From Bean to Cup: Co-ops and Fair Trade Coffee

By Joe Damiano, 

Bulk Department Manager

fair-trade-coffee-peruIf you're like me, you like to do the right thing. Most of us do. So for a couple of decades now, I've been trying to do the right thing by putting my money where my mouth is — in the form of buying local and organic food. I've bought CSA shares, I've been an organic farmer, and for the past twenty years I've eaten almost exclusively locally grown, organic food. Having grown up in a low-income household in Cleveland, I've had to come a long way to get to that place. Where there is an abundance of great, fresh, local food choices, as here in Tompkins County, it's a bit easier for a person to do the right thing. It's easier to know that you have an ethical relationship with your farmer because you can actually get to know your farmer. But for foods that cannot be grown locally, it gets more challenging.

I've worked exclusively in the organic foods industry in one way or another for over 20 years. In 1993, I started my first job at a co-op, in Arcata, California. By 1995, I was a bulk department buyer at the Cleveland Food Co-op, and a new phrase came to my knowledge — Fair Trade. Fair Trade is defined as "a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency, and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers. Fair Trade organizations, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade." Then, as now at GreenStar, I was the person in charge of ordering coffee. I wanted to do the right thing, so whenever available, I ordered organic Fair Trade coffee beans from a cooperative called Equal Exchange.

As a buyer, I'm still always keeping my eyes out for Fair Trade certified products. When I see these products, it makes me happy, and I bring them in to sell at the Co-op, making them available for my fellow member-owners to have the opportunity to do the right thing. While this concept of Fair Trade has been very appealing to me and I've trusted that the farmers who are growing these products are actually being treated fairly, it's always been hard to know what the real story is without seeing it with my own eyes. If you've had similar questions about Fair Trade, I have great news for you. I've seen it with my own eyes now, and I can tell you — Fair Trade works!

In July, I had the privilege of taking a ten-day trip with seven other health-food store managers (representing four cooperatives and three privately owned natural-food stores) and four Equal Exchange workers to visit an organic coffee farming community in Coyona, Peru. The trip was a tenth-anniversary tour set up by Equal Exchange to allow us to witness first-hand how the Fair Trade relationship they have with these farmers had helped this community over the past decade. Three of the participants on our tour had been on the first trip, a decade earlier, and had some great perspectives to share on the progress that this cooperative farming community had made. One of the most substantial gains pointed out was a cooperatively run hillside processing plant. Here grinders take off the outside "cherry" before depositing the beans in vats of water, where inferior beans float to the surface. Those that float are set aside for less lucrative markets.

The family farmers in Coyona make up the cooperative Jose Gabriel Condorcanqui of northern Peru. Equal Exchange, a cooperative itself, buys from these democratically organized small-scale farmers. Each of these farmers cultivates a handful of acres on which they grow coffee and their own food intercropped with orange, banana, and shade trees. Once in Coyona, we split up into pairs and stayed in the homes of our host farming families, having meetings and picking coffee during the day (it was the peak of harvest season), and having social engagements and lively chats in the evenings. I was very fortunate to be paired up with an Equal Exchange worker named Raphael Aviles, a fluent Spanish speaker, who very graciously helped me with translation, allowing me to really pick the brain of my host farmer, Esteban Facundo. Esteban, a wonderful 75-year-old man, full of his own jokes crafted while working coffee fields over the years, was one of the founding members of the co-op in 1969. He was full of great perspectives, which he readily shared with us, from 40-plus years of being in the cooperative. Esteban was very pleased with the relationship his cooperative has with Equal Exchange, as were all of the farmers I spoke with. A recurring theme I heard was that the farmers believed they wouldn't even be growing coffee if it wasn't for Fair Trade. They told me that the international Fair Trade market is the only way to make a good living growing coffee in Peru. I heard a farmer say that they're paid over four times more for their organic Fair Trade beans than farmers who grow conventional, non-Fair Trade coffee beans. That's quite a statement! This very accurately backs up Equal Exchange's assertion that "Fair Trade is a way of doing business that ultimately aims to keep small farmers an active part of the world marketplace, and aims to empower consumers to make purchases that support their values."

