Going Beyond Price with Brendan Adams

Going Beyond Price with Brendan Adams

Specialty coffee distinguishes itself by its higher price tag—and stops there. To make meaningful change, Brendan Adams of Semilla argues that cost alone cannot be the finish line.

Today I’m chatting with Brendan Adams, founder of Semilla, a coffee importing company based in Canada. I first learned about Semilla through its Instagram account, and I was prompted to invite Brendan on the show after reading a particular post he shared. In it, he notes that specialty coffee defines itself through its higher prices—but says that paying higher prices for coffee should be the starting point, not the only defining attribute of specialty coffee. He notes that the idea that we can throw money at a problem is a defining ideology of trickle-down economics and neoliberalism, which we explore further in this episode.

This conversation is chewy and starts off slow before it picks up the pace, and Brendan describes neoliberalism’s impact on how we view coffee, and why traditional economic models have largely failed in correcting or reforming exploitative systems. (We also reference a previous podcast conversation with author and academic Ted Fischer, who wrote a book on value in coffee, so you might want to check it out before listening to this one—I see these two episodes as being companions.) Here’s Brendan:

Ashley: Brendan, I was hoping you can start by introducing yourself.

Brendan: My name is Brendan Adams and I'm the founder of Semilla Coffee, which is an importation and advocacy company based in Montreal and Canada.

Ashley: I am going to start where I start with all of these interviews, asking you some fundamental questions about how you got into coffee, but we're gonna hit some really hard topics in this episode. We're going talk about trickle-down economics. We're going to talk about neoliberalism in specialty coffee and how the falsehood that we're doing something better in specialty coffee by paying producers more money is just symptomatic of these like Reagan-ist economic principles.

A lot of big stuff is gonna happen, but we're gonna start in the shallow end first and kind of kind of swim our way into deeper waters. I just wanted to prime people for what they're about to hear.

But let's start with how you got into coffee. Did you grow up with coffee in your life?

Brendan: Yeah, I think that coffee was in my life, but it wasn't a big part of my life. Everybody in my family drank a lot of coffee at home. But I didn't start in coffee until I was in my early 20s, when I lived in Vancouver and had my first job as a barista.

Ashley: When did you move from barista work—which is probably where a lot of listeners start—into the back end of things? Did you get into roasting, or how'd you get into green coffee? How'd you make that jump from barista to the next stage in your life?

Brendan: Yeah, I think that it was a long process. So I had my first job about 15 years ago and did that temporarily without any thinking about it being a long-term pursuit for me. And then after moving to Montreal to continue my studies, I ended up working again as a barista in one of the first specialty cafes in the city, who was also a roaster.

And then quickly had the opportunity to begin roasting. Once I was roasting there, which was about 10 years ago that I started that, that's where I sort of started to see the possibilities of what I could do long-term through coffee, given the opportunity.

Ashley: Why'd you start Semilla? Why did you decide that that was the avenue you wanted to pursue?

Brendan: I think for a variety of reasons. With Semilla, the idea came from years of working and as I continued to learn—I think that's the thing that everybody in specialty can agree, is that coffee's a great place to learn and to find new things all the time.

And I think that as I continued in my journey from roasting to begin to start green buying for the roastery, starting to connect more closely with smallholders, specifically smallholders in the Global South, and start to really hear the challenges that were happening and then start to see those gaps in specialty coffee buying, being at cupping tables at origin and watching as decisions got made and sort of scratching my head about like, “Well, what about all of these people that aren't on the table or one of the people who are on the table but aren't making it?”

The more that I traveled, the more that I could see that specialty had some good ideas behind it, but there was just a huge set of holes in every different direction.

I had this moment where I was like, “I can either just walk away, or I can try to commit to making this the thing that I wanted it to be when I had that original inclination and belief that this fragment of an idea of what we could do to create almost like a new world around this,” you know?

It's been really challenging. We launched our business right before COVID. That was a whole thing to deal with when you land a container of coffee and then a global pandemic strikes and you've never sold coffee really before with anybody, but we persevered through all that stuff.

