By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published October 6, 2005
Socially-conscious Catholics who savor their morning cup of java can now sip in solidarity with farmers hand-picking organic coffee beans in the rich mountain soil of Nicaragua and around the world through a Catholic Relief Services Fair Trade program.
CRS has supported over 300 Nicaraguan coffee farmers since 2002 in seeking to enter into the regulated Fair Trade market, a model that ensures fair, usually above-market price wages. They’re helping in organizational development, coffee quality, organic certification, diversification and marketing. They’ve helped to establish three cooperative growers associations and provided technical assistance and credit to farmers. In April CRS announced the expansion of its coffee project to include partnerships with 14 completely Fair Trade coffee companies across the United States (out of a total of at least 20) that are committed to improving the lives of the farmers from whom they buy, including Café Campesino in Americus.
CRS is the international relief and development agency of the U.S. Catholic Church, which works in more than 99 countries, and its program expansion will add to the growing Fair Trade coffee market in the United States, which reached nearly 33 million pounds of certified coffee in 2004, a 76 percent increase over 2003. Café Campesino, like other partners, will donate a portion of proceeds from its coffee roasts designated as CRS blends back to CRS for its Fair Trade Fund to support their work on behalf of small-scale artisans and farmers, helping them have sustainable livelihoods in a world where over two billion people live on less than $2 a day and the international trading system is making many more vulnerable.
“The CRS Fair Trade coffee project creates new opportunities for over 67 million Catholics and other socially conscious consumers to make trade fairer for poor people overseas. Our work has made a real difference in the lives of over 300 low-income farmers and their families,” said Michael Sheridan, CRS senior program officer, economic justice, and coffee connoisseur who drinks up to four cups daily—a major job perk.
“Our collaboration with remarkable companies like Café Campesino allows Catholics in Georgia to get great coffee and ensures that the farmers who grew it are treated with dignity, all while supporting a Georgia-based business … From a consumer perspective it’s an engaging way to apply faith to consumer decisions.”
Sheridan credits the success of Café Campesino, which is emerging as a real leader in the U.S. Fair Trade movement, to the guidance of Bill Harris, co-founder of the company.
Simone Blanchard, director of Catholic Social Services Parish and Community Ministry in the Atlanta Archdiocese, hopes that Georgia Catholics and schools and parishes will buy the coffee and use it in fundraisers.
“I would love for churches who already have a coffee hour to explore serving fairly traded coffee. It’s a little more expensive, but it is worth it when we know the people growing and harvesting it are able to make a living and feed their family,” she said, noting that Immaculate Heart of Mary Church holds an annual Work of Human Hands CRS Fair Trade craft sale.
Blanchard and Parish Community Ministry coordinator Sister Joyce Ann Hertzig, OP, decided to head south one sunny August morn to Americus, a town of about 17,000 amidst the red clay farmlands of southwest Georgia, to check out the operation. Café Campesino general manager Tripp Pomeroy and Bill Harris warmly greeted the visitors with cups of coffee, including a Nicaraguan dark, syrupy brew. They are excited about the partnership with CRS and believe it has the right ingredients to work.
“They are helping us to grow our business. They are supporting us and we are pumping money into them to help them do their work,” Pomeroy said. “CRS is really putting its money where its mouth is.”
Social justice dreams and now coffee beans have been roasting for decades in Americus. Near the Campesino office is the headquarters of Habitat for Humanity International. Along with Habitat houses, the company also offers a Habitat blend. A vintage tourist train stops here and at Jimmy Carter’s hometown in nearby Plains. Spiritual seekers can walk the peace trail at Koinonia farm where Dr. Clarence Jordan in 1942 founded a Christian community challenging racism, militarism and materialism and which gave birth to Habitat.
Harris was living in Guatemala learning Spanish and actually building a Habitat house along Lake Atitlan in 1997 when he began to conceive the plan for Café Campesino, as the farmer for whom his group built a house became upset when one of his coffee plants was smashed. The Georgia Tech graduate and Americus native who had been working for his family business contemplated how to connect the needs of this farmer, who had about two acres of land and had lived in a dirt-floor shack, with American business.
