Fair Trade or fairly traded?

Fair Trade ensures consumers a proactive stamp of approval, but it is not the only solution to issues of coffee origin.

by Kelsey Kudak

It’s extraordinary to think that dozens, maybe even hundreds of hands, touch every coffee bean that is in your cup of coffee,” said Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. We spoke during the annual conference for the SCAA – the world’s largest gathering of coffee connoisseurs, technically perfect baristas and coffee growers. Last weekend, Minneapolis was not only home to the conference, but also to discussion of sustainability and quality within the market of great coffee.

While those directly involved in the specialty coffee industry understand the lengthy chain of supply that ensures a quality cup of coffee, the average consumer thinks little of this. Yet, whether we drink our morning coffee at Dunn Bros or at home, a significant number of individuals have cared for it before we even take a sip.

The production of coffee beans often begins several years before reaching the consumer. On average, coffee trees take five years to begin producing marketable cherries – grape-like fruits from which coffee beans are extracted. At the point of maturity, often during our winter months of January and February, harvesters are paid not only for the amount of cherries they can handpick in a day, but for the quality of the cherries they harvest. These cherries are then sold to a processor who extracts the pit of the fruit – our coffee bean – and ensures that beans are washed, dried and exportable. He then will sell these green beans to an exporter, who sells them to an importer in the United States, who sells them to a roaster and then to a retailer, who either sells the coffee by the pound or brewed cup. Though the chain exists in variations with omitted links, this basic model is the way coffee has been sold for hundreds of years.

A current trend that works to decrease the numbers involved in this incessant game of hot-potato is the Fair Trade industry. Through this Fair Trade, direct cooperatives are formed between roasters and individual farmers, thus eliminating the middleman and ensuring a better profit for the farmer. Fair Trade beans are purchased at a fixed price above the ever-changing market, and the Fair Trade logo is typically well advertised by the roaster. After organizing cooperatives in Nicaragua for 11 years, Paul Rice became the CEO of TransFair USA, with the belief that Fair Trade is a testament to the power the awakening consumer has through a simple cup of coffee. “We’re turning a daily act that is not conscious into an act of goodwill, and that’s a compelling notion in a nation where people care, but that don’t have time,” he said. “We don’t have time to go to the PTA meeting or write a letter to the editor. Half our nation doesn’t have time to vote. But we all eat, and that means most of us shop. So if the act of shopping and the act of consumption can become an act of reaching out, that is a powerful thing.”

Peace Coffee in Minneapolis functions in this way. Selling all Fair Trade, organic beans, the local roasting company works with Cooperative Coffees to receive beans directly from farms around the world. After roasting and packaging, pounds of Peace Coffee are delivered to their respective retailers by bike through the humid summers and biting winters of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Fair Trade ensures consumers a recognizable stamp of approval when they purchase coffee. With the confusion of emerging certifications today, a customer can see the Fair Trade logo and be certain the product he or she purchases is supporting a proactive practice. But Fair Trade is not the solve-all solution to the issue of sustainable practices at origin. Currently, there are more certified beans produced than demanded annually in the market. In reality, about one third of the Fair Trade certified beans are actually sold to roasters. As the demand for Fair Trade has not risen to 100%, the other two thirds of the beans are sold at market price. Additionally, Fair Trade certification is only granted to smaller farms, and therefore excludes larger farms with similar practices.

In the specialty industry, the market price for beans is always the lowest common denominator. This is the price at which canned, commercial coffee is purchased, but never the price of specialty beans. The price of quality coffee is always higher than market and often higher than Fair Trade; each coffee differs in value. It is the cupper – the professional who determines its characteristics and value – who is given the most power within a particular chain of coffee supply. If a farmer does not know the quality of the bean he is producing or does not trust the person who tells him its value, he may be losing significant profit.

Traditionally, cupping has occurred higher up the chain, at the export or import level. But Ted Lingle, executive director of the Quality Coffee Institute, is working to return cupping to origin, so that farmers are able to make their own business decisions about the prices at which they sell their beans. “The benefit,” he said, “is for a producing country. If you teach farmers how to separate their coffees for the market in advance, they have a greater opportunity to catch to coffees that are sold at premium prices. Because farmers had no idea what happened to their product once it left their farm, it was placing them at a big disadvantage in the marketplace.” The Institute, which has worked throughout Central America and is currently working in Kenya, Ethiopia, Colombia and Indonesia, certifies cuppers from each of the respective countries, so they are able to work with their own farmers. “This ensures a grower the ability to have one of his own countrymen, someone in whom he has confidence, to cup his coffee and give him an independent report on its quality,” said Lingle. If a farmer is able to independently access a qualified cupper, he is less likely to sell his coffee at an underrated price. Lingle’s system directly empowers farmers because the bean determines its own price, instead of an organization like TransFair.

It is often stated within the specialty coffee industry that the quality of coffee is directly tied to the quality of life of the farmer. One cannot be raised without raising the other. If farmers are able to produce less coffee at a higher value, then we have found a beginning.

Kelsey Kudak welcomes comments at [email protected]