We're continuing to learn and we're starting to see the fruits of the possibility of creating that new world. I could sit there and say, with specialty coffee, that there's so many problems, like, screw this industry, you know?

And I've heard that from a lot of people—like, “Oh, it's just so problematic. It's so fraught with issues.” But I step back and I go, “What in this world isn't?” I think what we can do is we can approach it and say, “It's awful. I'm leaving, I'm going somewhere else,” or we can bring our full energy to say what is one thing, two things, three things that I can address as an individual with agency in this world and with privilege and try to make that different.

Not because we're deciding, but like in collaboration and connection with the people who need something to be different for them.

Ashley: Let's break down some of those ideas that you introduced.

One of the things that I'm interested in exploring a little bit more and unpacking a little bit more is your role as an importer. Because for me, as a person who's worked mostly the front of house of coffee, in retail as a barista, as a coffee trainer, kind of never on the back end, that to me has felt the most … mysterious is maybe the nice way to say it, but [a] very non-transparent part of coffee.

How does coffee move from where it's grown to roasters, and how are those decisions made? How do you kind of explain to people what it is you do? Because I think you can say, “Okay, you're an importer. You bring coffee from one place to another,” but there's really a lot more to it than that.

I would imagine part of what you wanted to do is to do importing differently, or to break some of the conventions that you were seeing other people do that you were like, “Wait, we don't have to do it this way.”

Brendan: Yeah, 100%. Like I think that in some ways “importer” is like a dirty word, you know?

Ashley: Yeah, it is—it totally is. Me saying it out loud, I was like, “Oh, I don't like this word,” but why?

Brendan: It makes sense I think in some ways, right? There's a lot of different reasons why, but fundamentally, where does an importer emerge from? An importer emerges from a commodity chain. That's why it exists.

It's like you existed because you were able to trade, right? You were able to play with the market, buy when the market's low, organize the logistics, and sell when the market's high on the other side. That’s the original basis for the commodity market in Brazil. When you go back and see when it's stabilized so that you could manage these massive price spikes and coffee supply, importers were a key part of that because they were just benefiting from like, trade games.

And that still is a big part of the industry. Like I said to you before, importing for us—we physically move coffee from country to country, but beyond that, I don't view us as importers at all. There's a lot of different reasons why, because I think that the way that we work requires way more emotional labor than the average importer is willing to put in because that's fundamentally a transactional basis.

I think that the traditional, simple breakdown of—even in specialty importing—would be you have fundamentally an exporting agency in a producing country and an importing agency, likely based in Europe or North America, maybe in Asia. And these two entities do business together.

This exporter will typically run a buying point. That buying point will be analyzing samples and cupping them, connecting with producers and then sharing those samples with the importers, who then, typically in specialty, seek the highest quality that they can get from that. And maybe they connect with those producers that produce the highest quality, maybe they don't.

At the end of the day, quality coffees are purchased at a price decided between the exporter and the importer. The smallholder or the producer who brings the coffee to that exporter gets told what their price is. The coffee gets brought to North America, Europe, Asia, sold to the roaster—that's kind of it. It's very, as we say, transactional.

In a specialty importing scenario where higher prices are paid and exporters are working closely with people, that can yield some positive results. There are good specialty exporters and good specialty importers out there that succeed in that model.

I think with Semilla, however, we have a lot of different ways that we're interested in working with, and I think the number one thing starts from, how does that producer get in the door?

Ashley: I guess I should already allude to the fact that if you’re listening to this episode, you've likely heard the episode that we had with Ted Fischer, who wrote a book about coffee, and he talked a little bit about market access for farmers.

And one of the things that we really broke down is he introduced this map of a region in Guatemala—Huehuetenango. He marked a Cup of Excellence winner, and then he marked 10 different smallholding farms around it. And the Cup of Excellence winner, on average, sold their coffee for $4 per pound. And all the smallholders around were selling at commodity [prices].

