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Dr Timothy Schilling of WCR shares his wild ride through coffee

Timothy Schilling

The Indiana Jones of the coffee industry, Dr Timothy Schilling, reflects on a professional career that has inspired, improved and changed the future of coffee for the better. 

In the first five minutes of Dr Timothy Schilling’s interview with Global Coffee Report, he makes one thing clear from the get-go: he’s not leaving coffee for good. The scientist and World Coffee Research (WCR) Founder and President is, however, concluding 20 professional years in the industry that’s given him countless friendships and memories to last a lifetime.

“Coffee is a love of mine. It’s not just a job or profession, it’s a love that will continue,” he says.

One of six kids, Schilling grew up in northern Georgia, United States, watching his “typical American coffee drinking parents” indulge in Folgers, Maxwell House, and Eight O’Clock percolated coffee, which he started drinking at 12 years of age.

Schilling had a curious nature about biological things and systems but dropped out of high school and got a full-time job at an automotive parts shop. It didn’t take long before Schilling realised he wasn’t fulfilling his potential. He went back to night school, studying biology as an avenue to work in agricultural production.

After he obtained a bachelor’s degree, Schilling joined the American Peace Corps, determined to use his knowledge of science to help others. He was sent to Lavras, Minas Gerais, Brazil where he lived with a coffee farming family and had his second encounter with coffee. He learned about coffee as an agronomist and was blown away by the culture of coffee farming.

“I was super impressed and enamoured with coffee as a crop – so complex, so sophisticated,” Schilling says.

After his Peace Corps experience, Schilling returned to the US where a former professor gave him a scholarship to complete his Master’s degree in agronomy and plant breeding at the University of Georgia, followed by a PhD in plant genetics at North Carolina State University for better job prospects. But before he did, Schilling was offered a job as a peanut breeder for the Cameroon government through a US government-funded project. He packed his bags for one year and stayed for seven, finishing his PhD over there. 

“Most of my life has been working in African countries, but Cameroon was my first experience of African life and it was a special one. It had desert, cool ethnic groups, wilderness, it was super interesting,” he says.

On his return, Schilling worked as the Associate Director for a Collaborative Research Support Program linking American university professors with counterpart researchers in developing countries working on constraints to sorghum and millet production. He did this work for five years, mainly in Southern Africa, before another five years in West Africa running a large research enhancement project. 

Once again, on his return, Schilling was in demand. Michigan State University asked if he would be interested working on a project in Rwanda, which Schilling says “had nothing yet everything to do with coffee”.

“Part of the project was to develop outreach programs to take technologies to farmers to try and improve their processes and increase their incomes. That was the part that was interesting to me. But what was even more compelling was working in the context of helping rebuild Rwanda’s agricultural sector, still largely suffering the aftereffects of the Rwandan genocide, and to help lots of people,” he says. 

“That’s where I ran into coffee again, because we did a lot of economic appraisals in the rural areas to determine what commodity might be able to generate income. When we got to coffee, with 400,000 Rwandan farmers with roughly 200 trees each, it was a no brainer. It was clear to see that if you were able to increase the price the farmers got by even one or five cents, it would have a huge effect and uplift on the rural economy. I wondered why no one had done anything of the sort before, but as I moved deeper in, I saw why: the Rwandan system at the time was a monopoly, the system was corrupt, the coffee was lousy, and it was being penalised on the C market at 50 points under its worth.”

Determined to see the potential for himself, Schilling had a friend in Texas assess the Rwandan green beans for any intrinsic quality values of ‘good’ or ‘specialty coffee’. The results were “nothing extraordinary”, bad not bad either. The problem then, Schilling says, was getting all those 400,000 farmers and their family members to not process the coffee in 400,000 different ways. “They needed to bring their coffee cherry harvests together in the one place, pulp it, dry it, and sell it together, and that’s what they did. It was all about increasing quality, because high quality would increase income, and it did,” Schilling says.

“Seeing the potential was easy enough, but the execution and figuring out how to get it done was very challenging to say the least. The sector was corrupt. There was so much money tied up in the system and the farmers were getting none of it. It was a constant uphill battle because no-one in the coffee sector wanted to transform the sector, thinking they’d only get hurt by it.”

The key was persistence, and a little bit of luck. The first piece of luck was that the C market was the lowest it had ever been at 45 US cents. Why was that lucky? Because when the coffee sold at $1.40 US cents per pound on that market, it turned heads and everybody wanted in. The second piece of luck was the support of the Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whom Schilling describes as an “avant-garde, cool, super intelligent, incredible person”. 

Kagame made clear that the Rwandan coffee sector was changing and would become more of a priority for the country. “That kind of language squashed a lot of the corruption in the local supply chain and eventually allowed a ‘specialty sector’ to grow,” Schilling says.

“In the very beginning, the local supply chain didn’t really think anything would come of our efforts. Many development specialists thought we had laughable objectives. But this gave us some freedom to prove our concept by producing container loads of coffee that were sold for two to three times the C market price. All of a sudden, the farmers were literally polishing their cherries and getting enormous value,” he says. 

