Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I'm Not a Snob...Really.

I am, however, a thoroughgoing geek in many, many ways.

I'm also one of those irritating people who latch on to a subculture and try to worm their way into it with the aid of wikipedia and You Tube videos, so I will confess on the outset that I'm an outsider here.

But I love coffee.

Okay, so what? We all love coffee. Well I love the social institution of coffee, I love what it represents and how it transcends culture. You want to talk about a global village? It is a crowd of very different people, with different values, wearing different clothing, talking about different things in different languages... all drinking coffee.

We love our coffee. In fact, most of us really don't pay a whole lot of attention to what it is we're drinking. But, as with any industry, there is a vast world which exists prior to us scooping it off the shelf or placing our order. This world, I believe, is of particular significance because it is not happening in an R&D lab or a boardroom in some sky rise. It does not exists in a factory in China or a mine in Chicago. It is on a farm in Ethiopia or Costa Rica. And farming means people.

Granted, when we talk about farming today, we're not talking about Almanzo Wilder planting corn with Pa, we're talking about state of the art hybrid-fuel combine's with GPS navigation.

However, coffee is a little different, for two reasons. First of all, coffee is one of the primary exports in many developing nations and the truth is that most coffee farmers in the world simply don't have access to this kind of technology. Human labor is much cheaper and is also abundantly available. Secondly, coffee is a finicky little fruit. Quality arabica coffee doesn't fare well in the jaws of a mechanical harvester, quality coffee is harvested by hand.

I want to talk to you about the hands picking those coffee cherries.

If you've ever spent a summer picking fruit, you know it's not a very glamorous job and it doesn't pay very well. There's also not a lot of upward mobility for farm laborers. The most they can hope for is to own their own small farm someday and even that is out of reach for most.

Quite a jump to the guy listening to his ipod, drinking a cappuccino in the cafe down the street. But, through the magic of international news and information and passionate advocacy groups, that world is getting much closer to us. Thus there's a lot of buzz these days about "fair trade" coffee.

Fair Trade is a great idea. It is important that we are aware, as we sip our steaming cup of Sumatra, that there is a coffee farmer in Indonesia who will work very hard today to earn even half of what we paid for that one cup of coffee. It's important that organizations like the International Coffee Organization work passionately to advocate for coffee farmers.

Because they are people.

Marketers for coffee roasters love to write about the volcanic mountains from which their beans were "hand-picked." They love talking about Costa Rican culture, the history the coffee industry in Kenya or the Ethiopian royalty who used to drink it. You can't help but smile as they paint pictures of the sun rising over misty orchards while elephants and giraffes lumber exotically by.

The trouble is that rarely are farmers getting credit for the marketing hype printed on that bag of coffee. That $12 one-pound bag of coffee very likely sold for less than $1. Even "Fair Trade" coffee.

Now, I can't pretend to understand the coffee market or all of the elements that affect the farmer-roaster-distributor relationship, I'm just a girl who loves coffee and knows how to google. But I can tell you that these things do matter.

Because they are people

 They matter because it is not okay for me to enjoy luxury that barely sustains the life of another human. Just because we are a world away (both literally and figuratively) does not mean we are not responsible for how our consuming habits affect these farmers. Forgive me for the comparison, but just because we don't own a plantation doesn't mean we're not benefiting from glorified slave labor.

However, I would not advocate just going out and buying a bag of Fair Trade coffee and feeling better about yourself because, like I said, Fair Trade is a relative term.

I am advocating caring.

I mean caring enough to really look at where your coffee is coming from, to ask questions and do research. I am advocating supporting organizations that demonstrate a real love for the people growing coffee. Two organizations that I avidly recommend are Land of 1000 Hills Coffee and the One Cup Project. These are two small, Christian, on-the-ground organizations that I believe really put their money where their mouth is.

Land of 1000 Hills supports two farming cooperatives in Rwanda and are in the process of starting one up in Haiti (!!!). For $27 a month you can get two 12-oz bags of fresh roasted Rwandan coffees of your choice in your mailbox (I recommend the Rwandan Medium Roast).

The One Cup Project is an affiliate of Silver Cup Coffee. For every $11 12-oz bag of coffee you buy, One Cup donates $2 to World Vision and, through fund-matching grands from USAID, Care and Land O'Lakes, $11 is generated to fund several projects in Zambia.

These are just two of many options for you. From small socially-conscious coffee shops to specialty blends from major coffee roasters, there are many people out there dedicated to truly giving a fair trade to the people growing the coffee that we enjoy. I urge you to look into what is available to you. Ask the owner of your coffee shop where their coffee comes from, call the roaster but, most of all, follow the money!

If you happen to be in the area, stop by and I'll make you a cup of the yummiest, socially-conscious, Rwandan french-press you've ever had.

--Sarah Elizabeth

1 comment:

  1. Here's a couple reviews of Land of 1000 Hills Coffee @ Daily Shot of Coffee