But when those samples were cupped altogether—Cup of Excellence winner plus all the smallholder farms—the difference in quality was pretty much the same. It was very similar. So market access is a big part of how someone gets higher prices. And we'll talk about what higher prices mean later and what kind of signals we make with that in specialty coffee, but can you talk a little bit about what that means to get people in the door in specialty coffee?

Because I don't think that's something that gets talked about a lot when we talk about importing coffee.

Brendan: No, I think it's completely overlooked and I think exactly what Ted said—that's such an amazing way to capture it. And the fact that he has that data for it is basically one of the first inclinations I had with Semilla around a cupping table in Central America where we were sitting there cupping and being like, “Okay, so here's a day of cupping, 40 cups that are on the table.”

Everything that was 86 plus kind of already had a home or close to, or had a potential for a home with a roaster. But then anything below that was just sort of—where's that going now? It's just gone. And so that's one moment where you see: What was the difference between an 85 and an 86 in that moment?

Was it roast? Was it drying time? Was it the collection of the cherry was a little bit off? A lot of things that led to a lot being completely removed from a table or rejected by a buyer that are really arbitrary.

But then secondarily beyond that, how did those coffees get on the table? And what about all the other people who weren't there? If there's 40 samples from 40 growers in a place that's almost all coffee growers, where is everybody else? I just kept thinking about this thing with specialty coffee—if we keep going to the same sources and fighting over the same coffees, because those people have name recognition and have that access—it's great if they have that—but if everybody wants that coffee so badly that there's none available and they're unwilling to look to their neighbor, what are we really achieving? We're leaving so much on the table in terms of what the actual impact can be done on a community level, you know? What Ted brought is exactly what our response to that was.

If we know the Cup of Excellence producer can be a Cup of Excellence producer, it likely is the case that their whole community can be too. So how do we work with that community? In some cases, we start with people who aren't Cup of Excellence winners, you know? But taking our Guatemala example is a perfect example of what you're talking about.

Mataquescuintla, where we work, 90 to 95% of the entire community around that city in Jalapa are coffee growers. Traditional coffee growers is all they do. It's the only thing they grow. That's the only crop they have. Coffee is sold in cherry—that means that major buyers, specialty or commodity, come through with trucks and they buy cherries by the quintal, by a hundred pounds, at a price that is related roughly to the market price, but can be wildly deflated or can be manipulated by little things like stepping on the scale when the cherries get there.

Who just won the Cup of Excellence in Guatemala this year?

Ashley: I don’t know.

Brendan: A wet owned by a grower in Mataquescuintla. So Mataquescuintla, that whole area has potential for that, right? But literally nobody there has any access whatsoever. There's not a cupping lab in Mataquescuintla. There's not a buying point in Mataquescuintla. You can sell to wet mills, you can sell to intermediaries, but in terms of smallholder producers who have been working for generations to grow their own coffee and to sell it, nobody has taken that initial step to work with them, right?

So I think, for us, there's two ways I think, with developing access, we can either be connected with someone because the quality of the coffee was really good and that brings us to their community, and then we start working with their whole community, which was the case in Selguapa and Honduras. We connected with one producer there, Antonio Ramirez, who was one of the first growers in that area, going back to the ‘80s, and had sold his coffee also only in cherry until that had become unsustainable for him.

He took steps in his 70s to start processing his coffee. And it was incredible. Typical growing at almost 1,800 meters in Honduras, which is almost unheard of nowadays. Then we commit to that community and we say, “Okay, well we're buying everything now. Like even if it's not perfect, we'll find some way to grow with that and we'll see what happens.”

Ashley: Sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off there, but I wanted to really hone in on this idea of you buying all the coffee, because that's something that happens—I have to imagine that you've seen a lot where people will go to farms, buy some of the coffee and leave maybe 80% still there or something like that.

If we're thinking about specialty coffee, it's scored on a 0 to 100 scale—that's just where I'm kind of pulling that number, but what does that mean? Talk about why that's important: Why is it important to go to a farm and say, “We're gonna buy all of this?”

