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Where We Started

As many of you may recall, we started an inquiry about microlots back in the Winter of 2011 when we spoke with 13 farmers from the Cenfrocafe in Peru about their experiences. While we learned a lot, one of the major challenges with this study was that none of the producers interviewed had repeat success as microlot producers. The common sentiment that microlot premiums were a result of luck was understandable but did not point – from a quality perspective – to how we could encourage other producers with concrete suggestions. And, we knew that producers with repeat microlot premiums exist in other areas where we purchased.

Phase II

While we felt we received valuable feedback from our partners in Peru, we were still looking for more streamlined feedback for producers. Ideally we would have more quantitative metrics in regard to farm and investment practices – as well as greater proof of the positive impacts of microlots. So, with this in mind we hatched a plan with one of our exporting partners, Virmax, in the fall of 2012. As a purveyor of microlot coffees who have built their business model on high-quality, differentiated small lots, they had many of the same questions we did about the repeatability and common characteristics of microlot producers. This time, because of Virmax’s long-established, data-rich microlot program in Colombia, we decided to focus our inquiry there. What made this group different as well was that all producers interviewed were previous recipients of the microlot premium.

Together, we designed the survey instrument (going through about seven iterations) and helped train promotores (technicians) who would be going into the field to interview producers. From January – February of 2013 surveys were administered, and, at the end of February, Kim Elena visited some of the producers interviewed, as well, to gain more of an understanding.

Analysis

The spring found us realizing just how much data we were now sitting on with 122 coffee producers interviewed. Though starting to sift through the data was fascinating, neither one of us had the time or the full expertise to do the analysis required for a study of this scale. So, thanks to a mutually serendipitous meeting, we were able to partner with Ruth Ann Church, a woman who is both a coffee buyer – who also buys from Virmax – and who is currently working on her Master's Degree in Community Sustainability, to assist in the analysis and reporting part of the project. Ruth Ann and I recently did a live webcast moderated by Kim that talked about the research process and further research questions that you can check out anytime.

Similar to the first phase of research, much of what we heard about good practices was no surprise. However, the data did begin to point to what microlot producers may have in common with one another, both in their farm practices and in their use of the extra income from the premium.

In particular, the data showed the group of farmers that had 3 microlot years in a row as opposed to 1 or 2 microlot premium years were more likely to fertilize based on soil analysis, use family members for coffee picking, prune intentionally, plant the Colombia variety, and use three specific drying practices (sliding roof, parabolic patio with beds, and patios with net floors). In addition, they are more likely to invest the premium back into on-farm costs, such as fertilizer, than in family needs.

While the data points to some interesting results, there is still more to understand. In particular, understanding exactly which practices are strongly correlated with – not just happening alongside external factors we may not have controlled. An example here is that yes, those who sold microlots 3 years in a row seem to plant more Colombia variety when they are renovating. However, we also know as an aside that Colombia variety does not necessarily result in flavors that we would reward for quality. Thus, we will continue to refine, to filter results through what we know, experience and continue to expect. And, hopefully get still closer to sharing pertinent feedback with producing partners.

The open-ended questions allowed us to get at the experiential side, and we were pleased to continue to understand producers’ motivations, challenges, and higher level perceived community impacts of the microlot premiums. I'm Colombia now sharing the results and hoping to gain still more analysis based on producers’ reactions to the research.

What’s Next

I don’t think either one of us could have imagined that when we embarked on this "microlot question" in 2011 we would be here now – with a lot more information and still more questions. Ideally, what we have put forth over the last two years encourages others within the coffee industry to ask the questions they have always wanted to ask, to find answers that will ultimately be of benefit to those throughout the supply chain. We are also more than happy to be available for others who have questions about the process, about how to create their own mini-research project, or about our findings in general. 
Read on for the full report!

Thanks,
Hannah
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