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.)
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.
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.
"We're definitely capturing more value for the farmers," Tremain said. "They own the business. They invested in it. Only farmers are on the board of directors."
The typical grower of Fair Trade coffee, he told me, was paid about $2.18 per pound in 2010. The Pachamama Coop collects about $8.50 per pound, about half of which is returned directly to growers; the other half is invested in the business, which ultimately benefits the growers.
Until recently, Pachamama sold mostly to food coops and small retailers in 16 states. Most are on the West Coast -- the firm is based in Newcastle, Calif. -- although its biggest single outlet was the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn. "Once we get customers, we keep them, but they're hard to get," Tremain said.
CoffeeCSA is an attempt to expand the market by selling directly to consumers. The idea, he said, is to mimic the success of websites like Kiva that connect Americans to poor people trying to improve themselves through commerce. "We're not just selling coffee,” Tremain said. "We're selling a relationship."
Whether consumers will pay extra for the knowledge that they are supporting responsible farmers remains an open question. Coffee from CoffeeCSA costs just under $10 a pound, plus $10 shipping. The more you buy, the better the deal -- two pounds per month costs $29.98, 10 pounds per month costs $109.98 -- so the product may have more appeal to small businesses, offices, churches, etc., who need more coffee. Subscriptions are flexible, and they can be cancelled at any time.
CoffeeCSA subscriptions are also available on LocalHarvest.org, a popular director of farmers markets, family farms and other sources of sustainable food. A low budget operation for now, CoffeeCSA will also spread the word using Twitter and Facebook. They're building their business from the grounds up.