Traceability in Coffee: Interview with Ana Luiza Pellicer from Mió
A big area of contention in the coffee industry is the supply chain; how the coffee is sourced, traded and who gets paid what before it arrives with the roaster and the final consumer.
With greater consumer awareness, conscientious consumers and roasters want to ensure their coffee is sustainable, ethical, traceable. But these buzzwords are sometimes difficult to decipher and act upon.
We spoke to Ana Luiza Pellicer whose family farm in Monte Santo De Minas in Brazil has adopted a unique approach to traceability. Mió Farm (which literally translates into ‘my dearest and most beloved farm') imports and stores their own coffee directly into the UK, allowing Ana, who lives in London, to sell directly to roasteries.
This truly direct approach to direct trade means that the coffee only changes hands as it is sold to the roastery and the family maintain complete control and transparency when it comes to their coffee. For roasters and consumers this means a unique level of traceability and transparency.
Mió X Assembly - Lot 1930
Mió X Assembly - Microlot 1911
With 100% traceability guarantee for the entire crop every year. Each stage of the journey, from where the cherries were harvested, which trucks moved them, how and when they were processed, is tracked using satellite imagery. Being a technology-driven farm improves the farmworkers’ quality of life, ensures an abundant harvest and guarantees the highest processing standards for the crop.
Tell us about yourself and about Mió coffee farm.
Until last year Mió was solely a farm. We were producing coffee and selling it to the local market, our main buyer was Illy. Two years ago, we started talking about how to make the farm become something a bit more interesting, especially financially for us to be honest, because the farm wasn’t able to sustain itself without outside investment.
We decided to take care of more parts of the supply chain so we started exporting the coffee, importing into the UK, warehousing it here and selling directly into the roasteries.
That was a big difference for us, not only we were able to expand the traceability we already have on the coffee at the farm level, to the whole entirety of the supply chain, we were also able to reach out to clients and talk to green buyers directly which was so new for us. It’s crazy how much of a difference it makes to find out what they want to know; about the coffee, the farm, the story; any questions they have; we’re here to answer. I think that’s something that’s so special to us as well: To know that our story is getting told and the coffee we grow is getting visibility not only at cup level but also the work we do at farm level to achieve that quality.
So for us this communication is the key and something that’s so important. Nowadays it’s what make Mió what it is; to be able to talk to people directly. Now 8 months in to have the coffee in the UK and talking to buyers I definitely think that ‘direct trade’ as an idea is literally direct communication. To be able to exchange ideas and facts and to get things done together, like an equal relationship.
Traceability is very important for Mió, can you tell us a bit more about the importance of traceability at the farm level?
The traceability is a big part of our relationship with the buyers as to be able to translate this information with them, I have to know it.
At the end of the day traceability is about knowing everything that goes on at your farm. If you know every single thing it’s so much easier to pass it along and be an open book.
We have software at the farm that we developed with a tech company that tracks trucks and people on the farm, which results in our very good traceability. It uses satellite imagery and each truck, for example, is registered to the system so you can see everything that truck is doing, you can know who is driving the truck, for how many hours it has been working, what is it doing? We have that for everyone on the farm as well so we see what time each person starts working to make sure they don’t work overtime. It’s very common that farm workers during harvest will work really long hours to harvest as many cherries as possible because most people will pay them by quantity of cherries they harvest. But that would overwork people and it could be dangerous, it’s not an easy line of work there’s a lot of sun, tough conditions so now we’re able to focus on not letting them get overworked and that’s truly important to us.
We have a bus that goes collecting people all over town. So rather than them working out how they’re going to get here; we have a bus that picks everyone up from their houses and takes them home again at the end of the day. Instead of having workers ‘clock in’ when they start working, as soon as they enter the bus so the worker doesn’t have to consider journey time on top of his working day. If he’s in the bus he’s already at work and we’re already paying for the time they spend travelling.
How does that differ from other farms in the area?
