The Borderlands project is one of the most groundbreaking Direct Trade projects we’ve been a part of at Stumptown. What started as a way make the coffee trade more profitable and more sustainable for smallholder growers in Nariño, Colombia has since strengthened local economies and galvanized entire communities.
Adam McClellan of our Green Coffee Sourcing Team was invited to be a part of the Borderlands Advisory Council in 2013, which is a group of folks from the specialty coffee market invited to develop a buying strategy that initiates a long term commercial relationship with the growers there. Nariño is one of the most geographically remote, yet interesting and physically stunning landscapes producing coffee in all of the Americas.
Adam sat down to talk to the Borderlands project director Michael Sheridan from his home base in Quito, Ecuador to give us some insight and updates on the project.
Tell us a little about your background and how you came to be working with coffee farmers.
Like most other people working in coffee, I fell into it by dumb luck. I earned an undergraduate degree in International Politics, and went back for a Master’s in International Development, and I have been living in Latin American on and off for nearly 20 years, but I don’t think any of that particularly qualifies me to lead coffee projects.
On the other hand, I feel like everything I have ever done has helped prepare me for this work. The point where it all started to come together was when I volunteered in the coffeelands of Nicaragua after college. I knew then that I wanted to work in international development and gradually worked my way into a job with CRS [Catholic Relief Services, the organization who heads up the Borderlands project.] In 2004, I led the creation of our Fair Trade Coffee Project in our headquarters, and I have been working on coffee ever since.
Who started the Borderlands project and what are the project’s main objectives? How does it work?
We developed the Borderlands concept together with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, a key partner in our work in the coffeelands around the world. The main idea was to find ways to make the coffee trade more profitable and more sustainable for smallholder growers in Nariño, Colombia. We didn’t know exactly how we could do that until we got our boots dirty in the field and started to understand the region’s coffee sector better.
Now it is very clear: help growers effectively separate their coffees for different segments of the market and help them connect with buyers in each of those segments. When we started working in Nariño, some of the growers in the project were producing coffees scoring 87, 88, 89 points. But the value they were creating with their commitment to quality evaporated the moment they sold it in the plaza to be bulked.
Growers failed to capture the value they created: quality-obsessed roasters lost out on sourcing opportunities, and consumers never got to taste these amazing coffees. This project is trying to change that.
In its third year of the project, what types of responses are you seeing from farmers at this stage?
Sheer excitement. I can’t begin to convey the degree to which this project is generating excitement in Nariño. The growers have been unbelievably motivated by the contact with Stumptown and other members of the Advisory Council and the new opportunities they are seeing in the marketplace, but they’re not the only ones. The Governor of Nariño has gotten personally involved in the project. Mayors have donated land for washing stations. Non-profits have contributed their time and insights.
The University of Nariño has created a degree program in specialty coffee for the children of coffee growers. Students from local universities have been showing up to do free internships. It is really gratifying to be associated with something that has been so embraced by so many different local actors.
Why did you decide to begin working in Nariño and take on the Borderlands project? What about the region was inspiring regarding specialty coffee opportunities?
Nariño stands out in a few ways.
Nariño’s coffee has extraordinary potential, of course. The conditions for coffee production in Nariño are just about perfect, and there is plenty of room for expanding coffee production if growers can make coffee more profitable. But growers haven’t been able to cash in on the region’s potential as effectively as they might because they have lacked access to some important segments of the market, including markets for quality-differentiated and certified coffees.
We did an intensive baseline study when we started the project that generated some pretty remarkable findings. Only 4 percent of growers reported ever having earned premiums for quality. Only 2 percent had ever marketed their coffee collectively. And only 2 percent of the region’s coffee goes into Stumptown’s segment of the market. I have never worked before in a region with so much potential and so much room for improvement.
How are roasters like Stumptown engaging in the project and its advisory council?
The Advisory Council has been, for me, one of the most exciting aspects of the project. It creates a platform for ongoing communications between roasters, exporters, project staff, partners and growers so we can align our vision and our actions for the benefit of everyone. That is the essence of our value chain approach.
What I like most about the Advisory Council is that Stumptown, Counter Culture and Intelligentsia compete in the marketplace but everyone collaborates in this space. Why? Because if the project succeeds, everyone wins.
