Collaboration in the Coffee Chain — Interview with Tim Wendelboe

At the same time, you are a farmer, a roaster and a barista. So you are everywhere on the coffee chain. Why those changes of career?

It’s just about curiosity, to be able to understand what I’m actually doing. I started as a barista, and over the years as a barista, I learnt a lot about the preparation of coffee and how to improve it. Then I realized — I came to a point where it didn’t really matter what I was doing with the preparation: coffee didn’t taste better.

So I started looking into the roasting because a big part of the problem was actually the roasting and not the preparation. After many years of roasting I became better at it, then I started to realize that the limitations were not necessarily in the roasting and in the brewing anymore. The limitation was the green coffee and understanding why some green coffees were not as good as others.

I started travelling to origin and learnt a lot. Every time you go to a farm, the growers try different techniques, you can connect them to the taste of the coffee when you buy it. And over time, you take notes to see what works.

The reason why I started farming came from the project to use a piece of land to experiment crazy ideas. For instance in Colombia they have two harvests: so why not try to pick the flowers away and just have one harvest instead of two? — Idiotic ideas like that, that are not necessarily idiotic, but maybe not affordable for a farmer. So I wanted to invest in a land where I could just try those kinds of things.

When I bought the land and was about to start to plant coffee, I was very curious about organic farming. A coffee guy advised me to check out a soil scientist, Dr. Elaine Ingham . I took some classes with her and I’ve been completely brainwashed, in a good way. Then the project is not anymore about experimenting with picking out flowers from the trees. It’s about trying to figure out the way to grow coffee without having to buy fertilizers and pesticides.

I truly believe after what I’ve learnt, that the biggest reason for our problems in the coffee industry, among farmers — [and I’m talking about problems like the leaf rust, pest and disease on the trees, drops in quality, climate change all these kinds of things] — Everything is linked to the soil. If you have healthy soils, the trees will be healthy. You will have less problems with disease and pests… If you have shade trees, you create ecosystems where you have less problems with insects and also less problems with climate changes.

So my projects started in a very naive way, it is probably still very naive. But the goal became bigger: to show that you can cultivate coffee in a much better way, hopefully much cheaper. It’s more sustainable, more productive and a better quality. Here is what I’m trying to prove.

Are you already roasting your own coffee?

No, I’ve lost most of my coffee trees that I planted. Because I am a bad farmer and also because changing a very poor soil takes time. And I have to prove that I know how to grow coffee before I can pretend to change the world of course.

Coffee is a huge agricultural sector in the world. Most of it is made conventionally with a lot of chemicals and pesticides. This is not sustainable. And even when we try to talk about sustainability in coffee, it’s all bullshit. Because if we look at most of the farming practices, they’re not sustainable, the price of the market is not sustainable, the packing and shipping are not sustainable…It’s hard to find some sustainable solutions. But at the growing part of the chain, sustainability is possible. It’s going to take a lot of commitments and proves to convince farmers to change the way of producing because for them, it’s too much risks involved to make the transition.

How would you describe the way you collaborate with the other actors of the coffee chain?

I am a people person so I deal with people more than just looking for the best coffee in the world. In my opinion, finding good coffee starts with finding good people. Finding a good farmer who believes in the same kind of values as I do and wants to work in a more progressive way: that’s the challenge. It’s like dating, when you’re speed dating for instance, some people you just don’t connect with. It’s the same with farmers. Farmers that I connect with don’t necessarily have the best coffee, but that’s the beginning of something, and we can work on that. Quality can improve rather it’s more difficult to work on a personal connection.

That is also how I like to work with exporters. I’m not always using the cheapest exporter. I need people who understand what I want and who deliver the service that I want. I like to work with people more than the actual ``business side” of business.

If you want to be the best little student of the coffee world, you can just buy auction coffees all the time. But you would not have an intellectual relation with the person who grew the coffee. And for me this is a big part of the quality: to know who produced the coffee, how it was produced; it adds value.

I can drink the best coffee in the world but if I know that it’s been grown in a very damaging way, it doesn’t give me pleasure. — It might be a good coffee; but it does not give me any pleasure.

Is there a collaboration during your career you are particularly proud of?

Yes, I think my collaboration with Elias in Colombia is probably the strongest coffee collaboration I experienced. I stay on his farm almost three months a year now, because I bought my land from him and I don’t have a house over there. So I’m staying at his place and I’m also buying his coffee. He’s the farmer that I helped the most in the transformation from being an average Colombian producer to a producer people come to visit and learn what he’s doing. We’ve done that together and it’s been an intense work relationship.

How did you get to know him?

Just randomly, I went on an origin trip, we visited a gorgeous group of farmers and he was the leader of the group. I didn’t end up buying his coffee, but I met him again later. He bought some new farms and that’s what we are working on now.

I would say that I have a good relationship with each of the farmers I’m working with. They’re all different and have different needs. Elias is probably the one that I’ve spent most time with, also because my farm is there.

And why do you like working with him especially? Is he enthusiastic when you share some new ideas?

Not at all! Good ideas might sometimes not be economically viable. He’s very good at thinking about that aspect. He’s not the most difficult farmer I’ve worked with, but he is not the easiest one either. Changes happen over time and it can be slow or sometimes fast paced. For example with some of my partners producers Marysabel Caballero and Moises Herrera, if I ask them to do something they would do it immediately without questions. Sometimes they don’t even want me to commit to the coffees that they experiment with. But I prefer to commit to it. If I ask for something to be done. I’m going to buy it regardless of the quality result. But they’re happy to do it because they’re in an economical position where they can take risks. Whereas with Elias we would have to discuss how we are going to finance.

