First Crop Coffee on building sustainable relationships

First Crop Coffee

First Crop Coffee talks about the importance of paying producers fairly and maintaining an open dialogue with the farmers it supports, and the roasters it partners with.

First Crop Coffee was founded by Tony Strickett and Celina Lazarus to support coffee growing communities and provide roasters with a visible supply chain and connection to their growers.

“Celina and I started First Crop Coffee because we wanted to do what everyone says they do, which is to help farmers,” Tony says.

“We wanted to do something that wasn’t about Celina and I, that wasn’t about First Crop Coffee, but was about us finding producers and roasters to work with who value an equitable trade.

“We want producers to increase their yield because the more that they produce, the more money they can make. So we don’t buy coffee based off the C market price, we buy coffee based on what the producers dictate to us is profitable for them.”

Tony says this model has been successful for many of the farmers the green bean importer works with, particularly Sonia Castenada, owner of Himalaya farms in the Ahuachapán region of El Salvador.

Sonia, who has worked with First Crop Coffee since 2014, uses organic farming practises. She believes this keeps the flavour of the coffee pure and honours her family’s 155-year-tradition of coffee farming with the five farms she operates.

“I’m very proud of my family’s heritage and success in the Cup of Excellence competitions. To me, honouring my family heritage and legacy is very valuable, and I plan to leave the farms to my daughters,” says Sonia.

The El Salvadorian farmer insists on growing only 100 per cent Bourbon varietal, despite the crop being highly susceptible to leaf rust fungus, which attacks the leaves of the plant.

For Sonia, leaf rust has been one of the biggest challenges she faced over the past couple of years during the coffee-harvesting season.

“It affected us drastically in our production. We lost 80 per cent of our plants and are still recovering from it as we do not have the resources to grow new plants in order to replace the ones taken by the leaf rust,” Sonia says.
Tony adds that El Salvador coffee used to be really popular in Australia, but when the leaf rust hit it decreased the volume of coffee available and pushed the price up.

“Consequently, a lot of people who bought from El Salvador stopped buying the coffee because they thought, ‘it’s too expensive, we’ll just buy from somewhere else’,” Tony says.

First Crop didn’t. It purchased the entire Himalaya harvest and paid a premium price to help relieve its financial pressures.

“We ended up getting Sonia about US$2 per kilogram more for her coffee, which is a significant amount,” Tony says. As per First Crops standard buying practice, this was a price dictated by Sonia as to what is profitable for her.

Since 2019, the farm has been able to produce a steady harvest.

Historically, Sonia’s farm has only produced washed coffees, which is the same method her father used, but in 2020, she attempted her first natural processed coffees.

“When the leaf rust occurred, we talked to Sonia about something we’d seen other farmers in Guatemala do – plant leaf resistant varietals between their usual varietals, so the leaf rust can’t spread from tree to tree because it hits the resistant ones and dies out,” says Tony.

“She said, ‘no, I only grow Bourbon coffee, I don’t want to do it any other way’.”

But after consulting with Tony, both parties agreed that natural processing would create more interest among consumers than a typical clean washed process, and hopefully generate the demand and higher price Sonia needed to sustain her business.

Sonia and Tony communicate daily on WhatsApp, so he is always aware of what’s happening on the ground, the challenges she’s facing, and how he can help. This was how Tony learned of the impact the global pandemic was having on Sonia’s coffee production.

“With the lack of personnel to properly work the farms, it’s hard to find workers for picking, and working in the wet and dry mill,” Sonia says.

As a result, Tony says Sonia’s 2021 harvest looked bleak.

“With COVID, there was quite a labour shortage and trying to get people to come to work was really hard. People are scared because they know there’s going to be 200 other people there,” he says.

Himalaya coffee remained resilient, producing 3000 kilograms.

And after some minor shipping delays and through constant communication, Tony received Sonia’s harvest in the 2021 crop year and roasted what he believes is its best coffee yet.

“El Salvador definitely has one of the more unique flavour profiles,” Tony says.

“All of our customers who buy Sonia’s coffee rave about it. It was probably our most popular coffee this year.”

Tony says the result in the cup is due to Sonia fine-tunning her processing skills, creating a beautifully balanced coffee that flourishes fermented characteristics without jeopardising its clarity and cleanliness.
“To be able to continue to provide an excellent quality coffee fills us with a lot of pride, in addition to our environmentally friendly practices in which we guarantee all of our clients [who have] the satisfaction of consuming our coffee,” says Sonia.

“All these years of experience and passion from generation to generation, from crop to cup, continue to be present in both local and international markets with our recognised Himalaya brand.”

Despite the hardships, Sonia is eager to look to the future and assess how to improve Himalaya coffee, and that of her farming community.

“I would love to see the community obtain the necessary funds to renovate the farms so it becomes possible to increase jobs in the communities, increase coffee productions and provide a better quality of life for our workers,” she says.

Sonia is just one of the farmers First Crop works with, which Tony says creates stability for its farming partners and roasters.

“We’re booking the next three months’ worth of shipments, and the prices don’t change because the farmers we work with are paid fairly and they don’t need to worry about the market,” he says.

“We just want our partnerships to be equitable. We want them to make sense for everybody. At the end of the day, everybody’s in business. We don’t expect roasters to not be profitable, but we also don’t expect farmers to not be profitable either. So, it’s really important that people change their perception of what a coffee farmer is, because a coffee farmer is a business as well.

“That’s our ethos, that’s our business: paying coffee farmers fairly and creating that relationship for the roasters we work with.”

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This article appears in the February 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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