It’s not similar for other farms because they don’t all have this technology. For people in business it’s normal to clock in and clock out from work but in farms it doesn’t work like that –The manager only knows how many hours they’ve done at the end of the month when it’s time to pay them. With us it’s automatic and that information will be checked and it can be acted on straight away so we can say “You have worked too many hours, tomorrow you should work less hours.” It’s not fair to have people working 16hrs a day, if you’re paying by quantity of cherries and are overworked, you’re probably going to work less effectively.
In terms of your model of direct trade into the UK; how replicable is it for other farms or producers or is it unique to Mió?
That’s something I have been discussing a lot lately and we are very lucky that I am in the UK, we can import the coffee ourselves and get everything done 100% by us. It is possible to have that with other farms….But it’s going to be more complicated, I think, especially finding the market for the coffee. I have found this is a full time job so for a farmer that’s taking care of the farm, the harvest and trying to sell the coffee this will be so much more trouble than selling big quantities to one importer that’s going to buy it and then resell.
Sometimes I only sell one or two bags so it would be hard to do this if I was by myself, without a farm manager running the farm.
I always say that I think importers have their value and they do amazing work. The best option for a producer that doesn’t have the time to direct-sell would be to choose an importer that truly cares, maybe a smaller importer than only works in your region like Cat (Catalina, of Cata Café Export) who only works in Colombian coffee and knows all her farmers personally. Her relationship with her farmers is as deep as mine is with my farm manager, Cris. Vava Coffee is doing this in Kenya too.
If you are a producer not in the position to import it yourself, make sure you have an importer who will speak for you, not about you. Whenever I hear talk about producers in the industry, it’s always ABOUT producers as if we are a big group of people and we’re not listening to the things that are being said or written and that we’re not part of the same community, and more a side-fact that we need to talk ABOUT.
I think the difference with the smaller importers and Mió is that you’re talking WITH us and that’s such a big difference. To find importers that will speak with you and that will speak to the final consumer not about you as if you’re a separate thing, but being a bridge between the buyer and the farmer. I think more than anything it’s about treating each other like equals. If you were trading anything else, you would talk to the people you were trading with. So, in coffee, let’s just talk!
Why is it important for a producer to be in control of a supply chain?
I think the main thing is to be able to say everything you have to say about your coffee and your farm and not have it controlled by anyone else. The second thing is that you can bring your traceability to the whole of the supply chain. So if you know how traceability you can be at your farm, but you just sell to someone who will take care of everything else for you; if you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen to your coffee from that point on, or before it reaches the final client then you are losing every effort you’ve already put in. It’s as important for us to know what happens after the coffee leaves us as it is for the roaster who wants to know what came before it arrives with them.
We work a whole year (at least in Brazil you only get one harvest) and it’s normal for producers to not have any information about where the coffee went, who enjoyed it, did people like it? What were the comments?
And now we can have this feedback. With Mió on Instagram, for example it’s been so rewarding to see people trying the coffee and posting about it, tagging it… and it all sounds obvious but as a farmer it’s just not a thing that happens. As farmers to receive this kind of praise is not usual so I think there is an emotional reward for us too.
Being fully traceable is good because information goes to the roastery and the consumer but it also comes back to the farm.
What do you think is the biggest challenge in the coffee industry right now?
That’s a tough one! The thing that has been troubling me the most is that people talk about producers as if we are a thing, or worse a thing that must be fixed. And I understand it comes from a good place, a place of trying to make things better for both sides. I think roasters are in a very difficult position when it comes to that because they need to translate to final consumer what is important for them to be paying attention to, at the same time they must make sure the coffee they’re buying is exactly what they’re selling. This means not just in terms of cup-quality but a lot of roasters wan to say ‘we’re sustainable’ but they don’t give a lot of information on what that means.
But on the opposite side they are really trying to buy coffee that is sustainable and traceable but they don’t really know how to do that. What happens is we see roasters trying to have a buying approach that is generalised for an industry that is not general. “We only buy Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance etc.”
If you took your roasting business from the UK to the US, you’d have to have a completely different buying approach, because your clients are different and want different things. But it’s the same for producing countries. It’s easy for me to say ‘let’s do direct trade’ because I am here, in the UK, but how is the farmer in Ethiopia going to do that? It’s impossible because of the specific logistics of buying and selling coffee in Ethiopia so as a roaster how can you have one approach if you’re buying from 10 different countries?
