Coffee, COVID and why Jasper puts price before profit
11 August 2021 at 4:12 pm
“From my experience of dealing with so many growers, they are, to me, the best environmentalists. They look after the soil and the world for us just so we have good coffee.”
When it comes to our morning coffee, a lot of our collective focus and attention over the past few years has been on making sure we’re sipping from a reusable cup. But in the melee of doing our best for the environment, have we stopped thinking about where the coffee itself comes from and what it costs the growers to get it into our hands?
When Wells Trenfield founded Jasper Coffee alongside Merilyn Parker in 1989, the sole focus of the business was to bring great coffee into Australia while paying the growers what they needed to survive.
32 years later and this hasn’t changed. Today, Jasper is a B Corp, Fairtrade certified and carbon neutral. Trenfield says he has never wavered from that original goal for Jasper — it’s just that the world got more complicated, and what we think of as ‘sustainable’ doesn’t always show the bigger picture.
What is sustainability, really?
The word “sustainable” is one that gets thrown around a lot in the world of conscious consumerism but it’s a word Trenfield feels has become a bit skewed.
“When people think of the word ‘sustainability’ they think of the environment but it’s also about economic sustainability,” Trenfield told Pro Bono News. “I’m very conscious about how little [the industry] pays the coffee growers. If people can’t live after doing all the hard work they do, then that to me is unsustainable.”
Trenfield thinks part of the problem is that western consumers seem to want more and more proof that the people they buy from are “sustainable”. However, he points out that it’s generally the growers themselves that have to cover the cost of collecting the data to prove their own sustainability.
“[Sustainability] is a new consciousness for the West, the reality is that growers are far more concerned about the environment than we are,” Trenfield says. “They entirely rely on their soil, their processing, not using too much water, their pest control and fertiliser and whether it’s organic or not – we are constantly learning from them.
“From my experience of dealing with so many growers, they are, to me, the best environmentalists – they look after the soil and the world for us just so we have good coffee.”
We should be paying more for our coffee
When choosing to work with a new grower for Jasper, good coffee is where Trenfield, and his coffee broker, always start. They then work backwards to find out more about the grower.
“We want to know who the grower or cooperative is, which means learning about their situation and whether they’re able to earn a living. We then want to know if we can help them by buying their coffee,” he says.
“Should we be paying them more has always been the constant question for us. We’ve never baulked at paying higher prices, I’ve always chosen coffee on its merits and whatever the price was, that’s what I paid.”
Paying growers a higher price for their coffee is something Trenfield is deeply passionate about. He says that he can see that his growers desperately need a better price for their coffee but it’s up to the consumer to understand its worth.
“People pay $4 a cup and they have a problem with that but they’re quite happy to pay $12 for a beer or $14 for a glass of wine, and then drink two or three glasses,” he says.
“The mentality is that coffee is too expensive but if we continue to expect the growers to be providing it cheaply, it has a knock-on effect on their lives.”
The impact of COVID has added to an already complex issue
The pandemic has added a layer of complexity and problems to the already existing problem of low prices being paid to the growers.
“There have been seven years of really low coffee prices and now harvesters can’t travel across state borders to come in and pick the coffee. You would usually have harvesters coming from, for example, Panama to Honduras or into Costa Rica to pick the coffee,” Trenfield explains.
“So, growers in Costa Rica have to pay higher wages to people in their own country to do the work. It’s a compounding exercise that means the growers are getting less for their coffee because they’re having to pay higher wages. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be paying those wages but it adds to the problem.”
With Jasper Coffee growers in Peru, Columbia, Ethiopia and India, Trenfield has spent a lot of his time during the pandemic checking in with them over Whatsapp.
“We’ve had it easy in comparison to how the pandemic has affected them. They’re all in a right mess,” he says. “Plus, in November last year, our Honduras cooperative was hit by two hurricanes two weeks apart. They’ve just about collapsed.”
Trenfield says that while the pandemic has hit each country quite differently, there’s been a lot of crossover – mainly the closing of all borders.
“In India, it’s a mess. Our coffee, which we should’ve received in May, was only taken from the grower in early July. It’s been sitting on his farm because it hasn’t gone to the mill to be processed because there have been no transport drivers to take it,” he says.
“You can’t cross borders in India and you can’t find truck drivers, never mind forklift drivers or document signers. Same in Columbia.”
Trenfield explains that the problem lies in the amount of movement needed to get a grower’s coffee off their farm, to the coffee mills and beyond.
“A lot of coffee moves across the country from mill to mill and growing area to growing area and that means driving across state borders,” he says.
“The truck drivers, who would usually drive the coffee to the mills, are getting blocked at the borders and being expected to hand over their own private truck to another driver to continue the journey to the mill. And you can imagine, they’re not going to hand their truck over to anyone so there’s coffee just stacking up at the border and not getting to the mills.”
The importance of certification to the grower
The one light at the end of this complex tunnel of prices and pandemics is the global Fairtrade system.
When a farmer is not part of a Fairtrade cooperative, they only get paid when the coffee makes it to the mill. In turn, the mill is only paid when the coffee is processed.
Trenfield says it can be very difficult for them to live. “They might not have money for months,” he explains. “Food diversity is such a problem across the industry because these growers are using all their land just to grow coffee. They can’t afford seeds to grow anything else.”
In the Fairtrade system, it’s a little different.
“As part of a cooperative they get paid immediately, or whatever the cooperative has negotiated. Sometimes the grower will get paid half straight away and the other when it’s milled and processed,” Trenfield says. “By and large they get paid upfront.”
For Trenfield and his team at Jasper, the aim of their business is the same as it was 32 years ago — to bring great coffee into Australia and to pay the growers what they needed to survive.
All we have to do as consumers is stop complaining about the price and, perhaps, ask our local barista if they know where the coffee comes from. Oh, and whether or not it’s Fairtrade.
Find out more about Jasper Coffee, here.