ROASTER: Mike Nelson

RELEASE: Ask Me About Cost of Production

Today, as of this writing (May 29th, 2019), the price for coffee on the commodities market is 98 cents a pound.

This is an easy number to find. Search “coffee prices c market” and the first link you click will get you what you’re looking for. This number is dangerously low, but it wasn’t until Mike Nelson sought out what a coffee actually costs to produce specifically by working with one farm in Guatemala called Santo Tomás Pachuj—that I really understood just how dangerous that number was.

“We needed a straight answer and accessible information. Cost of production data is contextual, and this information matters for all actors in the supply chain,” says Mike, who is the co-owner of Junior’s Roasted Coffee and our featured roaster for June. Mike and his partner, Caryn, embarked on an ambitious project, called The Cost of Production Covered Project, after noticing that information about coffee costs were either scarce or overgeneralized.

The project initially started not in their roasting space (Junior’s is run out of their Princess Bride-themed café called Guilder), but at Florida State University, where Mike was pursuing a PhD and looking at coffee rust and farmer adaptation, looking at how farmers were engaging with the disease. Two years of the program and a lengthy publication process took a physical and emotional toll. Mike was constantly unsettled by the thought of this research not moving outside of academia—that paper was on climate change and food systems and ended up in some esoteric geography journal. Once the paper was published, he wondered, “Where is this information going?” After that, he and Caryn packed up their lives and went back to Portland, where they originally met.

“This project,” Mike says, referring to The Cost of Production Covered, “is a way to continue that work.” The idea came from an intern who was trying to answer some basic questions about coffee. “I had an intern and she couldn’t find any information about what it costs to produce coffee,.” he says. “While the lack of data from my interns search encouraged me to incorporate it into my own research, Chad Trewick planted the first seed. He gave me the idea. I thought I could help his own work by seeing what this intern could pull up. When she couldn’t find anything, it only pushed me further.”

The Cost of Production is difficult to define. Part research project, part theoretical mind experiment, and part practical problem solving, it’s evolved into a multifaceted approach to talking about big problems. “We want this to be a household conversation,” Mike says, noting that many articles and conversations surrounding coffee costs can get caught up in confusing jargon and alienate the folks who we want to be part of the discussion. “There are ways you can say something and make things stick,” Mike says, “and as I started getting into it, I started to see that The Cost of Production could be the missing link.”

What Mike means by “missing link” is the thing that connects coffee consumers to the dire situation coffee is in. In his research with Andres Fashen, the owner of Santo Tomás Pachuj, they found that it costs Andres $2.87 per pound to produce his coffee. “This is cost of doing business. This is something I think about every day as a business owner.”

Mike isn’t your typical business owner, though. Mike and Caryn have been using their café as a breeding ground for pushing new ideas and getting both their baristas and their customers talking about The Cost of Production. “We want to use this business as a platform for activist work.”

Along with an event series (you can catch a live Cost of Production event recording on Boss Barista), they play with different ways to make information both engaging and impossible to ignore. Their wifi password is “askmeaboutthecostofproduction” and the café is filled with comic books they made in partnership with a local illustrator that lay out the research project. “I’ve seen people pick up the comic and put it down and just rightfully depressed.”

In a way, that means things are working. “If we’re going to see progress, we need to get the average coffee drinker buying in.” Sometimes, that’s as simple as getting someone to ask more about the wifi password. “I’d say 10% of people who ask for the password actually asks what it means, but that’s 10% more than who was asking before.”

The conversation isn’t quite there yet. Mike recalls, “I remember one person asked me, ‘why don’t the farmers just grow something else?’” And it took Mike and Andres almost 18 months just to figure out how to price coffee for one farm for one year—Mike in no way claims that the number they came up with applies to farmers across the board. A ton of progress has been make, though, and not in the ways you might think. If anything, Mike’s project is an achievement in accessibility and transparency—not just about coffee prices, but about information in general.

There’s a lot to look forward to in the future. “We want to keep talking about this and not let it die.” A number of farmers have reached out to Mike wanting to learn more about how they can estimate their costs. “We’re currently working on a versatile cost of production template, and hope to have it ready for upcoming harvest,” which will hopefully speed up the process and make it simpler for anyone—not just the folks at Juniors—to know what the cost to farmers is.

The Cost of Production is such an important project, and we’re thrilled to be partnering with Mike to figure out ways to make this information more accessible to a wider group of people.