So he launched the company in 1998, which buys from farmers in cooperatives growing organically in countries ranging from Guatemala to East Timor. And along with other members of the Cooperative Coffees importing cooperative Café Campesino recently agreed to pay prices above the Fair Trade minimum price, which usually prices above the free market price and is currently $1.41 per pound for organic coffee or $1.26 for conventional coffee. Pomeroy said that when coffee prices reached historic lows, the company was paying around a dollar more than the free market. Campesino CRS coffees range in price from $9.95 to $11.25 per pound, and are priced comparably to other gourmet coffees.
Café Campesino and some other of CRS’s partners are members of the Fair Trade Federation, a group of completely Fair Trade importers who endorse a set of guidelines for doing business. Others are certified by TransFair USA, which has another model but holds similar principles, and will certify products for companies that aren’t completely Fair Trade. The first FTF conference was held Sept. 30 in Chicago, sponsored by CRS, SERRV International and others.
Following FTF principles, Café Campesino works with farmers to provide consumer education and offer financial and technical support for their environmentally sustainable practices. Pomeroy noted how cooperatives, a sort of producers association that gives farmers more price-negotiating power, are encouraged as they grow to invest into community socioeconomic development, and one cooperative in Guatemala does that by providing scholarship money for elementary school students, and for women in micro-enterprises. Other FTF practices include building long-term relationships and business transparency.
Last year Café Campesino sold about 50,000 pounds of coffee, and this year expects to sell over 65,000 pounds.
“The Fair Trade model is the core of our business so we don’t want to do it unless we’re doing it this way … We’re growing very quickly … Everyone wants to support us ” after they understand the mission, Harris said. “You wake up every morning and want to come to work and just are energized knowing what you’re doing has a positive, far-reaching effect on people who need a voice.”
He added that Cooperative Coffees agreed to raise their buying price after attending a meeting with Latin American producers in Guatemala where farmers expressed their financial needs.
Standing by shiny, hunter-green bags of coffee ready for shipment, Pomeroy explained that the Fair Trade companies function under the premise that these poor farmers are being exploited and need to earn a fair wage. “The biggest distinction is that in Fair Trade you do business by the Golden Rule and there are very concrete ways that you do it. One is you’re acknowledging actively that producers are disenfranchised. They’re being exploited, and we want to rectify that, so to do that we work directly with producers and don’t go through a middle person.”
The compañeros then led the visitors to the next room with a large red and silver roaster, the “kitchen” of Harris’s brother, Lee, their roaster extraordinaire. A subtle but rich, almost chocolaty aroma filled the air. Harris, who wore an orange golf shirt, jeans and flip flops, explained that he was pouring a mixture of 18 pounds of “green” beans from Mexico in the roaster set at over 400 degrees Fahrenheit, heating and then cooling them down as they lost moisture and chaff. The amount of time they’re roasted determines the darkness of the bean. The dark roasts are richer, oilier and more syrupy. Medium roast is light body, high acidity with a nutty flavor; full city roast has a rich, sweet character.
“Lee has developed time and temperature recipes for each coffee,” said Pomeroy.
Harris spoke of their emphasis on working in collaboration with the farmers.
“Fair trade represents a relationship and a story,” he said. “It’s not a system; it is an evolving story.”
“The project connects the consumer to the hands of the people picking the beans,” he continued. “Those picking beans in Central American countries often walk miles daily from their home to the fields to pick the beans by hand. Some 2,000 beans are required to produce a pound of roasted coffee.”
As Pomeroy ground beans to give to visitors, Harris noted that coffee drinkers seek convenience, freshness and excelencia, which is why they fresh roast to order daily, turning orders around in 24 hours. They now also sell one Nicaraguan blend using beans from some CRS-supported farmers.
“Everything we do is roasted to order by Lee who knows these beans inside and out. He’s a trained chef and loves flavors and he really gets into it. It’s like we’re in his kitchen right now,” said Harris.