At the same time, big brands such as Green Mountain, Counter Culture Coffee and Intelligentsia Coffee were looking for the “new origin” of 2002 and 2003, and what their support did, was create a bubble of excitement for Rwandan production. 

“Then we pulled another first by bringing in the Cup of Excellence to Africa. That’s when things exploded even more,” Schilling says. “Those are some of the ingredients of our success, but we wouldn’t have done it without the government, ministers, and all the partner support. It was a major undertaking.” 

Schilling oversaw the rebuilding project in Rwanda for 10 years. It was really a decade-long effort to initiate, and five additional years to have the systems engrained in the culture of the Rwandan government and with farmers and the wider industry. 

The last time Schilling travelled to Rwanda was 2019. Each time he does, he says it brings tears to his eyes.

“Discovering and watching with my own eyes how coffee quality was transforming the rural economy with increased incomes and hope is so powerful you can’t believe it. And to know the people, see them daily, and then observe the change in their lives, is unreal. Ten years on, the kids are smiling, they’re wearing nice dresses and shoes, and living in houses with roofs instead of straw huts. At one point, I started counting the number of hair salons in the tiny village – that was the real indicator of rural success because on last count there was seven for about 1000 people,” Schilling says.

After Rwanda, Schilling addressed the fact that the multi-billion-dollar coffee sector, that was driven by quality, actually had done very little research on the science of coffee quality. He had devised an experiment to look at the impact transport of coffee cherries had on final coffee quality and was “flabbergasted” when he conducted a simple scientific literature review and no-one had done anything on the subject prior.

He shared his dismay to Ric Rhinehart, former President of Groundwork Coffee and former Executive Director of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), who was buying Rwandan coffee at the time. He encouraged Schilling to write a concept about this idea and the need for a quality research organisation that he could take to the SCA board. Now part of the SCA Board of Directors himself, Schilling presented the concept to the then-known SCAA Symposium, which attracted roasters, exporting companies, and scientists. 

“We told them what agricultural research could do for the commodity and asked if this is something they wanted and would support, because it needs a substantial volume of money each year to do a good job and move the needle on quality and volume. The result was a resounding ‘yes’ and off we went,” Schilling says.

And so WCR was formed in 2012. Significant early investments from Farmer Brothers, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (now Keurig Dr. Pepper) and the J.M. Smucker Company allowed WCR to really “turn on” and grow fast, funding core research initiatives around the world. 

Through Schilling’s position as Executive Director of WCR, he was able to develop and oversee WCR’s Nursery Development Program, the creation of the Coffee Lexicon and Arabica Varieties Catalogue, and launch the International Multilocation Variety Trial, among many other projects. One that Schilling treasures most is the  WCR network of trials in farmers’ fields. 

“We put in place 260 trials in 14 counties, co-managed by dozens of exporters, NGO and coop partners to test better varieties right in the farmers’ field where it matters,” Schilling says. “We took the best three varietals in each country, replicated them, and activated research trials on individual farms. WCR was responsible for educating producers on the benefit of replacing old varieties and technologies with new, higher yielding varieties and practices to include profitability.” 

Schilling says it’s one thing to have a project or technology that can generate income, and another thing entirely to get it into the hands of farmers. 

What also excites Schilling about the power of science is coffee breeding for increased quality, which he says is “the key to the future” sustainability of the industry. 

“Selective breeding just for quality has never really been done before. Usually, in the past, quality was a variable to consider at the very end of the breeding process. By that time, you may have lost the highest quality material so breeding for quality really is the next step: finding out which plants are carrying high quality genetics and then utilising their genomic properties to create the next generation of improved varieties,” he says.

Schilling notes that collaborative research endeavours are going to be needed to drive progress. For example, French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) worked together with ECOM Agroindustrial Corp to produce F1 hybrids such as Mundo Maya and Starmaya – major milestone varieties which he says are “huge lights of hope” for the industry. Collaborations between Italian researchers, Illy and Lavazza led to the publication of the first public arabica genome, and WCR is partnering with advanced research institutes and national governments to speed up innovation and get it into farmers’ hands.

Another beacon of hope is the 30 to 35 origin agronomists Schilling lectures to about climate change and production at illy’s Università del Caffè in Trieste, Italy.

“These coffee professionals are so young, excited, and passionate. They want to save the world and make their country’s coffee the best it can be. So that’s where I hope to be putting my energy,” he says. 

Schilling is also working with several espresso professionals, UC Davis and the SCA on a new sensory quality protocol to evaluate green coffee for espresso beverages at origin.

It’s no surprise then that the word “retirement” is not one Schilling associates with lawn bowls and bird watching. Rather, the US-born scientist will continue living in the French Alps, surrounded by family, and use his “down time” to clear his mind and put his energy into passion projects. The problem for Schilling, however, is that he constantly devises new ideas and projects.

“Retirement is only the space between two directions, but I don’t know what my next direction is right now,” he says. 

“What attracts me to the industry and what has kept me there for 20 years is the people. Normally, agricultural scientists change crop focuses constantly, you don’t have an emotional attachment to a plant. But in coffee, I’ve found an abundance of really compelling, compassionate people in both coffee consuming and producing countries, and how cool is that.”

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