São Benedito Farm: Transitioning from Commodity to Specialty Coffee Farming

In the expanse of the coffee ecosystem, there’s a spectrum. On one end, we have the commonplace, the commodity, the everyday brew that many coffee drinkers know and look forward to every morning. On the other, we find the elusive specialty coffee, a beverage of unparalleled flavor and complexity, crafted with care and dedication. The specialty coffee industry is growing at ~12% CAGR twice as fast as the overall coffee industry at ~6% CAGR, making the need for specialty coffee more significant than ever. To keep up with demand, we need more producers to transition from commodity to specialty coffee farming. In the world with AI and LLMs, streamlining and simplifying many of the mundane tasks, the job of coffee farms and the transition from commodity to specialty is more complex than most of us would think.

Today, we will explore the challenges and triumphs of producers transitioning from commodity-to-specialty (C2S) coffee and the pivotal role farmers play in this transformation. On my recent trip to Brazil, I made an intentional decision to visit producers that are making the C2S transition, one such producer is Cassiano Tosta, owner of the Sao Benedito farm in the Garcia region of Brazil.

Embarking on the C2S path is like navigating a labyrinth of complexities. The transition demands meticulous attention to detail, unwavering dedication, and a relentless pursuit of excellence. For Cassiano Tosta, owner of Sao Benedito, the C2S journey began with a vision — a vision to elevate his farm’s product from commonplace to extraordinary, a vision to establish his region as a leading source for specialty coffee and inspire other producers to follow his lead in his C2S transition. He continues to do this despite the skepticism and laughter of onlookers in his community for taking this path. One example of this is when he invested in a drying machine to enhance his processing methods, many of his community members laughed and mocked at this and thought he lost his savings forever. The decision was tough for him and he had to go through severe challenges until his investment paid off.

One of the foremost challenges faced by coffee farmers like Cassiano is the foreboding shadow of climate change. Global warming affects not only the quality but also the yield of each harvest. The rapid maturation of coffee fruit due to soaring temperatures also accelerates the cycle of production while simultaneously jeopardizing the delicate balance of flavor. As Cassiano expresses his concerns about the unpredictability of future harvests, it becomes evident that climate resilience is imperative for the survival of coffee farming communities worldwide.

Each coffee tree yields a finite number of cherries per year, and it fluctuates with the alternating rhythm of nature. Each cherry has about 2 seeds which we call a coffee bean. It takes three years for a sapling to bear fruit, and once matured, a coffee tree can be harvested for up to two decades, a testament to the symbiotic relationship between the farmer and the coffee plant. One of the biggest tasks of specialty coffee producers is perfect harvesting, handpicking only the ripest cherries to ensure optimal flavor development. Processing cherries to make coffee is a time-consuming & costly task and the most crucial step in determining the taste of coffee. There are various methods to process coffee beans, and it is during this step that the coffee fruit turns into green coffee beans that are ready to be roasted. To put things in perspective each tree harvests about 600 grams of green coffee, so a typical coffee drinker might need at least 14 coffee trees per year for their consumption. A coffee producer like Cassiano and his pickers have to hand pick cherries from 14 different trees, sort them by ripeness, wash, de-pulp, and process them for months, before turning them into sellable green coffee beans.

Specialty coffee farmers have to deal with various factors such as varietal, the health of the terroir, and environmental conditions like temperature, rain/drought, etc throughout the process. For example: The 2024 harvest is happening much earlier than normal due to temperatures resulting in cherry quality decline. Due to all such factors, producers like Cassiano can only use around 40% of their harvest as specialty coffee. The remaining 60% has to be either sold to the commodity market at the coffee index price or farmers can hope to get the best price for their specialty produce to offset the loss. In many ways, Commodity coffee is the necessary evil (pardon the word) in the coffee supply chain equation.

However, we must acknowledge the challenges plaguing the commodity market. While commodity coffee provides a semblance of stability for many farmers (often only large farms), it fails to address the fundamental needs of farmers. Cassiano’s C2S journey reveals some of the underlying economic challenges faced in the industry and calls for a shift in how we compensate coffee producers, adopting a reward system that goes beyond certifications and fair trade labels. There is a need for an ethical commodity coffee index that takes into account many factors like farmers’ break-even price based on location to meet the basic health, education, and facilities of the farmer families, and not just supply & demand which defines current coffee index pricing. This approach not only addresses the skill & dedication of these farmers but also provides them with the economic stability needed to thrive in an increasingly volatile market. To sum it up, to truly solve the problems at the farm production level and elevate overall coffee, we need more producers to transition from commodity-only farming to coffee to specialty + commodity farming and then to specialty-only coffee. While we traverse this path, we must develop new commodity index practices that address the issues in the commodity market, rather than solely focusing on specialty coffee.

At Bunafr, we advocate for farmers like Cassiano Tosta, whose dedication to excellence embodies the spirit of specialty coffee. By supporting farmers in their C2S transition, we not only foster economic empowerment but also cultivate a vibrant ecosystem of sustainability and innovation. Our vision extends beyond; we aspire to build bridges between producers and consumers, building a community bound by a shared passion for exceptional coffee.

In highlighting farms like Sao Benedito, nestled in the heart of the Garcia region, we celebrate not only the triumphs of individual farmers but also the history that accompanies each cup. We’re paving the way for a future where specialty coffee is highlighted along with the lives of those who make it a reality. Farmers like Cassiano Tosta and many others work hard to provide us with the coffee we deserve and to protect the future of coffee. May his story inspire more farmers to embark on this journey. Just as coffee requires the right balance of water, beans, and heat to achieve its unique flavor, addressing fundamental and deeply rooted challenges in the coffee industry requires collaboration and a balanced approach, one step at a time.

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