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Why Organic Coffee is Important
by Casey Wojtalewicz
When we started Canyon Coffee back in 2016, we didn’t even consider not sourcing and roasting organic coffee. We knew then as we do now that, like the air we breathe and the products we put on our skin, what we consume has a profound impact on our health, as well as the health of the environment where it's grown. We purchased organic produce and other food products for our kitchen, opting to source directly from farmers at our local markets. So when we began producing a consumable product of our own, it had to be organic simply to be true to ourselves and the way we live.
At its simplest, the choice to eat and consume organic is the choice of whether or not you want harmful agricultural chemicals and toxins to find their way into your system. But to us, it’s also more than that.
We believe that everything goes back to the soil. No matter if it’s carrots, coffee or wine—we believe when it’s done well, and it’s done right, we are ultimately tasting the soil, or terroir, of the place where the produce was grown.
Carlos Herrera Hernández, organic certification manager for the ACODIHUE co-op of Huehuetenango, Guatemala, giving a workshop in regenerative composting
What makes healthy soil? Healthy plants? Ultimately, we’re talking about healthy ecosystems. Ecosystems where the cycle of natural events is able to play out.
The reality of our globalized economic system is that soil health is not always the bottom line—not for farmers, traders or markets. There is a high global demand for coffee, and in order to maximize production, chemically-intensive farming methods are often employed. As a result, conventional (non-organic coffee) is one of the most heavily chemically treated crops in the world. Synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides are all employed to ensure productive plants and yields. Farmers, their families and communities, the soil, and the entire food chain and ecosystem all suffer as a result—not to mention the end user enjoying their cup of coffee.
Farmer-members of the ACODIHUE co-op preparing compost
Another key factor in conventional coffee is the use of hybrid plants developed to grow in the open sun. Coffee evolved and grows naturally better in shade. The result of this development has been the clearing of forests and the ecosystems within to make room for mass monoculture fields of coffee plants growing in the open. This has a negative chain reaction as the loss of shade and tree root systems leads to greater water runoff and erosion.
A farm south of Antigua, Guatemala, under the management of Bella Vista
Speaking strictly in terms of health, then—both for people, the soil and the environment—there’s simply no comparison to growing organic coffee. No synthetic chemicals or fertilizers are used in the farming or processing of organic coffee. This does not mean farmers don’t use fertilizers and other products to combat the usual suspects that love preying on coffee plants or competing with them for nutrients, it means that they are typically producing their own organic fertilizers and compost, as well as natural insect, weed and fungus repellants.
In practice, this is a pretty cool thing to behold. I had the privilege of personally attending an organic products workshop in the mountains of Huehuetenango. The workshop was put on by the staff of the ACODIHUE cooperative, which runs administration, processing and trainings for their roughly 800 farmers (80% of which are women). The workshop was led by Carlos Herrera Hernández, the organic certification manager for the co-op (photo'd above).
Coffee drying on the patio at Bella Vista in Antigua, Guatemala
As is common with co-ops we’ve worked with, the younger generation (the sons and daughters of farmers) will go to agronomy school, then return home to help their communities improve their methods, yield and—ultimately—quality of life. Such was the case at this workshop. The young staff were leading several families of farmers in preparing natural herbicides, pesticides, and ”coffee-rust” fighting compounds, as well as compost.
What does this look like? Literally, I walked up to a long table with about a dozen men, women and children slicing up garlic, onions and other produce that was being stewed in a giant vat. Large bins of mulch and other compost were inoculated with a healthy, beneficial fungal concentrate that speeds up the composting process and creates life-giving, nourishing soil. The young leaders were giving instructions for how to create and use these products as they were making them, together.
Farmer-members of the ACODIHUE Co-op preparing organic pest repellants
The interesting thing about these particular farmers in the workshop was that not all of them did not yet have organic certification; they were in the process of obtaining it. I was told firsthand by some farmers how this was a decision they were making for their future and, even more so, the futures of their children and grandchildren. They were in the beginning stages of converting farms that had been grown with chemically-intensive practices into organic farms, a years-long process.
This brings us to an important point we want to make regarding organic coffee. Our background in coffee was in the specialty or Third Wave movement. There is and has been an idea within specialty coffee that organic coffee is some form of greenwashing or a gimmick, and that the best-tasting coffees are grown in sustainable, environmentally-friendly ways without organic certification. There is also the very real knowledge that obtaining organic certification is a process that requires time and money—two assets not every group of farmers has.
Both of these concepts feel familiar for anyone who’s interacted with a producer at a farmer’s market who personally attests to being organic, without the certification. In those instances, it sometimes comes down to simply trusting the farmer.
In the case of coffee, though, we’re working with an internationally-traded commodity. As consumers, we don’t have the privilege of asking the farmer. Even the most sustainably-grown, least chemical-intensive coffees are often traveling around the world to their final destination. This means you, the coffee lover, depends on roasters like us to provide that accurate information and trust about the way the coffee is grown.
While it is true that some of the best coffees lack organic certification, in no way can it be taken for granted that someone producing “specialty”-grade coffee is farming or processing without the use of synthetic chemicals. Not only is this mindset naive, it is actually detrimental to the farmers who DO take the steps and make the investment to obtain organic certification. Any attitude that attributes organic certification as greenwashing is hurting the ability of organic farmers to make a living and recoup the valuable investment they made—an investment that, as we’ve discussed, benefits the health of themselves, their families, communities and environment all the way to you, the coffee drinker.
The reality for a farmer is that growing organically is risky. There’s a reason synthetic chemicals are so prevalent. They give more assurance to a farmer that the crops will produce a good yield.
Farmer-members of ACODIHUE in Huehuetenango
For all these reasons, we made the choice to source and roast certified organic coffee. As a roaster, this means having a little more limited selection of coffees to choose from when we source. It also means we must roast in a certified organic space, and have a whole added level of bookkeeping, protocols and cup-to-farm traceability conventional roasters are not held to.
A few years in to Canyon, we decided to also start working with non-organic coffees. Why? In part, because there is truth to the idea that there are farmers and co-ops out there growing sustainably, without synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, that lack certification. Growers in some countries, Papua New Guinea, for instance, are somewhat at the mercy of the systems and governmental bodies available to them. It’s harder to get certified in some places, more than others.
Another reason why we chose to carry conventional coffees goes back to that workshop. The farmers I met there and elsewhere around Central America on that trip were all aligned in their goal to achieve organic certification. This helped us understand that there are also farmers out there doing great, environmentally-sound work that merit our trust and support, despite lacking certification.
Casey on a farm near Hunapu, Guatemala
As a result, we occasionally select farms to work with that lack the certification. Every time we do so, we are careful in the decision-making process. In those instances, we lean on our import partners to ensure safe growing practices, and ultimately put our trust in them and the farmers. Because we know that Canyon drinkers are putting their trust in us.
We’re proud to play our role as one component in the great supply chain making organic coffee viable in the market. We sleep better knowing we are sharing a product that is truly good and healthy for our customers, and that in so doing we are supporting the health and livelihoods of farmers today and in the future around the world.
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