Fair trade coffee worries US roasters

This is an extract from an article in the USA online newspaper, The Sentinal. It helps to highlight an issue that is becoming increasingly vocalised by those in the coffee industry; the distinction between trading fairly and of FairTrade certification. A number of responsible roasters and coffee shops (primarily independents) are building direct-trade relationships with producers, built on fair and sustainable practices, but are by-passing the certification route, partly due to the cost to them and the producers, but also because of issues around quality.

There are some interesting points raised in this short article that can help to stimulate the conversation around trade models. It helps to highlight an issue that is becoming increasingly vocalised by those in the coffee industry; the distinction between trading fairly and of FairTrade certification. A number of responsible roasters and coffee shops (primarily independents) are building direct-trade relationships with producers, built on fair and sustainable practices, but are by-passing the certification route, partly due to the cost to them and the producers, but also because of issues around quality. There are some interesting points raised in this short article that can help to stimulate the conversation around trade models. 

The United States is the world’s leading consumer of coffee with Americans drinking a collective 400 million cups per day of their favorite bean beverage.

Especially in recent years, coffee drinkers have become increasingly aware of the effect their addiction has on the farmers who grow coffee. This concern led to rising interest in fair trade coffees which guarantee a set price for the farmer.

Fair trade coffee may be popular with consumers, but local roasters are hesitant about its benefits.

In a global economy, the prices of commodities like coffee are based on futures, or forecasts concerning future crops in light of expected demand. In such a system, the farmers shoulder the bulk of the risk, said Matt Ramsey, owner of Mosaic Coffee Company in Shippensburg.

In the 1980s, for example, there was a global bumper crop of coffee and the price plummeted. Many farmers lost everything. “If that happened in America, we’d have an outcry,” Ramsey said.

Fair trade was an attempt to change that, but it doesn’t set the bar high enough. “Fair trade is good in its intent, but not in its practice,” Ramsey said.

Karen Rhody, owner of Courthouse Common Espresso Bar and Bistro in downtown Carlisle, said the guaranteed minimums offered to farmers working with fair trade co-ops have actually pushed farmers to choose between quantity and quality. “It doesn’t matter what the coffee tastes like, they’re going to get paid,” she said. “We’ve always had customers ask for fair trade but I never found a fair trade I liked.”

Plus, the coffee is purchased through a middleman — the fair trade co-op, Rhody said.

Rhody pointed out that the costs associated with attaching the fair trade label to coffee are “astronomical.”

Ramsey doesn’t purchase fair trade coffees, but does pay a price higher than that set by fair trade standards for the quality, handpicked beans he roasts. He’s quick to point out that most of the work in creating a good cup of coffee is done by the farmer. “I’m always trying to communicate to customers how valuable farmers are,” Ramsey said.

The work it takes to bring that cup of coffee to the average consumer is literally back-breaking. Ramsey said coffee beans like those he purchases are handpicked and carried in 100 pound bags to the processor. There, the beans are dried and prepared to be shipped out across the world.

Ramsey works not only to inform his customers about what it takes for a farmer to bring his coffee to market but he also wants to be able to tell farmers how much people here in America enjoy what they have harvested.

There’s a lot of dignity in knowing that someone appreciates the work they’ve been doing,” he said.

Rhody chose to go the direct trade route, buying her coffees from La Minita, a Costa Rican farm that has now branched out to include Guatemalan and Sumatran coffees. The farm sets its own standards to be bird-friendly and grow its coffee without pesticides or herbicides.

They do all these things without the certification and it’s just because they don’t want to pay for that stamp of approval,” Rhody said. “Every dime I pay for that coffee is going back into the farm.”

Like Ramsey, she pays more for her coffee than she would by going the fair trade route, but she said it’s worth it. “I know what I’m getting and I believe wholeheartedly in what they’re doing,” she said.

 

Source – The Sentinal Newspaper, Feb 2013.

 

 

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