Brendan: Going back to what we said before where it was like, where was that moment where I was like, what's the opportunity for Semilla? So access is one thing. There's people on this table who aren't cupping really well that aren't getting a buyer, and there's people who aren't even on this table.

So how do we find those people, right? That's number one. Number two is once we find people, how do we make sure that we're supporting them to the maximum so that it makes an actual difference? Because just like the Ted Fisher example, if that Cup of Excellence grower continues to be the only person who wins in that area, what does it mean for the community?

So basically understanding that once we've done that point where we find people who lack access, then the most important way that we can make a big impact in that community as quickly as possible, the fastest way there, is to make sure that we buy all of it from everybody.

So it can't just be Antonio Ramirez in Honduras, it has to be his whole family. And that grows now to be something like 14, 15 producers that are all Ramirez-related people that work and live in that one town. That means that all of these producers now have their own separate roaster client that comes through Semilla and we're buying all of it.

And the coffee that ends up being slightly lower, we create regional blends for, and then patch that through to the roasters as well, so that some roasters can have multiple levels of quality for the same producers. Maybe some just want the lower-quality lot because that's budget-friendly for them—but all of the coffee then is bought at a price that far supersedes any local market that they would've been offered.

That whole notion came as well from being that green buyer who's cupping the coffee and chasing the 87-point, 88-point, 89-point micro lot and realizing that even if I wanted to, as a roaster, I'm unfortunately gonna be stuck in a position where I can only buy five, 10 bags as a medium-size micro roaster. That made me realize the necessity for an importer to take more of that risk, [for] an importer to say, “We want to support an entire community. And we'll be the ones that take that hit.” That say, “Now our work is making sure that we explain to roasters why they should be buying from these people.”

That's one of those big things that we think about differently with importing. Importing for us is not just, “This coffee's so good, you should buy it.” We don't play on the field of “send out samples and then they win because out of other 80 samples they got cupped with, it was the best coffee ever.”

We know that quality can compete for us, but we want people to meet us on an actual human level first. We have to start with humans and then we get to coffee quality, and that's how we work with everything. We work with the people first, and the quality comes second. And yeah, that can take some time, but at the end of the day, the benefit is so huge to everybody.

Everybody involved wins.

Ashley: I think that's a really important part of the job that you just described right now—is that you're not just a person who goes and sends samples to roasters and wins on the table and says, “Okay, we're gonna sell this coffee to you because ours was the best that you cupped of all these Guatemala coffees or all these coffees that you're looking to fill a specific blend, roast, whatever—” but that you are telling people to come and take that risk with us too.

Like, “We're taking the risk, we're buying these coffees. Now we're gonna tell you about why you should also be part of this process as well.” And especially looking at what specialty coffee sells itself as—specialty coffee sells itself as better, essentially. The coffee is better. We do better work. But what does that actually mean in context?

How are we actually doing any of that better work? And are we actually doing any of that better work? And I think that that's where we'll get into some of the theoretical of that in a moment, but how do you have those conversations with small roasters, which I imagine that's primarily who you're working with?

How do you bridge that gap with small roasters who might be risk-averse themselves? Especially because there's a very capitalist way—I feel like I'm throwing out all these terms already—but there's a very capitalist way of looking at small business too, right? You open a small business and it's kind of like you have to do everything to survive and cut corners where you need to.

But if you're entering the specialty coffee market, there has to be some understanding that you're entering a system that's already exploitative. So how do you minimize that harm? There's a lot I said there. Maybe you can take whatever works for you in that.

Brendan: I think I totally agree. In specialty coffee, I think that there's a whole bunch of narratives that we sit on and that we believe in.

Yes, I think there are positives that come from specialty coffee. I've seen it. It's a thing that can exist. But does it happen by default because you paid more money for coffee? No, it doesn't. It just doesn't.

I think that that's that question where we have to be willing to have more rigor in our processes and have more willingness to investigate where we may be failing to always constantly be trying to improve.

