Coffee Farmers Eliminate the Middle Man

Purveyors of food that's said to be better for us or for the planet deploy a growing number of adjectives -- organic, Fair Trade, sustainable, local, natural, vegetarian, humane, low-carbon, small-scale or slow -- to sell their wares.

Here's another: Farmer-owned.

Being farmer-owned is the unique selling proposition of the Pachamama Coffee Cooperative, a company owned by more than 100,000 coffee farmers who have formed co-ops in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Peru, Nicaragua and Mexico. They have been selling their organic, Fair Trade beans to customers in the U.S. through select retail outlets since 2006. Now, in a twist, and with hopes of expanding their business, they are selling directly to consumers through a website called CoffeeCSA.org.

CSAs -- the initials stand for community-supported agriculture -- have been spreading like wildflowers in recent years. Typically, consumers contract directly with a nearby farmer to buy a weekly assortment of fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat or other farm goods, usually for a fixed fee, in return for which they get a share of the harvest, depending on what's in season at any given time.

(Quick aside: My wife and I belonged to a CSA for two years. The produce was excellent. I can enthusiastically recommend CSAs to anyone who has always yearned to add a whole lot more kale to his or her diet.)

Belhermina Aguilar

With a Coffee CSA, your harvest is predictable -- you choose a coffee region and contract online with a farmer, for a minimum of two pounds of coffee per month. The coffee that you get, delivered by mail, won't necessarily come from that farmer, but it will come from that farmer's local cooperative. For example, if you were to subscribe to Belhermina Aguilar's three-acre farm in the Santa Teresa Valley of Peru, you will receive coffee from her farmer-owned cooperative. Hers is one of about 50 families in the coop. You can also, if you choose, watch a video of her and her family. Here's more on how Coffee CSA works.

Thaleon Tremain

Last week, I spoke via Skype with Thaleon Tremain, who is the CEO of CoffeeCSA.org. Tremain, who is 39, got interested in cooperatives while working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia, where he managed a microcredit fund for a small agricultural coop. "I learned first-hand that the person who works the hardest -- the farmer -- is paid the least," he says.

The idea of farmer-owned businesses isn't new, Tremain notes. In the U.S., Ocean Spray, Organic Valley and Florida's Natural are all farmer-owned brands. All are intended to capture more of the value in the ag-food-retail chain and return it to farmers.