As a producer, it’s hard. We can buy into these schemes like Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade but sometimes these things make life more difficult because, as a producer, you’re trying to reach a goal set by a roastery in the UK that decided that that’s how they’ll say their coffee is sustainable. If we understand the specifics, it’s so much easier than to have one big rule for sustainability.
Roasters can buy some coffees from an importer, and then some coffee direct from the farmer. You don’t have to refuse buying your coffee from someone because they don’t fit into that box that you decided you wanted to be in.
I think a lot of roasteries want to put a snappy, consumer friendly label on coffee, so would it be better to get rid of those labels and describe the sourcing in more detail or to firm up the boundaries of what those labels mean?
I think both ways are valid, it’s valid to have a certification. If you’re a mid-sized grower that doesn’t have time for direct trade but you want your buyer to know that you’re doing things right, a RFA is perfect for that because it covers a lot of things. If you have the money to keep certified (you must pay it yearly and it’s not cheap) but you don’t have the time to do direct trade or answer buyers’ questions; it works because you guarantee you’re doing everything required in the certification. I don’t think that’s a problem. I think it’s a problem when it becomes the only way. Because then you’re keeping people out and you’re keeping people out by applying the lenses of the upper part of the globe. Because who is telling people this is the only way to buy coffee? It’s not producing countries!
I think buyers need to listen to what we have to say, and when I say ‘we’ I mean separately because what a Brazilian producer will say is the best way to keep the farm sustainable (financially, socially, environmentally) is not the same thing that someone in Kenya would say. Because it’s a different type of forest, another type of economy, another type of social situation.
For Mió, a medium sized farm in Brazil; the social situation is that I must make sure that the workers on my farm receive good pay, they have good living conditions, they have extra stuff for their health; we have gardens to provide fresh vegetables every month, we give them milk from our cows each week. We have vaccination programmes and doctors that go to the farm each month for consultations. We know what we need to do. But if you try to apply this to a farm, in another producing country, it’s a completely different situation. They would need completely different things. So a certification that applies globally it’s good to set parameters but it’s not necessarily applicable to everyone.
If we can prove to you that we’re doing these things outside the certification, and it’s actually so much more than that, it seems crazy not to buy from a producer because they’re not Fairtrade, because they might be actually doing better than Fairtrade, they just don’t pay for Fairtrade certification every year.
Sometimes buyers don’t know how to deal with that because they’re stuck in the parameters they know. I think we have to stop putting producers in one big box. You’re talking about 60 different countries, it’s the whole coffee belt and we’re putting them all together and treating them as one big box because it’s easier to sell as a roastery.
Buy the coffee with or without certification, with or without organic, with or without direct trade. But make sure you know what you’re buying.
If I was a roastery in the UK & wanted to be sure I was buying sustainable, ethical coffee & that the producers have received a fair price; if I’m not looking for certification, what questions should I be asking to the importer or the producer?
I think the first thing to ask would be traceability. There’s no one way of doing it, no thing you can follow. Every farm starts it with a blank page….it’s tough…but make sure you feel the transparency. Choose 5 questions that would prove it. For example: Do you have the date of the harvest? Do you have information about the day it was processed and where is the information? Do you know where the coffee is being stored? How many people work at the farm?
Specific questions will tell you whether that person has answers or not. The most important thing is knowing if it is an open book. If the answer is ‘They don’t tell us this, or we don’t know’ In my opinion the next question should be ‘Can you ask them?’ If the answer is ‘no’ then there is a problem, because they should have a direct link to the farmer. If they can’t get back to the farmer to ask more questions, something is broken in the chain. In some situations, I would say make sure the farmer is copied in the email so they know how much the coffee is being sold for. I think the most important thing is to make sure that the chain of communication goes up and down, not just one direction.