The only way that we can really improve is—the line that we always have with Semilla is “real support requires risk.” We'll never be able to do this thing without risking something, you know? And I think that that's been sort of this weird, catch-22—or I’m not sure if that's the word I want to use for it.

It’s like, almost a doublespeak in specialty. We always want to give the best price for the best coffee and give this sustainable lifestyle to producers that we work with. But at the same time, we want to make sure that we mitigate the risk so that we don't have any problems in our own business.

I think there’s this misunderstanding or maybe missed opportunity amongst importation companies is there's this belief that roasters don't want to be bothered with more information. That they don't want anything other than high-quality coffee.

And if you try to give them more than high-quality coffee and tell them to get involved for other reasons, that they're just gonna walk away and say no—I just don't think that that's true. I think that we have to have a lot more charity and a lot more bandwidth to truly understand what we're working in and to share that information, and roasters will be very willing to get involved because all of us in specialty want to be involved in the better thing that we say that it is, right?

We want this industry to be better and we want our work within this industry to be the way that it says that it is. But sometimes you don't have that access. You have to buy coffee because someone gave it to you. You're not going to start a small roastery and travel to six different countries and buy one bag of coffee.

It's logistically impossible, right? So you have to have somebody who's willing to meet you there at a small level and say, “You deserve to get involved with this. We wanna share this with you, but the one thing that we ask from you is please consider that when you buy this coffee, that you can start considering it as a long-term investment. That if you buy this this year, we hope you're there next year.

And secondarily, if you can do it, if you can find some way, we want to buy all levels of quality from communities. And so please consider finding a place in your menu where you can work from that, work that in there as well.”

Ashley: Right. There's so many reasons to do a thing. There's so many reasons to engage in anything that exists, and it feels like in coffee, specifically, in third-wave coffee, we have tethered ourselves so strongly to quality because it's the only way that we can imagine justifying higher prices, which again goes to this idea that—you said this, I can't take credit for it—but that capitalism operates in one way, that there's one way to do all of this, and it has to be tied into this idea of quality. That the only way that we can justify prices is by saying that this actually tastes better, but there are 800 bajillion reasons why we can do something.

And like you said, it can be as simple as like, “These are people we work with and like they deserve livelihoods.” It's that simple.

Brendan: When you commit to understanding people as people and not as a cup score, you recognize insanely complex individuals with wildly fascinating personal histories. And like I want to be part of their personal history.

This is a way in which we can fundamentally connect with people all around the world and work in a way where we can just basically achieve largescale wealth redistribution to communities of people who deserve it, who've worked really hard.

And nothing that we sell is bad, that's the thing, right? We don't buy bad-quality coffee, but we're layering it with an understanding of who these people are as humans by starting there first, you know? And so I think that the biggest thing with all of this stuff is recognizing that so much of the stuff that we say that we want to do in specialty doesn't start with a quality score.

Trust doesn't start with a quality score. Relationships don't start with a quality score. Sustainability doesn't start with a quality score. They start with meeting people where they are, listening to what they need, and working on a plan that is goal-oriented on how they can create a future that makes sense to them.

And we just have to fill in the spaces in the middle.

Ashley: Let's zoom out a little bit because we've talked a bit about some of the bigger ideas that drive your work and some of these bigger ideas that—I don't wanna say poison specialty coffee, but they kind of do.

But one thing that I've never heard anybody connect to specialty coffee, to the way that we purchase coffee, is trickle-down economics, which I think would be shocking to people when they first hear that like, “Oh, could specialty coffee be essentially a form of like Reagan-ist economic practices?” But in a way, it is.

I wonder for you, how do you think about the way in which these forms of thinking have almost poisoned the way that we purchase coffee, in a way that we've tricked ourselves into believing that we're doing good?

Brendan: Yeah. I think that it's really complicated because I think I've had this before too, you know? You bring up the specter of capitalism within being a coffee trader or coffee importer. You know, there's always someone who's like, “We're all capitalists, like we live in capitalism.”

