As you wrap your hands around your next Cup o’ Joe, consider the origins of the coffee beans that led to that perfect blend…

It starts with the Coffee Farmer.  After surveying numerous farms in over eight different countries, I can say that the typical farmer tends a small plot of land – usually five to 10 acres in size. He and the family he supports live below the poverty line, often struggling to find food during those months when beans are not being harvested.  He uses outdated equipment, has limited knowledge of coffee best practices,  and possesses little to no contact with international, influential coffee importers and distributors.  He is simply trying to make ends meet.

Ninety percent of coffee farmers fit this profile.  Collectively, their harvests account for 70% of the coffee grown around the world, however, individually they don’t have the capacity to meet the demand of large coffee distributors or coffee roasters and so they and their products are overlooked.  For example, to reduce costs, coffee importers and distributors typically export 40,000 pounds of coffee per container.  Annually, they purchase four to eight containers.  A typical coffee farmer, on the other hand, can typically only produce 10,000 pounds of coffee – a quarter of the quantity needed for a container.  This means that distributors and importers would need to work with several small farmers to meet demand – a headache they would rather avoid. 

So, where do they get their coffee?  Well, there are two main options.

Many importers and distributors source coffee from the wealthy 10% of farmers who have the capacity to produce the volume and quantity needed.  These farms have the equipment needed to produce high-quality coffee and the expertise to access the larger market.  Importers and distributors who utilize this option can then market their product as “direct trade” and “socially responsible” however, in reality, they are failing to impact the lives of those farmers with the greatest needs.

To circumvent volume challenges, importers and distributers employ another option.  Many purchase coffee beans from cooperatives in the producing countries.  These co-ops source coffee on a massive scale from 500 to 1,000 farmers within a specified region.  However, to be profitable, these co-ops relentlessly reduce costs and increase sales whereever possible.  This usually means that the co-ops will take beans of any quality, selling sub-par beans in local markets and marketing the better beans overseas.  They also encourage the small farmers to sell them semi-processed coffee at a heavily discounted price, arguing that the farmers would never be able to properly process beans on their own.  At times, co-ops provide farmers with equipment and education – but just enough to enable the farmer to produce a product of quality that could be sold locally or internationally at meager prices.

There is a better way.  More businesses like Tierra Alianza Café are slowly emerging that seek to empower small farmers and provide them access to the wider marketplace.  We do this by equipping small farmers with the tools, funding and education needed to produce superior coffee that is competitive internationally and, as a result, demands the best prices.  Small farmers then benefit directly from these improved prices – they are able to re-invest to further improve their crop and also able to provide a better quality of life for their family and communities. 

This is Fair Trade.  At Tierra Alianza Café, we make this type of trade our business.  We hope that, as you ruminate over that next cup o’ joe, you will make it your business as well.