by Gregory Crofton
Every morning people around the world reach for coffee. Brewed hot, and now even cold, coffee helps us wake up and feel excited about the place we find ourselves in life.
But it has a darker side too, one that requires farmers to do the hand-hardening labor of growing, picking and processing quality ripe coffee cherries only to meet with a dismal price at market (about $2 to $4 a pound depending on the variety).
Still the world is flooded with coffee. Coffee production for 2016-2017 will total 156 million burlap sacks, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each sack contains about 140 pounds of coffee. But often the best specialty coffee, called arabica, is grown by farmers who work only a few acres of land in the mountainous regions of South America, Africa and Indonesia.
In fact, 70 percent of the global coffee supply comes from this type of independent coffee grower. The trick for some buyers — roasters and their importers — is to find a way to compensate these farmers fairly so they have the means to care for and educate their families. Paying a price deemed to be “fair,” or one slightly above the market rate, is how some buyers try to make things more equitable for coffee growers.
The Fair Trade Movement has been around for decades, but it’s become a commercial tool and people who really care have begun to question whether the effort has made a dent in the abject poverty that many farmers live in. Roasters and importers in the U.S. often earn a more than comfortable living by selling this “specialty” coffee for top dollar. So aren’t they morally obligated to try to develop a better market for it?
Forming a cooperative (a joint venture of shared ownership and profit) is one way farmers and roasters can have a positive impact on the marketplace. The size and leverage that comes from operating a healthy cooperative means being able to buy at a higher price, one well above what the market demands, which in turn enables producers (coffee farmers) to earn more money.
“CONNECTED BY COFFEE” is a 70-minute documentary about growing and buying coffee cooperatively. The filmmakers follow two members of Cooperative Coffees — Matt Earley of Just Coffee Co-Op (Madison, WI) and Chris Treter of Higher Grounds Trading Company (Traverse City, MI). Earley and Treter head South to reveal how the coffee they buy is grown and processed in unstable and often dangerous regions of Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.
The documentary reveals some horrific regional histories that include the murder of 45 people at a prayer meeting in Acteal, Mexico, in 1997. The attack was part of the political fallout from the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). Survivors patched their lives back together in large part by growing coffee. Today Maya Vinic, a cooperative founded in 1999, has a membership of more than 500 families from the Acteal area that make their living by selling the organic coffee and honey.
In the broadest sense “CONNECTED BY COFFEE” emphasizes how vastly different the economies in these countries are compared to that of the United States. Working groups like Cooperative Coffees help bridge this gap. Cooperative Coffees has been in operation since 2000, and imports millions of dollars in coffee each year for about 20 roasting companies.
The cooperative, based out of Montreal, Canada, and Americus, Georgia, aims to cultivate long-term relationships that result in growers being consistently paid well above market prices. And it pays those prices even when things like roya, a leaf fungus, hits a small coffee farm and sharply reduces the amount of coffee farmers can bring to market. Farmers have been known to abandon their land when they spot evidence of roya. If a coffee plant becomes a total loss it must be removed to make way for a seedling. Those plants take three to five years to mature and produce viable coffee cherries.
“It’s gonna take a lot of time for these communities to recover,” says Earley in the film. “And it’s not clear where the resources are going to come from. If we were another type of company we would just go somewhere else and buy coffee. And that’s what the free market would tell us to do. That’s what makes business sense. We’re not going anywhere. In the end for us it’s not about the coffee. It’s never been about the coffee. It’s about relationships and it’s about moving forward together.”
Stone Hut Studios will donate five percent of the funds generated by the film to the four coffee cooperatives featured in “CONNECTED BY COFFEE.” If you’d like to learn more about working with cooperatives, or want to watch the film, visit their website here.