And it's like, we do for sure. It's true. I think the thing that we try to put forward all the time is that some notion of transitional capitalism is what we're trying to think about more. I think that, first and foremost, getting outside of capitalism is totally ludicrous at this point because producers need to make money for the coffee that they grow—plain and simple.

There is no other economic structure that supports them, right? So we have to be involved in capitalism. The point is how do we use that capitalism in a way that doesn't fundamentally do all the things that you said, which is this modern version of capitalism that—like we were talking about with David Harvey, neoliberal capitalism as envisioned since the 1980s with Reagan and Thatcher that has come to pervade all of the globe at this point with globalization—

Ashley: I’m gonna stop you there for a minute. Can you explain who David Harvey is and explain the book that you were talking about? Because we were talking about it before we started recording, but I wanna make sure that people have that context.

Brendan: Yeah, so David Harvey is, I guess, a Marxist writer, intellectual, and he has a lot of different books that he's written, but one that's really great, that I think has tons of intersectional connection to specialty coffee and coffee in general, is his book, “A Brief History of Neoliberalism.”

And in there, basically he poses a lot of different things. I think what some of the main strands that I would say that really imply in specialty coffee are the notion that capital itself or private funds, private actors with capital, will fundamentally solve all of societal ills.

So if you get into a scenario where someone needs healthcare, their best-case scenario is that they get private healthcare from working their job that pays them well enough to get better-quality private healthcare and relying on the state to do that would be inefficient or lower-quality. Coffee obviously falls into this notion with neoliberalism in the sense that we argue basically that a higher price will resolve all of the issues that plague a smallholder producer.

I think that that is the fundamental thing that you can see where neoliberalism is involved is this notion that capital alone will solve the problems, that we just need to pay a higher price and things will be fine. I would say—and we do say—that the baseline in specialty coffee should at base be paying the highest price it can possible and that should never be the finish line.

Secondarily from that, I think there's this other notion of, like we talked about before, with access. There's an idea that within neoliberalism that sort of the cream rises to the top, that the best actors, the best people who can achieve the most, something that you see a lot in Ayn Rand’s writing, like “The Fountainhead” or something.

The creative capitalist class, the people who will move society forward, are the ones that deserve to make the wealth and are almost in a way, morally better than other people in the world because they make society possible.

So there's this notion in which believing that we can pay a higher price to the most qualified people will always lead to the best result for society. In taking those together in the form of coffee, that's just like plainly not the case. What we're seeing is wealth and power consolidation amongst a tiny few who are benefiting off of the labor and lack of access and education of the smallholder class in order to further give themselves more status and power and wealth from that scenario.

And our lack of critical assessment of that is very challenging.

Ashley: And it seems almost contradictory in the way that we operate in specialty coffee because so much of what we talk about is quality-focused, and if we're really talking about this idea that specialty coffee finds the best quality, then—like, we're wrong. We're just fundamentally wrong because again, market access, consolidation of power, consolidation of wealth … that's not what we're doing at all.

And yet we seem to have created this narrative around specialty coffee that because we're paying the highest prices, we're getting the highest-quality coffees, therefore A plus B equals C. We're doing something better.

Brendan: Yeah, 100%. And I think that that is also, like we said before, it's that way in which we have gotten so immersed in what David Harvey says: this notion that neoliberal capitalism, what did it want to achieve? It wanted to achieve the notion that this is the only capitalism that exists, right?

Neoliberal capitalism being much better described probably by Ted in your other episode is fundamentally this notion that the individual is the only thing that matters and the state or any collective organism that would benefit and support the individual is just a burden. And so none of those things should be involved.

It's really just dog eat dog, every man for himself kind of take, and that the market will sort everything out one way or another. The problem that was not considered within that scenario, when they were conceiving of that is—it was an answer to the specter of socialism and communism, this belief that bureaucratic socialism and communism will be fundamentally ripe with corruption, which would lead this system to not be egalitarian at all. But in neoliberal capitalism, what has happened, corruption is everywhere. And especially when you're talking about the Global South, how do you expect a system like that to not feed the actors who may or be the least well-intentioned, right?

