimates that as a result of the ensuing coffee crisis, Mexican coffee growers would have lost 65% of their potential revenues since the start of the crisis. As a result, 71% of coffee growers stopped using fertilizers, 40% reduced pruning, and 75% stopped investing in control of pests, leading to lower qualities, yields and resiliency ahead of the coffee leaf rust outbreak in Latin America in 2012.

In response, many of the coffee growers in Mexico—who today number more than 500,000, 85% of whom are indigenous and with 95% growing coffee on fewer than 3 hectares of land—organized into informal cooperatives or otherwise collaborated to mitigate their risk and attempt to access the best price for their coffee.

Mexico offers unique opportunities for quality with many of its farms planted with decades-old root stock of lower-yielding traditional varieties like Bourbon and Typica and an increased interest domestically in specialty coffee, leading to experimentation and innovation in coffee processing and the planting of exotic cultivars. Today, Mexico is the seventh largest coffee exporter in the world—and the largest exporter of organic coffee.

We don’t operate like coffee hunters or coyotes, picking through warehouses, or buying the best cups that come up on coyote-curated blinded tables in Oaxaca City. To overcome our greatest challenges working in Mexico—aggregation of coffee into lots of exportable size and qualities—we remain committed to working through communities, allowing us to build mutual relationships and networks of trust. This is only possible by overcoming communications challenges—linguistic and topographic—returning year after year to re-engage communities, addressing logistics within and between communities, and cultivating quality through training, idea sharing, proactive communication, and incentive programs.

Expectations, at a glance

For the 2023 harvest and import from Mexico, we anticipate that:

  • Import volumes will be slightly higher, with more, smaller, lots, despite a low harvest;
  • Coffee will arrive June through August , with peak bookings in April and May; earlier than last year, despite a delayed harvest;
  • Quality will be higher than last year due to additional programming aimed at lot selection; and
  • Prices will be equal to or somewhat higher than last year for most lots.

Expectations

Cold and wet conditions across Mexico have delayed harvest and drying by as much as a month compared to previous years, also leading to lower than expected production. However, we have implemented stricter purchasing deadlines to ensure lots are milled and exported earlier in 2023, which will result in earlier and on-time arrivals to the U.S. We will be traveling to Mexico three times prior to the end of harvest and anticipate that booking will be wrapped up by early May.

We introduced a new program that we’re calling Good Coffee Program, designed to create access to and and a pipeline for top lots by appealing to farmers and their communities directly through transparent pricing, immediate payment, and long-term contracts. This farmer-facing program is overseen by our new support team in Mexico, and will deliver higher quality separations and smaller microlots than in previous years.

Domestic prices in Mexico remain high; pricing indicators, particularly across Oaxaca, remain inflated from last year’s peak even though market prices have begun to fall due to competition from commercial buyers. We are maintaining a pricing calculator that we will update every two weeks to transparently translate offer prices from export-ready ‘oro’ in USD / LB, FOB export, to Mexican Pesos / KG in ‘pergamino’ to the farmer. This tool will assist with education and accountability, but most of all, in engaging farmers in a conversation about prices and quality. At the start of harvest, the U.S. Dollar is the weakest it’s been since 2017 against the Mexican Peso, which will buffer export prices even as the market softens; this, along with incentives paid for quality and smaller lot sizes will result in landed prices that are approximately the same or somewhat higher than previous years.

Timing

Harvest Milling Export Arrival
Feb–Apr May–Jun Jun–Jul Jul–Aug
Israel Paz, our agent in Mexico and the facilitator of GCP

Challenges & Discussion

We received the final landings of our 2022 imports late into the year, giving them less time to shine before the next crop comes in. These late arrivals resulted from disruptions within Mexico’s export market related to quality, price, and lot aggregation.

Historically, aggregation of coffees has been our greatest challenge in Mexico, with quality and high prices—or more specifically, a mismatch between quality and price—coming close behind.

Over our time working in Mexico, we’ve developed year-over-year supply chains by working with strong, engaged collaborators who have their own relationship and connection to communities of coffee growers. By working through them, we’re able to gain access to communities—most often indigenous, and always of smallholders—who otherwise would not have access to the specialty market. One challenge, however, is that these informal cooperatives are traditional in their structure and outlook; a central collection point for parchment services the entire community with pricing negotiated on an ongoing basis based on market conditions, and without training or support for agronomy or processing, quality is highly variable.

Without collectors and a way to make inroads with these communities of smallholders, the coffee they grow would likely be destined for sale in the domestic or commercial markets by coyotes, or bought by “Coyote Qs” who buy coffee at low prices from farmers by grading it down at the farm and up at the lab in Oaxaca. Domestic prices in Mexico for specialty quality lots are higher than in other producing countries, and with yields also substantially lower, supply pressures force FOB costs higher and logistical challenges increase.

