I recently got back from a week in Peru and Ecuador, where I had my fill of winding Andean roads and guinea pig lunches while working on relationships old and new: in Peru, with the Cenfrocafe co-operative and the growers of Valle del Santuario, and in Ecuador exploring a potential new partnership. I would guess that 90 percent of you guys are now wondering what's up in Ecuador, since that's a coffee-producing country we've not visited before, but that story will have to wait, because first and more important is the relationship we began four years ago in San Ignacio, Peru, with the five communities of Valle del Santuario.
We arrived at the warehouse in San Ignacio at sunset after a full day in the community of Alto Ihuamaca, and I was surprised to see Renán Neira and two other men comfortably settled on milk crates full of beer bottles playing cards.
"Where were you today?" I asked Renán, who is one of Alto Ihuamaca's representatives in the co-op and usually a fixture at meetings, "I saw your motorbike pass by this morning and I talked to your wife at the meeting, but you never showed up."
"Well," he explained, "With the harvest, you know, I had other responsibilities to attend to today."
"I see," I responded, looking at the card game and raising an eyebrow.
Renán smiled sheepishly as he said, "We finished early. Also, I thought the meeting might be … difficult."
It was neither the first nor the last time during my days in Peru that a member of the co-op's leadership made such a reference – I heard that "things are complicated" for the growers and "they want to talk to you" – to avoid stating outright that growers want a higher price for their coffee this year.
"What do you mean, difficult? You mean because the growers want a higher price?" I asked Renán.
"Yes," he said, looking relieved that I had understood his implied meaning.
"They did ask for more money, but that didn't make the meeting difficult," I commented, "it's what made the meeting good – I mean, that's why I'm here, right? That's why we have meetings."
"True. So it was good?"
"Absolutely. I only wish that everyone could have been there."
"Next time, Elena, next time," he laughed, clasping my hand in an interminable handshake, "and how soon will you be back?"
While I always strive to be optimistic, I wasn't exaggerating or sugar-coating the truth when I told Renán that our meeting was good. In fact, it was probably the best grower meeting I have ever attended, for reasons that I could never have predicted when I stood up in front of this group for the first time and collected votes for a coffee name four years ago. I admit that endless co-op meetings and price negotiations don't make for good stories, the way we usually tell them. Where's the new-relationship magic? Where's the adventure? That said, I always want my trip reports to give a behind-the-scenes look at life on the ground in the communities where we work and right now, growers are having a lot of meetings to talk about price: with their neighbors, with their co-ops and on my visit, with their buyer.
This idyllic little valley may seem remote to me after a two-day journey, but the Peruvian coffee market figured out that this area produced good coffee long before Cenfrocafe's coffee started winning awards. Competition from the local market (multi-national companies with representatives in and around San Ignacio) has only gotten tougher since we started working with these five communities and even since my last visit nine months ago, the commodity futures price for coffee has risen almost 50 percent! So what does such an increase mean to the growers and to our partnership? That's exactly what I aimed to find out.
"Last year's price wasn't as good as the price the year before," said Segundo Llacsahuanga, and other growers nodded their heads in agreement.
"It feels like we are working harder to produce better coffee than anyone else but the price isn't different," explained Soledad Cruz, the group's secretary.
It can be maddening to hear complaints like this because blame for the current situation should rest on the volatile, unreliable international market that for years we – growers and buyers – agreed had no bearing on the real costs of coffee production and great quality. Unfortunately, blaming the market gets you nowhere in negotiation – it's like blaming the weather or something.
Conversations about money are challenging whenever emotion is involved and, in a long-term relationship, emotion plays a role pretty much all of the time. But the point of a relationship isn't to make things easy, it's to make things better. Thankfully, most of the growers took advantage of the opportunity provided by my visit to share their experiences. We spent almost four hours brainstorming around the ways we could structure a contract – including a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of different pricing structures to Counter Culture, the growers and the co-op that supports us – and somewhere in the middle of it I realized that this meeting, boring by many standards, was one of the most meaningful, riveting, powerful experiences I have had in my coffee career so far because I could see the progress we have made in the years of this relationship reflected in the way that growers talk and puzzle, thoughtfully and deliberately, through the implications of different pricing strategies. And while the answer isn't easy, the discussion is.
"So what is the solution this year? Can we decide?" At the end of four hours, a chorus of growers pushed for resolution.
"I know that part of me wants to make a decision today because it would feel good to resolve things before I leave," I said, "but it's only May and we have time, so we should use it. I can talk to my team at Counter Culture about what makes sense for us and you can talk to your families and the growers that are not here about what you want to do, and then we can both talk to the co-op because they are really good at understanding both their members and their buyers."
"We understand," said Soledad, "And we agree. The most important thing is to keep selling coffee to you." And as we left the meeting and moved on to farm visits and lunch (yup, guinea pig), I could hear and feel the buzz between growers about the opportunities this year presents and I felt just as excited as I did on my first visit … just a different kind of excited!