And attaching that to quality—quality becomes one of those things where it's like, if quality is the line where we like hit, and really that's what we need and I don't need to know more information—you can make a direct line in coffee between quality and money, right?

Why? Not even just because with more money you make more quality coffee—it's not just that, but you can take more risk. With a small producer, a smallholder, they produce coffee, every single lot that comes out, they want to sell the max amount of money so they can pay their bills and they can feed their families and they can grow their farm, they can pay their workers.

All that kind of stuff is vital. Every lot needs to be a slam dunk. It needs to be a win, right? There is no margin for failure. There is no risk management strategy. When you're dealing with people who are more empowered by this structure, quality then therefore relies on people being able to have deep pockets to survive.

That's the thing that I'm honestly very worried about: consolidation. It’s the biggest thing that worries me in specialty coffee now, not just in terms of production either. I think that we're seeing the same effort for people like us as importers.

We're an independent importer. We don't take money from multinational companies. We don't use multinational companies to move our coffee. We’ve found ways to get money for ourselves that we pay, we have our own names on so that we can buy coffee and support people. But more and more multinational companies are operating in the specialty coffee realm and consuming independent companies, right?

Because they have the ability to do so. And it's the same thing on the production side. You get more and more of this instability where you get a consolidation of wealth that's going to change the whole very nature of who's able to participate in that scheme. And that terrifies me. It basically is like the Amazon-ification of coffee that more and more we're gonna end up with major corporate interests that run everything, right?

Ashley: I feel like … so I wrote an article a couple of months ago about the consolidation of coffee from the consumption end of mostly roasters being consolidated. And one of the pushbacks I got was this idea that not all consolidation is bad. And I wanted to counter it—I generally don't engage in comments on my newsletter, especially if I think they're in bad faith.

But one of the arguments I wanted to make is that I'm not basing this on theory. I'm basing this on evidence. It's not that I'm proposing a theory that this could happen, I'm just looking at what the evidence has provided me. I've seen what Amazon has done. I've seen what Kroger has done, the consolidation of grocery stores.

If people didn't continue to prove that the consolidation of power is bad, then we wouldn't even be having this conversation. But I think you're absolutely right to identify this as something that we should maybe be fearful of. And again, it's not to say that the consolidation of power itself is necessarily bad, but that history has told us over and over and over and over that the consolidation of power is bad.

Brendan: Well, and if we go back to the basis of what do we do in our work or to me, we listen. When I listen to small producers and I ask them, What does this make you think?” And they say, “That's awful. That scares me. That's the death of my livelihood.” Then it's a no. That's just not a no, that's just not okay for us.

There's a reason why when we were just in Colombia 10, 15 days ago, and we were in the final reunion with all the producers we worked with, it was like almost 100 people that were there. And Augusto Ortega, who is a producer that we've been working with forever, who's a smallholder, who's been fighting to develop proper market access for his family for over 40 years now, and is just an actual legend of a coffee producer who's respected deeply in his community, and he stood up and said that the work that we're doing there between Monkaaba, the producer association there and Semilla is a revolución pacífica—a peaceful revolution.

Because that's still the state that we live in, right? We still have to be in this world where smallholders and hopefully allied and supportive buyers recognize that we need to be waging a revolution and pushing back against the way that the world works right now in coffee because this thing does not want to make space for the people who hold it up.

When the smallholder class holds up all of coffee production in the world—80% of all the world's coffee is smallholders. And so what are we doing when we move towards consolidation? You're guaranteed disenfranchising all of these people, and for what? So you can get a higher quality score and so that someone already wealthy can make more money so that like major private investment companies can invest in wet mills and buy huge tracks of land so that you can have a more vertically integrated coffee, so that you get quality at a lower price.

If that's the trend that we're going towards, then all of this thing is a great example of the efficiency of neoliberal capitalism, but also the terror of it, right? That really what just pushes us further and further is never towards understanding human experience and understanding human reality.

It's about bottom line.

