Antifragile Coffee Farms

Updated September 3, 2016

What would an antifragile coffee farm look like?

Taleb defines the term antifragile to mean something that benefits from stressors (Taleb, 2014). To help illustrate the concept he uses a Triad:

Fragile -- Robust -- Antifragile

Things that are fragile break when exposed to stressors. Things that are robust neither break nor improve when exposed to stressors. Antifragile things, however, actually improve when exposed to stressors.

See also: Coffee Sustainability

I've been thinking a lot recently about how to move coffee farms from the left side of that equation to the right side.  A couple of quick thoughts:

  • A coffee farm with many smaller buyers, rather than few larger buyers is at least more robust in that the loss of one or two buyers doesn't have catastrophic consequences.  The same farm moves towards antifragile if, in the loss of a buyer, the loss becomes information used to improve operations.  For example, a buyer leaves due to too many black, defective beans.  The farmer retrains his pickers to avoid picking underripe cherries or cherries already fallen onto the ground.  The farmer has improved his product and is now in a better position as a result of losing one customer.
  • Running many breed experiments improves a farmers optionality and again, stressors become a source of information, allowing the farmer to improve the genetic stock of his entire farm.  For example, by having multiple different breeds with different flavor profiles, the farmer doesn't have to predict which breed will be preferred by which customers, he has options because he provides options to his buyers. Also, if one or two of the breeds becomes affected by a disease while others don't, the farmer knows which breeds are more resistant and he can make a decision on how much exposure to the disease he's willing to accept.
  • During harvest season, experimenting with different processing methods to produce experimental, nano-lots. These can then be tested with cafes to see what processing methods produce the most-desirable coffees for a given customer set. For example, experimenting with "slow fermentation." If experimentation identifies a better method, it could even be expanded to include all coffee, increasing differentiation from other producers/processors.

The key is to force optionality but to do so requires that discipline, organization, and structure are already in place so that feedback (data) from various experiments can be effectively collected and utilized. For example, a mill must first be able to isolate and track an experimental lot of coffee as it flows through the process and the experiment should follow the scientific method to ensure quality data by controlling variables, etc.

Updated September 3, 2016: Expanded article. 

  1. Taleb, N. N. (2014). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Michael C. Wright

Michael is a licensed Q Grader, licensed Q Processor Pro, an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST), and most recently, a graduate with a degree in horticulture and a concentration in horticultural business management. He has over ten years experience in the coffee industry operating on both the supply and demand sides of the value chain.