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The Hidden Cost of Micro Lots

Five Senses CoffeeJacob Ibarra 30 September 2014

The world has never been so connected. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email… Once you get past time zones, communicating across continents and oceans isn’t even a hassle. I am a perfect example of this, as I am a transplant from the States and regularly text and chat with my family back in Texas. However, to think we have the full picture of everything merely because we are now so interconnected would be a grave mistake. In fact, on my coffee travels I often think, “If only we knew.”

It’s been a couple weeks since I got back and I have now had a bit of time to digest my Peruvian travels. Besides furthering our relationship with the co-operative Cenfrocafe, a major objective was to also participate in their first micro lot competition.

In the past, keeping lots separate has been something they did for a few buyers — and often only because of consistent pestering on the buyer’s part. Even then, the final preparation of the coffee realistically occurs according to the dry mill’s timetable. The reality is that co-operatives and mills are just like businesses here in Australia. They look to maximize their efficiency and therefore their margin for profit, and micro lots — by their very nature — are far from achieving economies of scale.

I sometimes think about what I would be willing to ask of another Australian company just to get the product I want. Would I be so bold as to tell them to alter their current way of doing things? Would I be so forward as to tell them that what they are actually doing is antiquated? Would I try to negotiate as intensely if I knew the real costs involved in adjusting their behaviour? What about the potential change to the culture of the organization; would I ask for change if I didn’t have at least some idea what this would do to them on a personal level?

This is precisely what we do as consumers — particularly when purchasing products from across the globe. In practice, this really is how the world goes round. In fact, this is also how progress unfolds. Markets evolve and so do supply channels. Markets evolve again and so do supply channels. I don’t necessarily think there is anything wrong with this, but understanding this leaves me questioning the repercussions soon to face Cenfrocafe.

I am thrilled to be getting a few tasty micro lots. I think Peru is largely underrated and will soon be receiving some of the specialty attention it deserves. However, co-operatives such as Cenfrocafe were created to bring small scale farmers together, to offer them more leverage in a global market as a collective whole. It is in their numbers that they have power and therefore the ability to generate money for the individual members who make up the co-operative.

Do you see what I am getting at? Targeting small lots (and therefore producers) might actually work against the ethos of a given co-operative. Now, I do not think that it necessarily has to be that way, but it will take strong leadership and organizational prowess to navigate this well.

Also, I cannot definitively say that an intense focus on one producer or their individual practices does not have its benefits for the industry as a whole. Honing in on a producer who is achieving quality results is a good way to better the overall ability of other producers. The individual micro lot producer can literally serve as an example for others in the area — and I have seen this work effectively.

In truth, I sometimes feel caught in the middle — the consuming side of me is thrilled that I am about to secure some beautiful micro lots, while the culturally sensitive part of me is aware I might have been a part of stirring some organizational change and feel guilty that I won’t be part of helping them navigate that transition. However, as I already mentioned, such is the nature of progress and the tension of working with a global product. I am confident that we at Five Senses are conscious of this and will navigate it the best we can. And the new Peruvian micro lots certainly give us a lot to look forward to!

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