I recently had the great fortune of accompanying Fair Trade Canada on a trip to Honduras to see how coffee is grown, harvested and processed before it makes its way to the coffee roaster. I have been involved in the coffee industry for almost 25 years and this was the first time I would see first hand where coffee comes from and meet with the people who make what I do possible. As I reflect on my time in Honduras, there are 3 things that I learned during this trip of a lifetime that stick out more than others.
1) Fair Trade is Very Important to People and Communities in the Global South
When you hear the term Fair Trade, you are likely to already know that the certification means that coffee producers are paid a guaranteed minimum price per pound. In addition to this, they also receive a Fair Trade Premium of 20¢ per pound. While 20-25% of the premium must be put towards improving coffee production (which means future crops will be grown and harvested more efficiently but also will be of a higher quality so fetch a better price), the rest of the funds from the premium can be put towards projects that improve the community (e.g. schools, water improvement, RRSP-type programs etc.). But exactly what these projects are, whether they be coffee production or community related, is decided democratically by all the producers in the coffee co-op. At the end of the day, the people on the front lines are in full control of how to best help their community and improve their businesses.
2) Coffee Producers Work Really Hard
Much of the farming we see here in Manitoba has been automated, so it is hard to understand what growing and processing coffee entails, as most stages are carried out by hand. From the care and maintenance of the trees during the growing season, to picking from each tree 5 times during the 4 month harvest season to ensure that all the coffee cherries are harvested at their peak ripeness, to the washing, drying and even some of the sorting are all done by hand. The wages that they earn for this work are not what we would expect to be paid. For example, coffee pickers on the Fair Trade certified farm I visited earn $2 USD per gallon picked. Slower hands gather about 5 gallons per day while faster workers can harvest up to 15 gallons in a day. Perhaps most amazing was that even though everyone works very hard and has very little in the way of material possessions, everyone I met was incredibly happy and generous in sharing what they had. A true lesson to be learned and remembered.
3) Low Coffee Market Prices Aren’t Always a Good Thing
As you may be aware, after it is harvested, green (unroasted) coffee is often sold on the commodities market. Roasters buy the beans off the commodities market, and the cost that we pay for the roasted and packaged product is directly linked to the price paid for the green beans. Up until this trip, I was of the mindset that low green coffee prices were a good thing for our business. The lower our cost, the lower our sell price to our customers and that is a good thing, right? But seeing first hand who is doing the lions share of work to get the green beans to the roaster and understanding the tight margins that the co-ops operate on has changed my mind. When we pay more for green coffee, we are allowing the producers to have the funds to invest in their operations and grow better coffee, buy tools to improve and make production more efficient, find ways to ensure that they can look after the environment so that they can have a livelihood that allows them to feed and care for their families, to send their children to school. These are all things that we value as Canadians and those who work so hard to grow coffee should be able to count on as well.
The 5 days I spent traveling to, in and from Honduras were filled with a great deal of information that I would have never truly understood by reading books and articles and watching videos. Having the opportunity to see each stage of coffee production and meet the people of Honduras taught me more about coffee production than all I have learned in my entire coffee career. I won’t ever look at a cup of coffee the same way again.
Perhaps most amazing was that even though everyone works very hard and has very little in the way of material possessions, everyone I met was incredibly happy and generous in sharing what they had. A true lesson to be learned and remembered.