Growers have higher incomes, stable organizations and more options in the marketplace. Roasters have access to traceable, differentiated lots from an exceptional origin.
What other social benefits are the most impactful in the coffee communities as a result of the Borderlands project work?
For eight years running, Nariño has been the leading coca producing department in the leading coca producing country in the world. The areas where Stumptown’s coffees were grown are coca producing communities. And where there is coca, there is violence. That creates a challenging operating environment in some of the communities where we are working, but it also means that if we can make coffee farming profitable for these families we may be able to help them avoid the temptation of the coca trade.
What can we look forward to with the Borderlands project?
Over each of the past two harvests, we have helped make commercial connections between growers in Nariño and four members of the Advisory Council, including Stumptown. This year will be the third harvest for the project, and we are planning to continue to grow the volumes and increase the quality.
But the really important stuff comes in 2016, when the washing stations we are building start operations. Building them is easy, of course. Building farmer-owned enterprises strong enough to manage them after the project ends is harder. These businesses are central to what we hope to achieve with the project — the thing that has me most excited and the thing that keeps me up at night.
We have enlisted the help of the experts at Root Capital who know a thing or two about how to run coffee enterprises. We have found support for our vision from some unlikely investors: we just got funding from the Government of Nariño to help make these businesses hum. And we are talking with other investors about potentially expanding this approach.
Talk a little about costs of production and what it takes to get to the level of quality the high end specialty market demands? How are smallholder farmers able to make it work?
Well, I don’t think it’s entirely clear that smallholder farmers are making it work. The economics of smallholder coffee farming are tenuous at best. The Colombian Coffee Commission just released a report recommending reforms to the coffee sector that included some good analysis. It said coffee gives smallholder growers “enough income to survive, although not to overcome poverty.” That is a depressing observation, but in our experience it is often true.
We are working with researchers at CIAT (the International Center for Tropical Agriculture) to study costs of production in Nariño and get a better grasp on smallholder profitability. The preliminary results suggest that given the low yields in the region, the only segment of the market that is currently profitable is the high-end specialty segment. My colleague Mark Lundy will be presenting these results during The SCAA Event later this week during a panel on costs of production.
This year, we are offering a micro-lot from Piedra Blanca in Samaniego, led by producer Nelcy Villota’s fantastic quality. Can you talk a little about her leadership in that community and some of the dynamics and challenges in Samaniego?
Nelcy is a force of nature. The first time I met her, I was struck by how passionately she talked about her farm and her coffee, and how desperate she was to learn. She was getting technical assistance from the project, but was practically begging for more—for any kinds of resources that could help her improve her yields or her quality. She is a leader in her coffee association—she runs a roasting project—and in her community, where she leads a community savings group. She sets a powerful example for others.
Samaniego is complicated. Coca, guerrillas, illegal armed actors. There are some pretty significant challenges there, but they haven’t stopped Nelcy and her neighbors from organizing. This year they will market their coffee collectively for the third straight year. Before the project started, they had never sold coffee collectively.
Also, I couldn’t be more stoked to have been able to select, purchase, and share the incredible Yellow Maragogype coffee from producer Corona Zambrano. You posted a blog about this curious case. Seeing as how it has now come full circle and we are offering this tiny micro-lot coffee in our Seattle cafes right now, what are you most excited about it?
This is an amazing story and I am so delighted that this particular chapter had a happy ending. If you will recall, Corona was going to tear out her Maragogype and replace it with Castillo when we took you to visit her farm. You helped save that coffee when you offered her a premium to separate it, and you created incentives for Corona and her neighbors to pursue this opportunity further.
We have helped Corona select Maragogype seed from her farm and students in the local public school are propagating it. Soon Corona will renovate her Maragogype grove, and her neighbors will begin planting it on their farms. With any luck, this tiny lot you are releasing today will blossom into something much bigger—a community-level Yellow Maragogype lot to start, but perhaps more. A community-wide commitment to quality. A process for continuous innovation. And an entrepreneurial brand of coffee farming that reads the signals the market is sending.
Thank you Michael! Learn more about the Colombia Nariño Borderlands coffee HERE.