What can I say, I got bit by the direct trade/relationship coffee bug this year. It was Veracruz, Mexico, January 2016. I don't know if it was from tasting a few too many fresh ripe coffee cherries right off the branch, eating simple, delicious lunches prepared by farmers off the back gates of pickup trucks, or maybe it was just the sun (January in Iowa will do things to you). I returned home and bought coffee from fincas I'd walked just days earlier (through IP coffee, so not exactly a direct trade), knowing that I'd be back.
Not a month went by before, my friend Peter from Black Sheep Coffee Roasters in Bishop, CA was in El Salvador and Guatemala sourcing coffee for us. Peter kept me in the loop via calls and email, because two international trips in 2 months just wasn't in my 2016 plans. But together we were going to buy some awesome coffees direct from the source.
It's great to tour farms, meet producers and cup coffees at origin, but it's another thing to say to them "I like that one. I'll take 40 bags". Buying direct from the producer can be risky (and still requires limited support of an importer/exporter) but there's value in the transaction.
First, the farmer sees first hand that we, as roasters, care about the quality of coffee we buy. We care enough that we're willing to travel thousands of miles to see it in person. To many of us, it is so much more than a commodity to be bought and sold (even specialty coffee is linked to the commodity market). Great coffee is why we are able to do what we do, and without it, coffee farmers might be growing celery or sugar cane and we'd be roasting peanuts.
Second, the farmer is able to sit down and negotiate prices and terms directly with the roaster who will take their coffee the final few steps of its long journey. By making a direct sale, more money goes to the farmer. This is crucial when you consider global economic pressures, coffee leaf rust (roya), global climate change and other uncertainties. I suppose you could also say that, at least for small roasters and fincas, it's taking a bigger, more corporate third party out of the equation and keeping the transaction between two little guys.
Finally, it allows us, as roasters, to buy and bring better coffees to our markets. The coffee we're looking at is not significantly less expensive than the coffee we can buy from one of several reputable, responsible, pro-farmer importers. It is, however; most likely, better. Without going into the minutiae of coffee scoring and sourcing, it's safe to say that the coffee we're buying will be noticeably smoother, sweeter, brighter and finer than what we could get for the same price elsewhere.
I will still buy lots of coffee from a few awesome importers. They play a vital role in my success, but I hope to also offer more direct trade and relationship coffee to you in the near future.