Last year, for our 2022 import, we hired a partner from our early work in Guerrero as a producer-in-residence to motivate producers to engage in the specialty market by providing processing training and experimentation support. Our short-term aim was to create diversified products through existing partnerships and by paying a premium for these lots, ensure they’d make it to export. In conjunction, we established a “diploma” program inclusive of cupping feedback rewarding producers for going through this training. The coffees were produced, but in the end, they never made it to market: with market prices as high as they were, and with the slow payment cycle of exported coffee—up to 6 weeks from delivery of parchment—many producers ended up selling the coffee they’d produced through the Barista in Residence program to the local market, using the diploma we’d given, for faster payment.

Key Suppliers

Supply Chain Strategy or Qualities Updates
La Refleja y Red 5 de Diciembre

OAXACA:

La Canada, Mazoteca

Utilize the agronomy extension team (Red 5) to train community partners on quality control and lot separation upon initial collections. Explore separations from other high-altitude, hard to reach member groups in Sierra Norte. La Reflecja (cooperative) hired a new cupper.

C2C Agent is making frequent visits to check on training / lot separation.

Communities are invited to participate in GCP microlot program for 3rd party feedback.

Terra Coffeas Mexico

OAXACA:

Mixteca (Caballo Rucio)
Mazoteca (San Mateo Yoloxochitlan)
La Pluma (Juquila)

Build small 20-family community groups within indigenous communities who can focus on producing for specialty. Pair these groups with field workers to provide support through the harvest, a top of the line mill / cupping team to recreate the cooperative model from the ground up. ‘22 was the start of this project, ‘23 is building on that success with more individual farmer separations and overall improvements on community-level processing made possible by good prices and advance contracts.
Ramon Ruiz / Joaquin Santana

OAXACA:

La Pluma (Chateno)

Support community leaders (in this case, Joaquin Santana) who devote their houses, hearts and time to hold together informal cooperatives composed of indigenous (mostly non-spanish speaking) households who have delivered their coffee to Joaquin for generations. Continue to reinvest a portion of premiums into supplies (shade nets, drying beds).

Support smaller lot separation through Joaquin’s house (which acts as the group’s bodega) through to the mill in Oaxaca.

Special processing experimentation.

Pride of Puebla

Mazoteca (Puebla, Sierra Negra)

Participate in a grassroots-organized quality auction (‘22) to identify the most motivated producers in an off-the-path part of Puebla so that they can have more access to specialty markets in ‘23. Send a C2C agent to work between NGOS (like Heifer Intl), local agronomists, and community leaders to communicate a clear plan for pricing, quality premiums, and quick cupping feedback through the Good Coffee Program (GCP).

SOURCING STRATEGY & SUPPLIER UPDATES

For 2023, we’re taking a different approach to our Mexico sourcing strategy based on the lessons we learned from our work over the last few harvests. This year’s strategy focuses on quality discovery, and appeals directly to producers by providing an impartial lab to provide quick feedback while educating producers on their cup score. This exists on top of our normal purchasing strategy, which aims at economic stability through long-term contracts, and building trust and accountability through adoption of a transparent, widely-communicated pricing model for all of our buying in Mexico.

We brought on staff two local agents, Israel Paz and his wife Joz Cortes, both of whom are skilled, calibrated cuppers with deep connections to producer communities in Mexico. Israel and Joz will work together not only to evaluate quality and turn around feedback more rapidly at their own Arc roaster outfitted lab in Puebla, but also help with discovery of new producer relationships through their networks. Israel will oversee our new quality incentive and transparent pricing program, which we’re calling, aptly, Good Coffee Program (GCP). Good Coffee Program runs during harvest, from March 1st to April 26, 2023.

GCP is built on a few foundational principles:

  • Providing sample analysis and cupping feedback to every producer, as quickly as possible;
  • Transparent pricing calculated based on progressively increasing cup quality incentives on top of a price floating above market price;
  • Timely payment for coffee at our collection centers (~2 weeks);
  • Long-term contracts for selected coffees; and
  • Monitoring and advice on the separation, milling and export of coffees.

By improving the speed of payment and incentivizing quality, we hope to build collections of high-quality coffees. Taking a page out of our strategy from last year, we will run radio broadcasts to communicate pricing in order to overcome the communication challenges posted by Mexico’s topography. The pricing model is fully transparent with premiums assessed based on quality—and a base price that is recalculated every two weeks corresponding to movement in the local market.

While the coffee trade in Mexico operates with a lack of national structure and is often opaque due to difficulty accessing communities of producers directly, GCP aims to create an environment where smallholders are able to receive feedback on their coffee, receive a transparent offer above the local market, and get paid quickly.

GCP will be utilized across all of our supply chains in Mexico; we anticipate that this will result in smaller, high quality lots and don’t anticipate any lots larger than 50 bags.

