From There to Here: Coffee Farms & Co-Ops

Very few of us pay attention to where the things we use in our everyday lives originate. In terms of coffee; many of us only care that it’s in our hands, wafting its aromatic promises of boosted productivity as we rush off into the world. Even though caffeine accelerates and invigorates every fiber of our being, part of our goal at Black River Roasters is to slow down and make sure that all of our beans are sourced from sustainable, organic and fair trade coffee farms and co-operatives.
Why does this matter? Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world behind petroleum; thus influencing large corporations to export and import beans the cheapest way possible. What this means for the workers in the third world countries is that they are paid the least amount possible, to produce the most yield per harvest. In addition, coffee farms get bullied on prices, with the threat of not selling their crop. 
Coffee Farm
Indeed, coffee has a dark past but an extremely influential one. Despite the vitriol behind coffee, we need to remember that humans are behind the coffee we brew every morning and we have to support the right farms and collectives in order to positively influence lasting change.
In order for you to understand what we strive to do, we must first outline the problems with specialty grade coffee producing farms. Being a small, specialty coffee producing farm means that you’re lowballed on prices, short-staffed on labor, subjected to plant disease without the staff or resources to fight back, and bullied by large importers who refuse to buy their coffee at any other price than the one they give. Their hopes of creating profit are slim to none. And one big way the little guys have pushed back is through the formation of coffee co-operatives.

Co-Ops

Co-operatives are groups of coffee farmers who come together to pool their resources. They share fertilizer, processing stations, business training, business connections, and can even get loans at a lower rate as they are recognized as one business entity. Think of a co-op like a non-profit organization. When the producer (farm) is doing well, the co-op is doing well. The basic focus of the cooperative is to help farmers increase their profit margins while making their prices more competitive Although, they do not allow themselves to be so easily pushed around by the bigger named coffee importers there is a hierarchical nature to every human interaction and co-ops are no different. With the varying nature of each coffee farm that makes up the co-op (some farms being an actual farm and some no bigger than your backyard), it makes it difficult for every single farm to survive as a part of the co-op group for the long term. Regardless, co-ops make it easier to gain access to farming/business resources. 
Specialty coffee producers are typically subjected to the will of large corporations who cheat small farms by offering insultingly low prices. This being said, they often offer to buy the entire season’s crop. This appeals to coffee farm owners whose goal is to sell. Unfortunately, this sometimes affects the quality of the coffee, as there is no incentive to grow quality grade coffee since they know the coffee will be bought regardless. This is where fair trade certifications step in to help balance the scales.

Fair Trade

Although many believe “Fairtrade” to be a gimmick intended to create the facade of magnanimity, while behind the scenes they profit off helping others, fair trade does indeed help the farm workers and businesses. When we see the fair trade seal we know, at the very least, our dollars spent on obtaining the green beans will contribute to a better life for the communities of third world workers, and to protect the environments where the coffee is grown. When becoming Fairtrade certified they have to pass a series of tests:
“If a producer wants to become Fairtrade certified, they must meet a variety of environmental standards which focus on: 
  • Biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions 
  • Limited and safe use of agrochemicals
  • Soil and water management 
  • Pest and waste management.” 
The basic thing to note is that Fairtrade certified coffees guarantee a minimum price to farmers for their crop. This combats price bullying and market fluctuations. Farms who are Fair Trade certified also incur a premium paid for by the consumer at $0.20 per/pound which they use to benefit their business, and better pay their communities/employees.
...farmers need support to improve their yields and quality in a sustainable way. This requires investment, for instance, to replant aging plots with pest-resistant coffee varieties, or to build drying facilities. The Fairtrade Premium provides funding for such investment, but consumers need to create the demand so certified farmers can sell all of their crop on Fairtrade terms, and thus maximize this benefit.”
At the moment the system still is not perfect. The business of coffee is complex, with a vibrant history that isn’t always the most inspiring. But with the dark comes the light.
Third-wave coffee culture is in full swing.
Local New Jersey cafe roasters such as Penstock Coffee Roasters (formally OQ Coffee) in New Brunswick, and us at Black River Roasters in Whitehouse Station, are doing all we can to inspire awareness of sustainability from seed to cup.
The third-wave coffee scene has brought business injustices to the forefront of the conversation. We’re proud to be the stewards of a new tradition of ethical business practices within the specialty coffee industry and we hope you’ll make the choice to support those that support those in need.
 
-Patrick McGurran