Farm Direct vs. Importer Coffee Sourcing

Running a successful specialty coffee shop is all about using high-quality ingredients and skill to make a great beverage. As such, how you source your coffee beans is an important decision for your business.

To help you choose between sourcing your coffee directly from a farm or from an importer, we’ve outlined several key factors to consider.

Recommended: Read our full, in-depth How to Start a Coffee Shop Business guides, inspired by coffee professionals, they will help make your coffee dreams real, from sourcing beans to hiring baristas, choosing the best POS system, forming an actual company, and everything in between.


Farm-Direct Sourcing

This approach involves sourcing green coffee beans directly from your preferred farmer or producer. While it may sound like a good way to reduce costs by cutting out the middleman, it’s not that simple. For many reasons, buying coffee directly from a farm is often a pretty difficult process. Here are the main pros and cons:

PROS:

  • Transparency about farming practices
  • Relationships with farmers
  • Lower prices

CONS:

  • Difficulty with exporting
  • Language barriers
  • Increased liability

If you choose this path, these tips can help ease the process:

Use a translator. Language barriers can make sourcing coffee from farmers extremely difficult for both parties. When visiting a farm, bring a translator with you to simplify communication.

Research local exporters/partners. Farms that sell coffee directly to roasters often work with local exporters or partner organizations specifically created to assist farmers in exporting their coffee. If you opt to buy coffee directly from a farm, you’ll need to communicate with their preferred exporter or partners to discuss the process for shipping your order to you. To prepare for that interaction, be sure to have the following information ready:

  • Your shipping location
  • Specific taxes or fees that will apply on your end
  • Who will handle the coffee shipment beyond the country of origin’s jurisdiction (i.e. an importer or you).

Understand the key regulations. When importing beans from another country, you need to know several important regulations regardless of if you use a third-party importer or act as your own importer:

  • Green coffee beans must include a mark noting the country of origin on the outside of the bag.
  • Roasted beans need additional FDA labelling (follow the link for more information.)
  • Penalties apply for failure to comply with any coffee-importing requirements, which change regularly. Consider meeting with an importing specialist in your area to ensure ongoing compliance for your orders.

Confirm storage practices. How you store green coffee beans can completely change the quality of the final product. For example, proper coffee storage prevents exposure to moisture and keeps them in a cool dark place — typically a shipping container. Be sure to confirm your exporter and importer both follow appropriate storage practices for the coffee you purchase.

Research required taxes to export/import your coffee. For current and updated information about duties associated with importing coffee, check the US Harmonized Tariff Schedule before moving forward. Otherwise, large penalties can apply.

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Recommended: Check out our article on how to choose a coffee farm.

Importer Sourcing

Buying coffee from an importer can eliminate much of the hassle involved in the sourcing process. However, it also means you won’t have the experience and transparency of buying beans directly from a farmer. Here are the main pros and cons:

PROS:

  • Simplified ordering
  • Wide variety of product
  • Expert opinions/knowledge
  • Reduced liability

CONS:

  • Higher prices

If you choose to work with an importer, these tips can help you make the most of that partnership:

Uphold your ethics. If buying directly from a farm appeals to you for the assurance of fair business practices, look for importers that carry Fair Trade CertifiedTM coffees as well as exhibit good relationships with their farmers.

Seek variety and sample your options. An importer is only as good as the coffee it sells. Look for importers that offer a wide range of origins so your cafe can serve an array of distinct coffees from around the world.

Secure a backup supply. Many environmental factors can affect coffee plants. No two lots of green coffee beans are the same — even if they come from the same farm. Be sure to choose an importer that works with farms in multiple regions and countries so you always have a backup option if beans from one producer don’t meet quality standards or are unavailable when you place an order.

Understand your liability. The upside of using an importer is often reduced liability for you if the coffee you buy from them fails to meet your expectations. Look into a potential importer’s liability rules before you sign a contract. 

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Recommended: Check out our article on how to source coffee from an importer.

Making a Decision

The decision on how you prefer to source coffee for your cafe really hinges on ease and experience. For first-time coffee buyers, we recommend using an importer that suits your needs and preferences because of the simplicity, variety, and flexibility provided by this type of service. If you have more experience in coffee-sourcing, buying farm-direct can be a great way to ensure quality and transparency with your farmer(s) while helping to keep them in business. Ultimately, we recommend first looking for an importer that matches your business ethics and carries the coffees you want to buy.

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