Wolff Coffee Roasters has revitalised its Farmer in Residency program thanks to a visit from long-term producing partner Terry Shelley of Nowek Farms in Papua New Guinea.
A lot of the time, the sharing of information between coffee roasters and producers goes in one direction. To balance the scales, for the last 10 or so years Wolff Coffee Roasters has organised programs to ensure its farmers learn as much from Wolff as it does from them.
“We were going to origin, travelling to visit the farms, and spending time with producers and their families. Then we’d come back and share photos and experiences with teammates and our customers,” says Master Roaster Peter Wolff.
“It got Penny [Wolff, co-founder of Wolff Coffee Roasters] and I thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be more powerful bringing the producer to us?’”
The thought inspired the Farmer in Residency program, which pre-COVID-19 saw Wolff Coffee Roasters bring two coffee producers per year to Australia. During their stay, the producer could see how their coffee reaches the end consumer, learn more about the roasting industry, and engage with the local community through their Creating Coffee Connections talks.
“It provides the producer with a platform to speak to a wider coffee audience of not just Wolff customers, but other people interested in the coffee industry, from baristas and enthusiasts to other roasters and coffee traders. It’s an opportunity for them to share their own story and history of coffee, and initiatives and philanthropic work we do with them, which is really quite powerful,” Peter says.
“We also view the residency as a way they can gain and attain knowledge from us. It could be simple things like bookkeeping or business administration, insight into the Australian market, or it could be building their knowledge around sample roasting. One producer wanted to learn to roast coffee so he could supply local market, so we spent time showing him how and developing those skills.”
Many celebrated producers have been featured as the Wolff Coffee Roasters Farmer in Residency, including Aida Batlle of El Salvador, Rachel Peterson of Panama, Luiz Rodrigues of Brazil, and Boyce Harries of Kenya.
With COVID-19 putting a stop to international travel and in-person events last year, Wolff Coffee Roasters had to put Farmer in Residency and Creating Coffee Connections on hold. With the pandemic mostly under control in Australia, the Wolff pack were keen to do something that reunited the Queensland coffee community. Almost by pure chance, the next Farmer in Residency turned up on their doorstep.
“We were fortunate to have Terry Shelley of Nowek Coffee, one of our producing partners in Papua New Guinea, drop by to say ‘hi’. He got stuck here in Queensland when COVID hit and hasn’t gone back yet, so we thought we’d use that opportunity to have Terry showcase the work we’ve done with Nowek Farms over the last seven years,” Peter says.
Terry first came across Wolff Coffee Roasters during another trip to Australia, attending a coffee cupping at the roastery. He discussed with the team how he could improve his own farm’s coffee, which formed the basis of a strong partnership.
“We have an open and information-sharing relationship, which is something we’d never really had in the past as a producer. They roast coffees from all over the world and are interested in the qualities of that coffee, so being able to chat with them means we can see what we can adapt and use in our own mill,” Terry says.
“They also give us knowledge of the general coffee industry in Australia and honest feedback, so we’ve actually been able to improve our coffee.”
One of the initiatives Nowek Farms runs in PNG, which Wolff Coffee Roasters has supported over the years, is the Growing Futures – Coffee Seedling Program. This project and the problems it’s attempting to address were the main topics of Terry’s Creating Coffee Connections presentation on 29 April.
“We’ve got a coffee nursery at our mill and through Growing Future, hand out free seedlings to communities, schools, and farmers to encourage people to plant coffee. We transport the seeds out to their area, help plant them, then education them on how to maintain good farm maintenance and harvest practice,” Terry says.
“That’s been running since 2014 or 2015. We have handed out just over 70,000 seedlings and will continue to grow that program.”
More than half the PNG population relies on coffee production for income, however, Terry says an aging tree population is leading to declining production levels. Growing Futures is intended to encourage people to replant more prosperous coffee trees.
“In Brazil or Central America, the average age of a coffee tree is around 15 years old. In PNG, it’s closer to 40 to 50, and the older the tree gets the less it produces,” he says.
“In 2011, PNG produced more than one million [60-kilogram] bags of coffee. That’s slowly been on the decline to just over 700,000 bags per annum. It’s a concerning issue for everyone in the coffee industry in PNG, and it’s something we’re putting in the spotlight, to come up with solutions and make production increase.”
The Creating Coffee Connections presentation went into many other factors of PNG coffee production as well, such as problems with roads and infrastructure, environmental conditions, deforestation, and general farming practices.
While Terry has been grounded in Australia due to COVID-19, his siblings have continued the hands-on running of Nowek Farms. Otherwise, he says PNG coffee production has fared better than other origins throughout the pandemic.
“The main impact from COVID-19 on coffee farming in PNG last year was the fear surrounding it, with farmers in rural areas not willing to travel into town. But from what we’ve seen with the amount we’re processing, there hasn’t been too much disruption to coffee itself,” Terry says.
“People still need to farm and earn a living. PNG has many challenges and COVID has just added to the list.”
Although attendance was limited due to social distancing restrictions, tickets to the Creating Coffee Connections event sold out quickly. Terry says the audience was engaged and wanted to learn more.
“Australia has a good coffee industry. They appreciate a great coffee and are happy to help out. Australians have more interest in getting involved at the farm level than I’ve experienced from other countries. It’s not just supporting the program but wanting to talk with the people involved and getting their hands dirty,” Terry says.
“PNG is a close neighbour of Australia, it’s only a three-hour flight to Brisbane. If we can raise awareness of the faced issues in PNG, and help address them, there’s a lot of opportunity to improve the coffee with new processes and better quality, so the farmers especially can be rewarded for their efforts.”
Working with Wolff Coffee Roasters has given Terry ideas for new processing methods he can introduce to Nowek Farms and PNG coffee farmers. It has also helped the roaster organise an initiative to support one of the schools in the community near Nowek Farms.
Creating Coffee Connections ended with a tasting of coffee from Nowek Farms. Peter says the crowd was excited to be back together on the other side of the pandemic and left with a greater appreciation for PNG coffee.
“Everyone here in the Brisbane coffee community has really missed that connection to producers over the last 12 to 18 months, and it will probably be another 12 to 18 months before we see a real shift in people travelling somewhat freely. So, there was a real positive energy in the space and we’re grateful we could make it happen,” Peter says.
“We tell our customers who purchase Terry’s coffee about what’s going on in PNG, but it becomes so much more tangible when he’s here himself, saying ‘these are things we’ve done and achieved’.”
For more information, visit www.wolffcoffeeroasters.com.au