November 6, 2017

First Crop Coffee

The specialty coffee industry is still young but has seen enormous growth over the past 7-8 years, and with this growth comes new business models, fresh ideas and an upheaval of traditional concepts and practices.

The green coffee market is no exception, and in recent years has seen a boom in importers, brokers, exporters and farmers bringing coffee into Australia. First Crop Coffee is somewhat of a new kid on the block, despite importing their first container of coffee in 2013. With green coffee traders seeming to come and go, what makes a sustainable and successful import company, in what is a volatile market susceptible to international currency, global warming and domestic turmoil in coffee growing regions. Celina Lazarus, co-founder, owner and director of First Crop Coffee explains; “Our main focus is on relationship, relationship at origin and relationship with coffee roasters. We have built our business on trust, respect and honesty. With our farmers and suppliers it’s about standing by our commitments and purchasing from the same places each harvest. With the roasters it’s about sharing the true story of the coffee and sharing our relationship at origin so that they are apart of that. By investing our customers into the relationship it creates an emotional connection, they are buying directly, we are just facilitating and bridging the gap.”

The term Direct Trade has become somewhat of an industry joke, without any actual definition or requirements it can be applied at any time by any one to any coffee. With such a gaping hole in integrity, how do you establish what is or isn’t directly traded? “First Crop doesn’t use the term Direct Trade, because it is really a hollow term that has been misused and de-valued. We prefer to say that our coffee is ethically and sustainably sourced. Those who know us (Celina Lazarus and husband Tony Strickett, the other co-founder, owner and director) know what we stand for and what we believe, and those who don’t know us find out pretty quickly what we’re about. We promote that our offers list is the same each year, that we are consistently working with the same farmers and co-ops.

We are encouraging roasters to build their business around excellent, traceable coffees that are consistent. You can find a Colombian Huila from any of the other importers, and it may have a generic fact sheet with a farmers name, farm name, altitude etc etc, and next month it’s a similar tasting coffee from a different farm and same region, but we believe that by providing roasters with the same coffee from the same farmer consistently, not only helps their business, but builds the farmers business too. And that builds the relationship. By buying into that consistency and relationship the quality increases, and because there is direct relationship we are able to feedback to the farmers what roasters are enjoying and any issues or concerns about coffees. By creating this feedback loop farmers can increase their quality based on a buyers perspective, and roasters feel more involved with their product, which leads to long term trade and sustainability.”

First Crop is now importing from 9 countries and over 20 farms, and the network is growing each month. How do you sustain those relationships with Australia being so far away?
“We travel. A lot. One of the most frequent questions we receive is, are you in Australia? And though we are blessed to see these amazing places it does get exhausting. Also Whatsapp! Whatsapp is an absolute necessity for us, as we
have all our farmers on Whatsapp, we are regularly chatting and sharing pictures, we will send photos of roasteries and packaging, and they send us photos of the trees, or our containers getting packed. We started what we call reverse transparency, where we share with the farmer who’s buying their coffee and what they’re using it for, then when we visit we take bags for them. A lot of our farmers collect the bags for display so we always take two bags so they can drink it too. We also always invite our customers to origin with us, that way they can experience first hand the connection we have. I think we probably have the best origin trips because they’re so personalized, not just visiting an exporters office and cupping 100 coffees.”

While most coffee lovers will open an espresso bar or roastery, what led you to importing green coffee?
“We really felt like transparency and information was lacking in the industry, so we wanted to do something that hadn’t really been achieved, share the full story of importing coffee. We try and put as much as we can on our Instagram so people can better understand the journey, it’s more than just the farmer, the boat and Australia. There is a whole chain, and so many hands and steps, and so often this is kind of brushed over. We give our customers tracking numbers of the containers their coffee is packed in, so they can trace the ship and see how long it takes. We talk to our customers about the bag printing and choosing between Eco-tact and Grain Pro. We share these processes so the value is revealed. When you can see all the work that goes into getting that bean from the tree to your roaster, it’s a lot to take in. As an industry we romanticize origin and shaking the farmers hand, but at the end of the day this is the farmers business and livelihood, it’s our duty to be truthful about their role and the value of their role, and we do that by buying consistently and building the relationship. First Crop honours the producers we work with by making them as valuable as the roasters, committing to them and helping them to grow”.

How is First Crop making a difference?
The truth is that as an industry we need to start being realistic about what we are doing and what our values are. We need the farmers, but we also need to respect and value what they do. Typically the first thing any roaster does to reduce their overheads is look at their green coffee price, and you will see even the most loudly specialty brands doing this. We have to change that mentality, the farmers are not making enough money for coffee to be a long term future. As an industry we need to start being honest with ourselves about what a fair price looks like, because if you are paying $5-$7/kg for your green coffee, the farmer is not earning enough to pay fair wages to pickers, or to justify them continuing growing coffee, when other crops could provide greater value for the hectares. The hard truth is that we need to pay more for green coffee, and not just invest into single origin or small lots, but actually raise the basement price. A lot of roasters talk about it but very few are backing it up and that needs to change, farmers will lose interest long before global warming becomes a genuine threat.

By first crop coffee.

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