The farming cooperative that we visited, Condorcanquí, is one of the 90 grassroots farmer organizations that own CEPICAFE. In this way, CEPICAFE is a cooperative itself. These 90 grassroots organizations, with more than 6,600 members, are located on the western slopes of the Andes Mountains in Piura, Peru, which are blessed with unique climate and soils that are ideal for growing coffee. The association's activities are to market coffee and represent its members. Equal Exchange and CEPICAFE share a very close relationship. In fact, Equal Exchange was CEPICAFE's second international customer, and was the first to offer pre-shipment credit. I liken this to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share, whereby a customer pays up front for a season's worth of produce, enabling the farmer to use the capital for purchasing seeds, equipment, etc. in advance of the year's farming activities. Here's a quote from Arnaldo Neira Camizán, President of CEPICAFE: "Together with our grassroots organizations, we work permanently to promote sustainable and fair human development by broadening the capacities and ensuring respect for the rights of small-scale farmers and producers in the highlands of Piura."

In 2007, CEPICAFE opened a 10,000 square-meter coffee and cocoa processing facility, called Co-op Norandino, to capture more of the value of their farmers' crops. The operation has extensive quality control systems and can process 10,000 pounds of coffee per hour. Co-op Norandino, an association of three different organizations that represent the cooperative coffee farmers of Northern Peru, including CEPICAFE, was another stop on our tour. The Co-op Norandino processing and packing center is where they dehusk the green coffee beans grown by Fair Trade coffee cooperatives in Northern Peru. As it was harvest time, we visited while production was in full swing! We saw thousands of hundred-pound bags of green coffee beans awaiting shipment. They refer to this facility as "the castle that 'you' built." You refers to us, all of us who buy Fair Trade organic coffee.

It was very interesting for me to realize that there are five levels of co-ops that bring Fair Trade, organic coffee from seed to table, starting with the farmers of the Jose Gabriel Condorcanqui cooperative, on to CEPICAFE, the farmers' representatives, then the processor, Co-op Norandino, and from there on to Equal Exchange, the importer and distributor, and finally to GreenStar and the consumers, you and me.

So, with every pound of Peruvian coffee that we purchase from Equal Exchange, we are supporting people who are co-op members every step of the way. This was exciting to me! Every step of the way, I witnessed people living really well, too. Believe me, that's what I wanted to see more than anything — people living really well. I saw people in charge of their own destiny and empowered by one another! I saw people very happy with and very stable in their livelihoods. I saw gender equality being openly practiced. It looked a lot like what our community looks like in these ways.

Equal Exchange plays a huge role in this whole picture, and it's very obvious that they have been doing really great work in Peru, and elsewhere. We're a very big part of this picture, as well. At GreenStar, we sell about a ton of Fair Trade organic coffee every month. I was very proud to represent all of you there in Peru. Making the right choice, doing the right thing, in buying Fair Trade coffee is definitely making a huge difference for those people there. Speaking for the farmers, processors, representatives, importers, distributors, and myself, thank you all, for doing the right thing!

To hear more about and see more photos of Joe's trip, join us for the Fall Member Meeting on Friday, Oct. 18, at St. Paul's United Methodist Church, 5:30 – 8:30 pm, where Joe will give a presentation on his experiences visiting the coffee farmers and co-ops of Peru.

New in Bulk

Wild Wild Life

minnesota grown wild riceJoe Damiano,
Bulk Department Manager

Wild rice is an essential for your Thanksgiving table. Try ours, from Spirit Lake Native wild rice — it's the best there is.

When planning my personal menu for Thanksgiving, there are some items that, I feel, are absolutely essential. Wild Rice is one of them. I've always thought that the Organic Canadian Wild Rice that we sell in Bulk was the best available — it really is excellent. However, I then met Bruce Savage of Spirit Lake Native Products. Bruce walked into GreenStar one early-autumn day and handed me a bag of wild rice that has proven to be, by far, the best I have ever tasted. Spirit Lake is owned and operated by Bruce and his family and relies on a number of extended family members who live in and around the southwestern border of Lake Superior Chippewa Fond du Lac Reservation in Carlton county in northern Minnesota. I love to support small family farms that are doing great things and making great products. Try some of this wild rice and you'll see why!

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