Do you wish for deeper collaboration in the coffee chain?

Yes, especially in Kenya, I wish I could have a more direct relationship. Because I want to eventually help someone to become organic, in Kenya there is almost no organic coffee being grown. Some farmers are using just a little bit of chemicals, but there’s still a very old school coffee culture.

Do you have ideas to make it happen?

I’m trying to find a small estate to work with. But it’s difficult.

What would you like to say to the person before you and after you on the coffee chain? — of course it depends how you consider yourself, barista, roaster or farmer..

I would like to say to baristas that I wish they would learn more about how the coffee is grown. Not just from textbooks and YouTube but from real life. To realize that we have to pay more for coffee. Quite often the barista is not buying the coffee, it’s their boss and the consumer who pays. But they are the ones who are communicating directly with consumers. Baristas also need to know that the price of the traded coffee is too low, because their role is also to explain it to the final consumer, to educate them, to transmit the knowledge.

To the farmers… — I don’t even know what to say to them. — There are many things you can say, but it’s difficult to recommend something to them because every change has economic consequences. So I am very careful to recommend something to a farmer unless I know that they have a buyer who’s willing to pay for whatever has been recommended. Trying to team up with exporters that have specialty buyers, trying to learn about specialty coffee is a good thing for every farmer. Though it’s not always possible: you can have a farm at a very low altitude, you don’t have the potential for specialty… but at least you learn about the market and you know you should focus more on productivity. So I guess getting to know the market is important for a farmer.

What would you like the farmers to understand about your work?

I think that quite often, especially when you go to countries like Kenya, farmers get upset when they know how much we sell their coffee. Because we bought it for — let’s say 5 dollars per pound and then we might sell it, for 30 dollars per pound. What is hard for them to understand is that there are costs involved and lots of steps in the middle. Also for example, the cost of life in Norway is not comparable to Kenya.

Being aware of those mechanisms is one thing, I don’t blame them for not understanding it, it’s difficult. They’re not roasters, so it’s not easy for them to get the bottom line. Knowing how the market works and a good communication with the buyer is key for the farmers.

We should understand that we have the power to pay more for the coffee without big consequences. If you paid 50 cents more per pound, or a dollar more per pound, it’s not going to bankrupt your company. But it is a make-or-break for the farmer. So we can do it. It’s just that nobody wants to do it, or they believe they can’t do it because there’s a lot of competition. They say we need very cheap coffee, but we’re not in an industry of cheap coffee. The only way we can move forward I think is to focus on other aspects, like good quality that we have actually paid a better price for. And then we have to do it, not just say it.

Do you think you have a responsibility towards the other actors of the coffee chain? How do you manage it?

Yes I think so, and once again we come back to the pricing topic. My responsibility is to make sure that I pay enough for the coffee, so that it is profitable for the farmers, then they can progress and deliver the quality that I want. If I’m only paying for them to just breakeven; they won’t be a consistent supplier for me: that’s my responsibility. And I also have a responsibility not to overpay because if I do, I won’t be able to sell the volumes that they need in order to make money. So that’s a fine balance. Paying one dollar extra doesn’t mean that I’m going to sell less coffee. Actually, it’s the opposite sometimes.

My biggest responsibility is to try to push forward our industry in a more positive way. It’s quite a critical moment, the most critical moment ever since I started in coffee: the coffee prices are so low and it’s probably going to be like that for a while.

When you buy a coffee what kind of price information would you like to know?

There’s never a number that would satisfy everyone. Instead of getting into the nitty-gritty of: is the farm price or FOB price the right price? What the FOB price tells is if you paid enough for the coffee or not. If you’re paying $2 FOB I can guarantee you, it’s not enough. If you are paying $6 there will be chances that someone got paid well, but maybe that person was the exporter, you never know. So for me, the FOB price is a good reference but it also needs transparency.

Unfortunately most people aren’t transparent. For instance, we had a panel debate at the Nordic Roaster Forum last year: it was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing that we were talking about transparency. We were on stage with importers and we were sitting there, discussing if the FOB price is a good price to show. — Well at least, the FOB price is something. It’s better than nothing.

Then I just asked the question to the audience when I was on the stage: “How many people think transparency is important?” And everyone raised their hands. Then I asked the next question: “So how many of you have actually published a transparency report of the price of your coffee?” And no one raised their hands…

This is the problem of our industry. I do see, every day, a lot of green-washing, a lot of companies talking about sustainability, paying the right prices to the farmers… — I actually know what they have been paying sometimes, because I know the farmers and also some of the importers. — And it’s not always the case. Because no one is calling them out and there’s no need for them to publish anything, so people just believe this green-washing.

In your dream coffee chain, how should those price numbers be presented?

For the final consumer, it doesn’t matter so much.

It is relative: a FOB price of four dollars in Rwanda is a very good price maybe whereas in Brazil, it might not be a very good price. Depending on how the coffee was grown… If it’s a small holder, farmers in São Paulo for example. Then it’s probably a bad price because it’s very expensive to produce the coffee there.

Those transparency reports are for the coffee industry. An interesting thing that started last year is people putting these numbers together and then creating a kind of benchmark for what is actually the market price for quality coffee. And then you can compare: am I paying above or below? That’s what is important. So it’s good because we finally are starting to be able to differentiate ourselves from the commodity market. The price for producing commodities is totally unrelated to quality.

Thanks Tim!

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Eli Vlt

Quality coffee lover and thinker in Amsterdam. On the quest for a collaborative coffee chain.