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Microlot coffees – a new strategy for smallholders and new coffees for consumers

DR Wakefield’s head trader Santiago Barahona’s view and personal experience of microlots, especially for smallholders, is considerably positive. Recently returning from a trip to Peru, Santiago tells of inclusivity, quality, long-term support and and the natural evolution of coffee production.

This opinion is in happy contrast to certain criticisms of the process found scattered, in varying severity, across the coffee universe. There are indeed important questions to ask. Value arises as a contention, likewise the benefit to farmers, and sustainability. But while the strategy has detractors examining its every facet, a close inspection gives us encouraging answers. Santiago is clearly a supporter, and keen to express his enthusiasm for the projects and coffees.

Special selections

The “microlot” process, in short, involves selecting specific crops and dedicating special attention to them. ““[Microlot crops are selected] to provide the best taste experiences to the consumer and to recognize coffee growers that produce extraordinary quality””, writes Kim Elena Ionescu for Coffee Counter Culture. The crops in some cases are territorially separate from the greater farmland, or sometimes picked and farmed by microlot specialists, whose authority and expertise goes into each stage of production. In Project 121’s case, this is even extended to include their portrait on the retail packaging (“it gives a face to the producers, who otherwise remain unrecognised as key players of the specialty market,” Santiago explains).

Asking important questions

A significant question comes up here: can microlot farming provide a reliable income for smallholders? The answer is perhaps not as simple as the question might suggest, but evidence points to numerous benefits that ultimately add up to viable and quantifiable value for coffee producers. “There is no single solution to the problem farmers face,” Santiago says. “Microlots are an additional way of improving your income, but not the only way.”

Of course, plenty depends on the farm’s existing quality and infrastructure, as well as the land’s natural characteristics. This can all make production difficult to predict and rely on. However, microlots give farmers, firstly, opportunity they might not have elsewhere. Namely, in recognition of the quality of their production, DR Wakefield’s Project 121 initiative can connect farmers with roasters able to offer long-term support. Secondly, in added value. Microlot coffees of real quality are priced accordingly, higher than Fairtrade numbers in many cases.

Ongoing rewards

Again these conclusions do not come without criticism. Some have questioned whether microlots do truly offer sustainable income, or if the more accurate picture is hard toil to no reward. And again, scrutiny offers encouragement. “Microlots add value and preserve livelihoods,” Santiago says. Project 121 offers farmers the means “to [survive as] a small producer in the first place but also a top quality farmer.” In the right conditions, producing microlot crops to offer them to traders and consumers means that farmers can command higher prices for higher quality coffees.

The cycle then becomes ameliorative – increased income means increased investment in the land (“usually the effect is very positive,” writes Santiago), into production methods, and economic conditions. This in turn improves the return in next season’s crop, and so on. Microlot farming can be difficult (“one acre on the north side of the land may be a bit better than an acre on the east side of the land, and it’s rare to know exactly why since the next year, that may reverse”, write Paradise Roasters), but increased investment in producer training and education makes those positive results attainable. Paradise Roasters continue, “We pay nearly twice fairtrade prices for our coffee in order to give the farmer the incentive to make that effort.” DR Wakefield have a similarly advocating and supporting relationship with their own network of microlot producers, recognising their meticulous work and offering price according to quality.

Who benefits?

“Los felicito y me motiva seguir mejorando en la calidad de nuestro producto. [I congratulate them and they motivate me to continue to improve the quality of our product].”

Taken from Ionescu’s 2012 paper, co-written with Hannah Popish, ‘The Social Impact of Microlots’, this assertion from a farmer in cooperation with a nearby microlot producer summarises its merit. Though microlots may not be for every coffee producer, the strategy is seen to provide lift to farmers, cooperative members, traders and consumers.

The ripple effect

Santiago offers a succinct parting thought. “We as traders get the satisfaction of offering top coffees to our customers while at the same time adding value to the producers. Consumers benefit from drinking tasty coffee that has been ethically and sustainably produced and also they have the opportunity to learn more about who is behind what they are drinking.”

With a range of microlot coffees available from various producers, DR Wakefield is working in support of small, unique farms whose specialist products carry a love, care and attention, even beyond the crops that make up their daily livelihood.

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