Sheridan said many small-scale farmers have always produced “excellent coffee” in the past but lacked bargaining power with exploitive brokers.
“The people we work with have no electricity, limited clean water and have been cut off from information about market prices,” he said. “When we started working with them several years ago, they were selling their coffee on the local market for as little as 20 cents a pound. This is the first time they have sold their coffee directly into the international Fair Trade market and the best price they have been paid for their coffee in more than five years.”
According to the International Coffee Organization, the revenue of coffee-producing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America since 1998 has fallen from $10 billion a year to $5.5 billion. After steady decline world coffee prices fell drastically in 2001 to their lowest value in a century because of overproduction of low grade coffee, and farmers getting as little as 18 cents a pound had to abandon their farms for cities or take their children out of school. CRS responded with a food-for-work program that helped some 5,000 families in northern Nicaragua.
“Essentially we think it saved lives,” said Sheridan, who lived in Nicaragua and recalled one day drinking 11 cups of coffee visiting different families.
This crisis prompted CRS, which has a staff of 36 there, to begin the long-term coffee project. CRS has now put $1 million into the project, including a large U.S. AID grant, and much more in loans, and teaches farmers how to diversify crops. As many can’t get bank loans, getting credit “is really a critical issue.”
Sheridan explained that organic, shade-grown and other sustainable farming techniques allow farmers to grow coffee that protects existing forests, preserves the natural diversity of plant and animal life, does not pollute water supplies, saves money and demands a higher market price. As of this summer they had helped 85 family coffee farms become organic, 21 have certification pending and 100 are transitioning to it.
“On our side we don’t want to be eating stuff contaminated with pesticides and we do want coffee grown in a natural way and pay more for that.”
In terms of quality they’ve trained them and helped to get needed equipment to properly wash and ferment the beans in concrete basins as “it’s very critical the beans are fermented the right amount of time.”
Their coffees have been professionally cupped in blind taste tests by Nicaraguan experts and deemed export quality.
“CRS is working around the world in agriculture helping people have sustainable livelihoods. The Fair Trade coffee project has allowed these 350 families to do that in a way they never dreamed of before, selling at prices that are above market prices.”
CRS’s new partner companies will help increase their coffee sales, which exceeded $400,000 in 2004. In that first year of the project, 1,200 institutions and individuals purchased more than 35 tons of Fair Trade coffee through the program.
Sheridan noted that Café Campesino doesn’t just offer one Fair Trade blend, but every product, while on the other hand Starbucks Coffee, for example, had 1.6 percent of its total sales in 2004 from Fair Trade certified coffee, double the amount from 2003.
“With 6,000 Starbucks worldwide these farmers who we work with in Nicaragua have not benefited from the specialty coffee revolution. They grow coffee, put it in sacks on mules (to sell at market) and work on the harvest for next year. There’s not a direct relationship with people who buy and sell coffee in the U.S.,” he said.
But with Fair Trade companies, “they are bringing these farmers into this specialty coffee market … With people making purchases in Georgia they are entering in the direct relationship. That’s what’s exciting and radical and beautiful about Fair Trade.”
Back in February Sheridan led a roaster delegation down to visit its Nicaragua project, where they pitched tents at various farms and met with the campesinos, listening to their stories.
“They love coffee. It’s their livelihood. They’ve been growing it for generations. It’s so rewarding to bring them into direct contact with companies like Café Campesino. To have visits on their farms by owners of Fair Trade coffee companies in the United States, it was such an honor for them and they felt they were finally being recognized for their work,” he recalled. “It’s just that personal contact, knowing they’re connected to people overseas who care about them and their welfare. We create opportunities for people to demonstrate that. It’s like saying in this cup you can drink that solidarity.”
To order CRS blend coffee or to obtain information about Café Campesino, visit www.cafecampesino.com, write to email@example.com or call (229) 924-2468 or (888) 532-4728. Information can also be found at www.crsfairtrade.org. In Virginia Highlands Ten Thousand Villages sells this coffee, as does Sevananda in Little Five Points.