Fair trade coffee: How it benefits you

We've got a special guest this month on the blog! PCC Grocery Merchandiser Scott Owen recently traveled to Peru sponsored by Equal Exchange and the coffee cooperative known as COCLA to visit coffee farms and meet the families that grow the fair trade, shade-grown, certified organic and locally roasted coffee we sell at PCC. Read about his adventure below and follow coffee beans along their journey with his slideshow.

Coffee cherries to coffee mug

How fair trade benefits consumers

By Scott Owen, PCC Grocery Merchandiser

On May 31, 2011, I started an adventure sponsored by Equal Exchange and COCLA that took me to Agualra, Peru, to visit coffee farms and meet the families that help feed our ever-growing obsession for our daily cup of coffee. I expected to learn quite a lot about the process of coffee growing and the business aspects of fair trade from this trip. But meeting the actual farmers, listening to their stories and seeing the families provided me with a deeper understanding of why fair trade products are so important.

In our consumer-driven economy we want the best we can find for the most reasonable deal we can find it, and who can blame us? We work hard for our money and we want it to go as far as possible. In this aspect of life, I think we are no different from any other culture; as Americans, we enjoy a standard of living that few other countries have attained. The world feeds our habits, and is happy to provide the goods & services we require to maintain our standard of living. The United States and our lifestyle help drive the world’s economy.

While on this trip, I tried to answer the question “why does fair trade matter?” As it turns out the answer is deceptively simple, but complex to explain. So here, it is in a coffee cherry: if you want your coffee to stay at reasonable retails, pay the farmers fairly. Fair trade ensures farmers a reasonable profit to grow coffee, which keeps the bean supply steady, and the steady supply keeps cost down. Wasn’t that easy! The importance of fair trade defined in  23 words, I should get a prize or something right? Now here comes the complex explanation I warned about, because, though the reason is simple, the explanation involves families, human blood sweat and tears, livelihoods, and an unwavering commitment to keeping things, well, fair.

Supply and demand

Most commodities costs are heavily influenced by supply. If the supply on something shrinks, the cost for the remaining goods is driven up by its scarcity, so long as demand does not wane. We have all experienced this with; oil, wheat, cars, even gold and diamonds, so why would coffee be any different? Of course the answer is that it is not. World demand for coffee is rising, and in some areas of the world the supply is falling, so the cost is rising. It's all very logical, though frustrating, if your coffee now costs $1 more per pound than it did last year.

Now comes the part where fair trade saves the day. Every coffee at PCC is fair trade certified. Even though costs will rise, fair trade will keep farmers interested in growing our favorite crop, thus feeding our love for that morning cup of coffee. Now let me tell you about this process. It's far more complicated than I thought, and I will forever thank all the families that make my morning cup of coffee possible.

Coffee trees grow best as a shade plant, and can live up to 25 years with proper care. Shade-grown coffee is important for a few reasons. The trees live longer, the native wildlife is supported, and the workers have a tolerable environment to work in. Now sit back and let me explain to you how we go from coffee cherry to coffee cup. It is not a journey for the faint of heart; this is hard labor, and requires a support network that spans the globe. Yet it starts with one family and one small farm in the middle of the jungle. My experience comes from Peru, which produces three percent of the world’s coffee, but this process is repeated by families all over the world.

Coffee harvest

On June 3 my group meet on the side of a dirt road to help pick some of the coffee crop and gain an understanding of the process. We ascended a steep hillside to join a family to pick the cherries. We toiled for about three hours, and I can tell you, the harvesting is difficult; hot, messy, and I have bug bites in places I would rather not talk about. Picking cherries requires knowledge of the species of coffee tree you are harvesting so that you pick the appropriate color cherry.

Once the cherries are picked, the bags are transported to the roadside, to be picked up and weighed at the processing plant. A full bag of cherries weighs about 225 pounds, and men nearly half my size were handling these bags with relative ease.

Coffee cherry processing

Once at the processing plant, the cherries are weighed, the farmer is given a receipt for his day's delivery, and processing begins immediately. The cherries are dumped into a cement holding tank, and water is used to wash the cherries into a mechanical de-pulper, which separates the fruit from the bean. The beans go one way into another holding tank, and the cherries go another to be composted.

The beans have a light coating of clear fruit on them still, and this is removed by letting the beans ferment for 12 hours. The beans have a definite “feel” to them when properly fermented, and are then washed into a flume that essentially does the grading of the coffee. The best beans are the heaviest and sink to the bottom. Once in the flume the beans are agitated with a wooden paddle, and the sticks, leaves, and bad beans float to the top, and much of this is composted as well. A series of wooden gates in the flume are successively removed, and up to three grades of beans are removed from the flume to be sun-dried to 12 percent humidity. Once the beans are dried, they are bagged in jute sacks, and transported to COCLA for further processing. At COCLA, the beans are tested for quality by the most experienced members of the co-op, and stacked in mountain high stacks to await the cleaning process.

Workers heft the bean sacks, now weighing a scant 125 pounds, to a grate in the floor. Here the beans start a journey through a maze of machines to remove the final paper hull from the beans and clean and sort them so they can be bagged into “COCLA”-stamped jute bag.

Showtime

Now the beans are ready for export. COCLA finds buyers on the world market for the beans that its 8,000 family members have grown.  Importers like Equal Exchange now transport the beans to one of their roasting facilities across the U.S. Once roasted, the beans are ready for consumption. Coffee mugs across the United States are filled with the fair trade fruits of these family labors.

Fair trade = fair treatment and a fair price

Seeing farming, families and economics at this level will change you. Coffee, like many products we consume daily, has a story both unique and personal. The coffee we consume has thousands of lives connected to it. Those lives are supported and enriched when we purchase fair trade coffee. I asked the president of COCLA how retailers can help farm co-ops. He simply said, “Buy our coffee; we will take care of the rest.” So buy fair trade products, buy from co-ops, buy from your local farmers market. Consumption is not bad, but thoughtless consumption profits few individuals. So when you next fill your coffee mug with fair trade goodness, think about all that went into it, and feel good about the fact you are supporting families just like yours across the globe.

More about: bulk, co-op, coffee, Fair Trade

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Scott Owen's Peru trip

Nice! Thanks for sharing and for all you and PCC do to support small farmers.

I agree

I think farmers should be paid fairly all around. I'm not in favor of huge corporations dominating and pushing hard working people out.

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