By Eric Stromberg
“Coffee is a powerful stimulant. It has the power to lift 25 million people out of poverty. What’s in your cup?”
These simple, powerful words, on a poster in the cupping room of the COCLA coffee cooperative in Quillabamba, Peru, describes the impact fairly traded coffee has on the lives of coffee farmers.
Fair trade is the concept of treating farmers as partners, paying fair prices, and supporting the development of sustainable farmer-owned businesses.
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Peru with a group of West Coast grocers, courtesy of Equal Exchange Co-op. The purpose of the trip was to meet some of the farmers who grow fair trade coffee sold at the Davis Food Cooperative, and see fair trade in action.
We visited the COCLA export cooperative in Quillabamba, and then traveled to the village of Aguilayoc, where we helped harvest coffee.
Ten years ago I was in Aguilayoc, and the reunion with friends not seen for a decade was very heartfelt. The kindness, generosity, humor and sincerity of our hosts was wonderful. It felt as welcoming as it did to visit my grandmother.
And the food … Peruvian cuisine is amazing, especially when prepared on a wood stove with farm-fresh ingredients.
Growing coffee is hard work. On the farms at the Aguilayoc Cooperative on the eastern slope of the Andes, the shade-grown fruit (called “cherries”) must picked by hand.
Heavy bags of cherries are then slung on your shoulder and carried down the slope to a rutted dirt road where they are poured into larger bags that weigh about 225 pounds. Later that day, the Co-op’s truck will come for the bags.
After just a few attempts at helping lift these very heavy bags on to the truck, my muscles turned to Jell-O, much to the amusement of the seasoned farmers.
The bags are transported to the Co-op’s de-pulping station where the sweet red fruit is separated from the seed, or bean. The beans ferment overnight, and the next day are washed in a series of gravity troughs where the good beans sink and the bad ones float.
The fruit pulp is composted and the water is diverted to containment fields to avoid polluting streams and rivers. The good beans are then raked out onto a large concrete patio to dry in the sun before the trip to the COCLA warehouse, where they are graded and packed for export.
About 25 percent of what is picked will produce export-grade coffee. The rest is for the domestic market.
The Aguilayoc farmers are certified organic growers, and this adds an extra layer of work to their tasks. Their level of environmental concern is quite genuine and quite sophisticated.
Global warming is a real concern to the farmers, and they are working with COCLA’s agricultural and organic specialists to study how they can minimize the impact of rising temperatures by optimizing the forest shade canopy to produce microclimate zones.
This complicated goal is to create a layered shade canopy to protect the coffee trees, ensure good ventilation, but not over shade the coffee. They also take into consideration the desire to use native shade tree species intermixed with beneficial but non-native nitrogen-fixing tree species.
They are also breeding coffee trees for high-quality fruit combined with heat and disease resistance.
Aguilayoc is a Quechua community, proud of their heritage as descendents of the Inca. Quechua culture has strong elements of cooperation and community.
The tradition of Ayni, coming together as a community to help each other, was in practice during our visit. The idea is simple — you help pick your neighbor’s coffee, and then the neighbors help pick yours.
But what if you have a family of six, and the neighbor has 12? To make it fair, you trade something of value if you received more labor than you could supply.
The Aguilayoc Co-op is a member owner of the COCLA coffee export co-op. Because of fair trade, COCLA is able to provide technical and agricultural support to the farmers, has a Women’s Co-op, and offers social and educational services to a community of farmers who otherwise have felt quite unsupported by the Peruvian government.
Fair trade does make a difference. Even though the farmhouses do not have indoor plumbing, natural gas or electricity, these families have been able to put food on the table and send their children to school.
Many of the teenagers I met 10 years ago have completed college. Some work as teachers, notaries and agronomists. Now the big question facing these farmers is how are you going to keep them on the farm?
Knowing the farmers who grow what we sell at the Davis Food Co-op, even those who live a continent away, is important. This coffee is not a commodity; it is produced with passion by real people whose lives are better for it.
What’s in my cup? Fair trade!
— Eric Stromberg is general manager of the Davis Food Co-op, 620 G St. in downtown Davis. Equal Exchange Co-op is an employee-owned cooperative based in Massachusetts. Founded in 1986, Equal Exchange has been a leader in the fair trade movement. Their fair trade coffee, chocolate and tea are sold at the Davis Food Co-op.