Is it more about taking a holistic approach and educating people? Roasters shouldn’t reject a producer if they don’t have certification because it is only a password that is known about in the media. If people know only about the certification they might not know about some of the other issues in coffee that go beyond certification.
I think people don’t necessarily know what is covered by these certifications, maybe there are things in the list that don’t matter to you; maybe there are details that don’t apply to that farmer or that region.
I think it’s about trading as equal parts in an industry. A farmer will know more about their farm than a roaster would so just ask them about it. Maybe they don’t have a ready to go traceability report, or a software system or good internet access but they will know how to manage their own farm so you can just ask them. Either directly or through the importer but you must know. You should have the knowledge that there is a person just like you at the other end, who knows just what they are doing, just ask him about it because he’s done it, right? He’s done it well enough for you to want to buy his coffee.
What changes you would like to see in the coffee industry in the coming years?
I’d like to see less of a separation between commercial and specialty coffee. We speak enough about what it really means for a farm to be economically sustainable. It’s not an easy job. A farm is a really expensive thing to run, you constantly need to update and change things and if you take a decision now you must wait 2-3 years to see a result. Anything you change (changing irrigation systems, planting a tree) it takes the planet to respond and then by the time you get the answer the industry has already moved on.
There are new popular varietals or new technology, constant improvements that you must keep on top of to keep scoring high in specialty coffee or to be on top of your farm.
For a small farm, its ok. It’s super important that we keep celebrating specialty coffee because someone who has a very small farm will take care of that lot of coffee like his life depends on it, because it probably does. It’s probably going to be an amazing coffee because he was able to take great care of it and that’s the only coffee he has to sell and it’s specialty. That’s one way of farming that happens a lot, especially for smallholder farmers; that’s their reality.
Then you have the reality of a medium sized farm which Mió is. You need much more technology and investment. You would not be able to have 100% of your harvest as specialty, its not possible.
In Brazil harvest is between June-August so you cannot physically harvest it all at peak ripeness so there are going to be some cherries that are harvested a little bit too soon or a little bit too late, so they will not reach 80 points+ so what is probable is that more than 50% will not make specialty score.
What most farms do is to separate into commercial and specialty brands and they don’t want them to mix because it’s seen as a bad thing for a farm to have a commercial crop, for non-producing countries it’s seen as you’re not taking care enough of your product, so they separate.
But at Mió we decided not to separate. Because we took as much care of that coffee as we did for our 87 points. It was as much work and as much love put into those cherries as the specialty ones and it’s a good coffee too. We keep improving on our commercial lots – we’ve changed to natural processing, instead of honey and we gained 10 points just from that.
I always say it’s like the wonky carrots. We should not be throwing them away because it might not look amazing but it will give you a nice puree that you could sell at a Michelin restaurant, right? So much of how it tastes in the cup is what process it goes through with processing and roasting.
I’m not saying I don’t know the difference between drinking a high scoring specialty and a 65 point commercial lot, of course I know the difference. But it doesn’t mean it’s not a good coffee for different things. We sold some of our commercial lot and the roaster has decided to sell it as a single origin for espresso. I drank it and it’s great, with milk it’s even better, so it shows it’s possible to make good commercial coffee. And if we don’t sell this coffee well, we’re not economically viable, not ever. So we need to be talking about farmers selling all the harvest.
We have as much traceability for it as we do the specialty lots. Normally now commercial is where the ethical problems are because it doesn’t have any traceability or information. I think that the next step for specialty is understanding it’s such a small percentage of coffee production, and all producers will have some commercial lots that they have to sell at ridiculous prices, just to try & stay afloat. I think selling all coffee from a harvest is one of the biggest issues producers have.
There are some great roasting companies doing commercial coffee that I don’t think get enough praise. They are actually concerned about producers. There are roasteries doing specialty and commercial who are taking as much care of one as the other.
I have a commercial client who sends me a sample every time he roasts a lot to see if I’m happy with the product. He wants my perspective to know if he’s respecting that coffee enough with the roasting. This is the level of care that should go into commercial coffee, as well as specialty.
What is your favourite coffee and what is your favourite brewing method?
