What is Local?

By Eton Tsuno, Green Coffee Buyer at Temple Coffee
What is the definition of “Local” and how is it applicable to your local coffee roaster? The definition of locally produced seems to span anywhere from a 50 to 100 mile radius, and often much further. There are no rules or regulations for labeling products “local.” Does the product need to be produced locally? Grown locally? Manufactured locally? Exactly what is this thing we call Local?

Recently at a “local” vendor dinner, I was served dishes produced using “local” ingredients, and each producer/supplier talked about where the food you were eating was from, and how it was special. I was thrown aback when the “local” shellfish purveyor was providing the dinner with clams from the east coast, and mussels from Newfoundland. Obviously, he is a local distributor of these amazing shellfish. However, after hearing where the actual product was from, I began envisioning a warehouse with live tanks where shellfish is shipped and stored until sold, then trucked out when ordered. Does this make these shellfish local? Not exactly. His business? Yes.
It got me thinking about our own position as a Green Coffee Buyer and Roaster in the Specialty Coffee industry, and how “Local” or “Locality” is viewed within our industry and to casual observers. We purchase coffee from all over the world: Is our coffee local? Kind of. We are roasting and creating a finished product here in Sacramento. For me, I can say that if you are in Sacramento, Temple Coffee is your local roaster/retailer.

In a nutshell, our company does what I believe all responsible, thriving small-businesses should do: donate generously, and support other small businesses in order to make an impact on our surrounding community. The key words here being “surrounding community.” As a Green Coffee Buyer, my surrounding community, my sense of local or locality, is not only what is close to me via walking or driving. My surrounding community also spreads to our producers. As a buyer, I attempt to positively influence my supply chain — what I consider my “Locality” — which includes our friends and partners, our producers in Central and South America, Africa, and Indonesia. The physical distances are sometimes very far, but the affirmative and constructive work relationships are very near and dear. Ultimately, this is the reason I became enthralled with coffee, and why I chose to make coffee my career.
In order to “spread our locality” — a concept that sounds contradictory, but I hope to make clear — we have taken on three projects that began in 2013. First, all of our Brazilian coffees are from 5 small-lot farmers. We have contracted an agreement that states each grower will provide us with a 10 bag micro-lot 90+pt coffee for which we pay a heavy premium. We also commit to purchase their mid-quality (80-85pt) coffee for blending. With this model, we are able to support these amazing farmers’ entire crop, and not simply skim the cream from their crop and leave them with coffee of lower quality and therefore harder to sell.
Second, we have created the first African buying group that I know of, whose focus is on direct, traceable coffees from East Africa. This group is made of 5 of the most amazing roasters and coffee buyers in the United States and we agreed to purchase a full shipping container together: 300 132Lb bags of coffee. We traveled to Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, and Rwanda in order to search for great coffees, and obtain traceable information beyond the wet-mill or cooperative group. Currently in East Africa, it’s unheard of to know which small lot farmer grew the coffee cherry that makes up the amazing lot of Auction Kenya or micro-lot Ethiopian. Besides traceability, we will be paying a premium directly to the grower for the lots of coffee we prefer. If we are successful with this program, it can eventually lead to higher quality coffee, better prices, and a more sustainable business for each coffee community we work with in Africa.

Lastly, we traveled to Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and El Salvador to meet with our current direct-trade farmers and partners. We selected lots and continued working with our producers to create even higher quality coffees.

We hope these three projects will create models that we can spread to other origins — spread our locality across waters.

In conclusion, I find myself thinking about the evolving definition of “local” and how we support the important concept that we call “Local.” Is it to stimulate our surrounding economy in our current hard times, reduce our carbon footprint, be part of our community, and be closer to the products we use? Certainly. But there are so many other different aspects to “local” that cannot be explained easily or quickly, and I will not try here. Instead I encourage everyone to come to their own understanding about why “local” is important to yourself, your beliefs, and your particular situation. Strive to support small business and be sustainable, but support “local” however you define it.