It took me a few days to weigh in here....
I'd like to begin by saying that the roles of the exporter and importer have, in my opinion, been undervalued by a large part of the specialty coffee community. I find that the word "broker" (like "middleman") is used to describe an agent who adds no tangible value to the chain, almost as an insult or something.
However, some of the most dynamic and influential people in our industry have been coffee importers. Coffee importers such as Erna Knutsen, Bob Fulmer, Pete McLaughlin, etc. were critical in INVENTING specialty coffee as we know it and as we collectively imagine it to be. Today, there are people working as importers who are dynamic, engaged, progressive, quality-driven, and are working their brains out trying to get great coffee to roasters. Exporters are much the same story- people like Salim Hanna, Hailu Hiwot, and George Willekes pioneered specialty coffee and its trade.
I say this because it has become fashionable in some quarters to dismiss the role of the importer and exporter as "middlemen" or "brokers" (Ed, I realize this dismissal is not part of your question, but I've been meaning to address this for a while now...please indulge me). Lots of people use these words to try to minimize the important work that importers and exporters do. New generations of importers and exporters build upon the work of those who went before them, just as roasters and baristas have. I would make a list here but there are too many to name...these people are engaged on a daily basis, along with producers, roasters, and baristas, in the quality coffee chain. Our industry would collapse without their efforts.
Ric has done a great job of presenting a primer of how the chain of specialty coffee usually works. The chain is, of course, different in every country and in every transaction. Sometimes, it is possible for one person to wear a number of hats (producer/miller/exporter, or roaster/importer for example) but it is a challenge to say the least. In my opinion, the system works best when the various parties involved in the chain are specialists in their field, working cooperatively and transparently with each other.
There is a misconception about "Direct Trade". Many people assume that means that the roasters involved in this kind of supply chain management get on a plane, go buy coffee from the farm gate, and usher it back home to be roasted. In fact, Direct Trade is when a farmer, miller, exporter, importer, and roaster all work together in cooperation and transparency to make a coffee transaction, with the idea that the transaction must be beneficial and sustainable for all involved. Really and truly, no agent in this chain is less important than the others. In our direct trade program, and this is the case with most of the roasters I know who are leading the Direct Trade charge, importers and exporters are recognized and valued within the supply chain; however everyone's role is clearly defined. One important feature- and I know this is something that Intelligentsia's DT program has at its heart, and Sweet Maria's Farm Gate program as well- is that price negotiation begins with the farmer, and other costs (milling, exportation, importation, etc.) are separately negotiated after that point.
Ok, so I got that all off my chest! Thanks for the opportunity to do that!
Ed, I think you are wise to seek clear definitions of how the coffee supply system works. In our case, once we come to an agreement with a farmer, we seek out trustworthy, quality-minded millers, exporters, and importers to help us get the coffee to our warehouse. In some cases, it was the importer or exporter who introduced us to the farmer in the first place! In other cases, it works the other way. This process is time consuming and difficult, and- this is important- this kind of business is usually transacted using the containerload as the minimum volume. With anything less than a containter (roughly 45,000lbs green) it becomes much more complicated and expensive, and is not an attractive proposition for anyone. The importer's role becomes even more important at that point. It's challenging for a very small roaster to get to that point; I think the best advice is to start slow and start small- building relationships with importers, starting to visit farms and get to know exporters, "stretching your legs" within the system to understand how it works and how to work with it. Ric's advice to look before you leap is very good; you don't want to put your company, the farmers, or the coffee at risk. I've known some coffee buyers who have (with the best intentions) gotten on a plane to buy coffee, and wound up causing severe financial distress on the farmer and on their own company.
Hope this has been useful,
Specialty Coffee Association of America