I really like Aeropress, it’s been the first different method of brewing that I’ve tried. I love watching the videos of the different ways you can brew with it.
For coffee right now, I’m a big fan of Ethiopian coffee, fruity with a light body is my favourite type of coffee. Right now I’m drinking Adola from Fireheart, it’s really good. I even subscribed to it because I’m drinking so much of it, I get a kilo a month. I can’t say any of Mió’s clients because I always feel like I should love them all equally so I can’t pick favourites.
Have you tried many of the different roasteries that have roasted batches of Mió Coffee?
I buy all of them as soon as they go on sale, at least 2 bags; one for me and one to send to my parents. For two reasons: One because I like to know what they’re doing with our coffee in terms of roasting profile. The coffee changes so much from one roaster to the next and I think that’s so lovely to see how versatile the coffee is, as a product, and how many different things it can become. I also buy because I like to keep the bags as a register of everything that we’ve achieved.
How has Mió coffee been received by the UK roasters?
It has been received really well! I think first of all it was a big surprise to find out how much value would be put on our coffee, when we did a plan for how much we would sell the coffee for it was £4 cheaper than we were actually able to sell the coffee for. So the actual value people placed in the product we were selling was sensational.
Is that because you were being modest or because of the distance between producer and roaster, usually?
I think it more the distance between producers and roasters. We weren’t selling through an importer before, but I think we were selling to the market, so we really didn’t know what happened to the coffee after we sold it. Now we are aware of how good it was or how valuable it was, so that was our first big discovery last year.
And then to find out how much people wanted to know so much about the coffee without knowing they did. The response to the traceability report was not something we were expecting. It’s something we do at the farm so, in our heads, we thought if we already have it let’s just translate it into English and send it. But when we first showed it to people, they said ‘I have never seen anything like this before….’ And we thought why not? Why not? Every farm knows this, they will have the information so why not share it?
The coffee itself was really well received. We already sold out of 2 of our micro lots, We’re still struggling a bit with the commercial coffee, it’s a difficult market to get into so I wouldn’t say it’s not a complete success yet because we still have a lot of coffee to sell before next harvest but t the same time, it’s been so rewarding and now I know it’s going to work as a business model so I can finally see us being able to keep the farm afloat after lots of years of that not being the case so it’s great.
What has surprised you about the UK coffee scene? Good or bad?
Both! I think good is how well I have been received. I was a bit afraid when I first came into the industry that I wasn’t what a producer was expected to be and that I wouldn’t be respected as someone who knows things…..and that didn’t happen. I was recognised as someone who knows what she’s talking about.
I think I was surprised a little by how much of the colonialism aspect is still in place in parts of the industry. At the same time that I have personally been respected, when I see people talking about producers they still talk ABOUT them, like they’re a group of people that need help or support. Another good thing is that there are people who acknowledge it. There are people that do projects and don’t say what the farm should do with the money they make, and see it as an equal relationship
It’s difficult because on a personal level people have been so respectful, but on a general level it still sounds like producers are a thing that needs to be fixed, and it does; the relationship needs to be fixed but not the people.
How do you strike a balance between productive, financially viable land-use and protecting wildlife & native biodiversity?
We divided the land into three. One is coffee plantation, the other is forest and the last one is between processing, cows, eucalyptus, bee hives (these are extra income streams for us.) We always keep the native forest and coffee the same amount. So, if we plant 1 hectare of coffee we must do reforestation of 1 hectare of land.
We try to focus our reforestation around water. There’s a lot of spring water points in the land and its such a huge responsibility taking care of them. One of the water points in our land actually supplies 2 cities because it’s the highest water point in the region so we have to take care of water flow and quality. We take it very seriously, so we always focus on water and keeping it as protected as possible.
We actually do a lot of reforestation projects with clients; it’s not expensive and it’s quite fun because they get to choose the plants they want. There’s lots of native plants to choose so you can focus on water, birds, insects, flowers. So, it’s nice to do with clients because we give them a list with pictures and they can choose what they like best. We work with non-profits who collect baby trees from around the area and bring to us to plant so we don’t spend a lot of money on it, but it’s lovely to watch it grow.