Ashley: The only way that I see pushback on this—and not to say that I think this is warranted, I'm just trying to see it from the other end of a small roaster. And I think, again, this is kind of where capitalism has spoiled our brains in a way, is that with small roasters, so much of how we structure the idea of small businesses, like, we glorify small businesses.

And not to say that they're deserving or not whatever, but this idea of like, everything to serve the business. Like you said, maybe you do business kind of badly if you were kind of doing it from the nuts and bolts way that we understand how businesses should operate, but like how do you get roasters to that level?

Not to say that they have to get to where you're at, but I have to imagine that for a lot of small roasters, when you start to have these conversations with them, again, capitalism has spoiled all of our brains, they have to think about, “How do I get to this bottom line? How do I cut the cost? How do I do what I need to do for my business to survive?”

Brendan: I think that we're really lucky because I don't actually think I have too many people push back on that. I think that for sure there's probably people who just like don't even engage with us. There's a lot of people that just don't even engage with us because the coffee is too expensive and this whole thing that we’re doing is like, it's just too much for me. I don't want any of that stuff. There's a lot of people that just wanna roast coffee and live their life.

I don't hold anybody to some standard and say that you are evil. I don't think that anybody, especially in a micro roasting context, is the problem.

I just think that we need better resources. We all need better resources to do the things that we say we want to do and to achieve them the way that we want to.

And I think most of us in specialty, the roasters that we work with, at least when we have these same conversations, they agree. They're like, “This is terrible. I don't want that,” but no one's telling them this information. And so that's the thing that we have to remember—Semilla, for us, has always been a verification and a fact-finding mission.

How do we find the truth and then share that with people? And like you said, it's not about theories and it's not about shade. It's about this is the truth—this is how things are working right now. How do we fix that? How do we make that not that way? How do we not engage in that? That's all we're trying to do, you know?

And I think once you make that clear to people that we are hoping to propose a solution, and the plus side is this coffee's amazing and the people you're buying from are awesome, then it's a no-brainer. Bigger buyers—I think the people I run into more—I think they’re more of my peers, quote unquote, who run importation businesses would probably think that what we do is just insanely risky and stupid.

You know, like sending a bunch of money for anticipation payments to Guatemala like we do every year without any sample verification, and without any worry that they're gonna deliver the coffee. People don't do that—some people do, but most don't, most just think you're stupid and that you're getting into a scenario that is just too risky.

Ashley: But that assumes that the end all be all is the business. And I think that that's an interesting way to frame it, is that the end all be all is for you to be able to do business and make money, but that isn't the end all be all. That's the whole point.

Brendan: No, and I think that fundamentally, the hilarious thing about that is how does your business exist?

You’re in business because you have coffee producers who trust you, so it's this insane ability for us to get so narrowly focused on things like cup score and bag count and those kind of things, and not thinking about the fact that, like I said at the beginning, there's a human being that produced your coffee who wants more than anything—like we say with everything, the craziest part about doing specialty coffee at this point for me is not about whether or not people want to pay more money or anything like that.

It's about how there's still this huge lack of just pure respect for the people who make this all possible.

Ashley: Is there anything you want people to know about Semilla before we close this conversation out?

Brendan: I don't know. I feel like I left so much on the table. I didn't say I feel like I didn't say most of everything.

Ashley: I mean, it's impossible to.

Brendan: I hope this captures some of the essence of what Semilla is trying to do. I think that Semilla is trying to make new realities, and we're trying to do those together with people.

We're not trying to do those by ourselves, and we're not trying to be saviors or heroes. We're trying to just listen and follow and out of respect, build things that leave smallholder producers, specifically smallholder producers, in a better place than they've ever been before. And that doesn't just mean in terms of the money that's in their pockets.

It means the information about their product, connection to their community, understanding of the specialty market, and hopefully tools and ability to operate in that market independently and autonomously. That's what we're trying to get to.

Ashley: Brendan, thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. This has been so revealing and I'm gonna be buzzing off this conversation for a while.

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