When people hear I started a farmer-direct coffee brand, they often ask me, “Is Eleva organic?”
It’s not, for the simple reason that going organic is not something I'd recommend for a small coffee farmer.
I’ve seen it time and again in my almost 20 years as a coffee trader: Managing an organic farm is complicated and risky. In 2010, for example, there was a massive roya epidemic, a fungus that decimated small farmers from Columbia to Mexico. Since Mexico is one of the largest organic coffee producers in the world, the farmers there were hit especially hard. Unlike a corporate farm, small farmers are totally dependent on the income from their crops. If a plague destroys the trees, they’re left with nothing.
Unfortunately, it’s only getting harder for small farmers to grow organic. Global warming (yup, it’s real) is changing conditions across coffee regions, and while coffee trees above 3,200 feet used to be safe from many pests and illnesses because the temperatures stayed cool year-round, that’s no longer the case. These areas have gotten warmer and plagues are appearing.
Another issue is ensuring the integrity of organic coffee. The reality is that it’s not uncommon for coffee that is not organic to make it’s way into the “organic” supply chain. . When this happens, no one wins. The consumer doesn’t get their organic coffee, and the truly 100 % organic farms face unfair competition that reduces their profitability, making it even more difficult to secure a reasonable income.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for organic products. No one wants an extra helping of pesticides with their food and drink. But I’m passionate about coffee farmers making a living, and, for now, I’m resigned to the fact that a better solution is training small farmers to use fertilizers and fungicides responsibly—especially since the outer layer of the coffee cherry is stripped, and it’s the bean inside that’s roasted, which means that organic farming has no impact on the taste of the finished cup of coffee.
When I see that a large, successful coffee company touts itself as being 100% organic, I think, that’s too bad, because I know it means that, chances are, they aren’t able to work with the vast majority of coffee producers, the small farmers who grow amazing coffees and could greatly benefit from their support. If I had gone organic, I wouldn’t be able to work with the incredible communities of Kossa Geshe, Ethiopia; Santa Palencia, Guatemala; and Peñas Blancas, Nicaragua. And I can’t imagine my coffee, or my business, without them.