Reforestation is important to us because a healthy ecosystem means you have water, you have insects, you have a better soil and so in turn you have a better quality of coffee. Your trees are healthier, they need fewer products. The healthiness of the land means healthiness of the coffee.
The second thing is that we have a responsibility to the land. My mother always says we are just borrowing the land. There have been millions of people before us, and there will be millions of people after us, and we cannot just do whatever we want with it, we have a responsibility to keep it healthy, while we’re occupying it. It’s our job to take care of it.
In the UK we’re hearing more and more the stories of co-operatives and farm owners which is great. How can we do more to celebrate the hard work of farm employees and seasonal workers who also have high skill levels and unique stories to tell?
It’s such a difficult one. I understand that the roasteries want to celebrate and say the coffee is not only single origin, it comes from a single farm and this is the farmer. I think it’s a nice thought, but at the same time I think it’s a little bit of the colonization we’ve been talking about; this thought that if you’re the producer, you must be the one doing everything, it’s part of the imaginary, romanticised view of coffee that it goes from tree to cup with just the farmer picking the coffee.
While it is true in some regions, it cannot be applied to everyone. There are small farm holders that do everything and then sell the coffee. But with a coffee farm of Mió’s size we have over 100 people working with us.
My father is the last person to get involved in the farm, he has a separate job. So, I don’t feel comfortable putting his name on a bag of coffee, even though it is his farm, because I feel That I’m doing a disservice to the industry and to the people that work with us. At the same time, as someone that is selling something, it’s really hard to just say no to clients who want to put a name on the bag.
We must see it as a way of celebration, as a way of representing the people behind the cup, not as the person who produced the cup. We represent a lot of people because it’s a group effort. Steve Jobs doesn’t make all the Apple phones, he’s a representative. At the end of the day, it’s just acknowledging that there’s more behind the coffee than a single name or person.
I think it’s a very important thing for consumers to know as well because in London coffee shops people might say “£3.50 for a flat white is too expensive” but they don’t know about how much work and how many people are needed to grow, process, sell and roast the coffee because we don’t talk about it.
I think there is an expectation that coffee should be about people picking coffee by hand, but there is machinery in coffee. There is A LOT of machinery in coffee and there are people operating those machines, yes, but I don’t necessarily want to use them as a marketing tool. I want to respect the privacy of the workers at our farm and I don’t want them to be a sales point. They’re doing their job and I wouldn’t present them as a way to sell more.
I think that’s a lot of colonialism as well; to expect to see someone picking the cherries by hand when it would be better for everyone if the cherry was picked by a machine. It would be better for the person working because it would mean that he doesn’t have to be in a bad position all day picking tiny cherries. It would mean for the producer that the payment method is different, that the investment is different. It would mean for the final consumer….the same cup of coffee. The same quality.
We have to celebrate the fact that there are parts of the world that don’t have the technology or the machine and therefore they have the people picking the cherries by hand. But if you’re saying that if we’re not the poor producers then we don’t have the same value…then you’re saying you don’t want to work towards the industry improving, right? Because you want to still see the poor guy doing the processes by hand. But I think the final consumer doesn’t realise that it can be a barrier to equality.
It’s about finding this balance between explaining to people the realities, breaking that preconception that they have about what a nice coffee picture should be, but at the same time not offending people.
But the coffee does pass through machines. And that’s ok because it’s good coffee – people do buy it and enjoy it, without the romanticised version of some poor guy with dirty hands picking really red cherries all by hand. Sometimes it feels like people sell people rather than coffee; it’s not about that, it’s not about the picture.
If someone buys a barrel of oil; no-one expects to see a picture of who extracted it.
It’s tough finding that balance, we want to celebrate those people, right? On our farm a bit of this is sharing with them what we’re doing, a bit is trying to improve things for them. But then in Brazil I am in the same position as a lot of roasteries might find themselves in with producers, I want to improve things, but I can’t decide how that might be, it starts with talking to people like equals.
Mió X Assembly - Lot 1930
Mió X Assembly - Microlot 1911