One of our longest-standing supply chain partners in Mexico, Ramon Ruiz, and the networks of producers he helps us access through Joaquin Santana in Sierre del Sur and Lachao are one area of focus. The lot separation strategies we’ve implemented in the past have shown some success, and our initial trials of using radio broadcasts to promulgate pricing helped to expedite delivery of coffees from these remote regions. In neighboring La Cañada and Eloxochitlán, we’re eager to engage Coro Cooperative and Red 5 de Diciembre and solicit their participation in GCP. The Red 5 de Diciembre network has been a partner of Crop to Cup since 2020 and is the largest organization of producers in the La Cañada—itself made up by 13 first-level organizations to represent 1,300 small indigenous producers. Over the past six years this group has been working to improve selective harvesting, specialty processing, and marketing of these higher value lots while growing membership.

We will be expanding our work with one of our newer supply-chains in Oaxaca—Terra Coffeas—with whom we worked in 2022. The team at Terra Coffeas includes engineers, agronomists, biologists, chemists, cuppers, artists, and coffee lovers united for the common cause of “agroecológico”—loosely translated to mean “the intentional purposing of international standards for quality, productivity and traceability, towards the advancement of local cultural practices, environmental resources, and economic outcomes”. The field team at Terra Coffeas is young, ethics- and quality-calibrated with Crop to Cup. Rather than relying on conventional cooperatives, Terra Coffeas operates by organizing smallholder coffee producers into informal cooperatives of 25-30 families to aggregate lots into exportable volumes, create market access, cultivate quality, and deliver premiums based on that quality.

In Puebla, where Israel Paz and Joz have their lab, we’ll be returning for 2023 after being the only international buyer to participate in 2022’s Pride of Puebla competition and auction. The coffees from this region remain relatively unknown to specialty buyers outside, and we believe that Puebla holds massive potential for quality as well as producers who will be motivated and positioned well to take advantage of the GCP program.

We we will be actively cupping throughout the season and expect to have samples available by May. To get involved or for more information, contact your trader.

We we will be actively cupping throughout the season and expect to have samples available by May.

Mt. Sinabung is erupting in Sumatra. This volcano has been shooting ash into the air for weeks now, and the government has evacuated an estimated 17,000 people from around the mountain’s base. This volcanic eruption directly impacts the coffee farming community with whom we work in Simalungun in Sumatra. Here at Crop to Cup, we are organizing an appeal for donations- made through the Donate link attached to this post.

It’s going to be a white Christmas in central Sumatra this year. Not snow, though; ash.

This is because Mt. Sinabung is erupting. This volcano has been shooting ash miles into the air for weeks now – the government has evacuated an estimated 17,000 people from around the mountain’s base and most people are just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

This directly impacts the coffee farming community with whom we work in Simalungun (Sumatra, Indonesia), and we are putting the word out that there are people who could use your help this holiday season.  Here at Crop to Cup we are organizing an appeal for donations – made here or through the Donate button at the bottom of this post.

The largest shelter near Simalungun is called Tiga Binanga; it is currently housing 2,500 people. They are organized, and even have a Facebook page you can check in on for updates.  You can follow this link to read their initial proposal for support from the government, and read below for a breakdown of the refugees they serve.

Total number of Refugees 2.447

    • Women 1.141
    • Men 1.306
    • Children below 1 year:    18
    • Children between 1 and 3 years:     62
    • Children between 3 and 5 years:     130
    • Children in Kindergarden:    42 (23W/19M)
    • Children in Primary school:     316 (145W/171M)
    • Children in Secondary school:     179 (85W/94M)
    • Children in High school:    95 (31W/64M)
    • Pregnant women:     7
    • Women breastfeeding:     41
    • Elderly:     221

Data per November 30, 2013

These are coffee farmers. I’ve heard that their immediate needs include fresh food – the government has provided rice, noodles and dried fish only. Also diapers for babies and for the elderly, as well as underwear and socks for children and adults. We have established a contact there through whom we can make and track donations; if you are interested in making a donation or getting involved, it would be a great gift to give this Christmas. Any amount helps.

Please click here for their most recent “Situation Report” (SitRep), and contact me with any questions as to how your funds would be put to work : jake@croptocup.com

If you have the bandwidth to make a personal donation, it would be put to good use. If you can forward this to your friends, or like their page on Facebook, this helps too. If you run a business and would like to hear some ideas for a month-long donation drive I am organizing, please email me – these refugees will be here for a while. We plan on making one donation before Christmas, and another by the end of January.

One of Crop to Cup’s partners at the Buhorwa Washing Station is the Burundi Agribusiness Project (BAP). BAP is a USAID-funded project administered by Development Assistance International and Michigan State University’s Institute for International Agriculture. This year, Buhorwa Washing Station has implemented a brand new, large-scale water treatment system and a new set of latrines and a hand-washing station. BAP contributed half of the funding required, while Sogestal Kayanza (the owners of the washing station) contributed the other half. The new water treatment system is vital for the overall health of the farms and their surrounding communities. Both of these projects use simple technology (though still large and costly undertakings) to make major improvements in the Buhorwa coffee growing community. In addition to these two site improvement projects, BAP also employs a group of field-based agronomists. Much of the work at this time of the year involves trainings to assist small scale farmers to grow more and better quality coffee, and thus increase annual incomes. Additional trainings tackle gender equality, crop diversification, animal husbandry and farmer organization.