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Hopeful Signs On The Horizon: Digging Out of the Price Trough

Here are some initiatives that could go a long way toward stopping the boom/bust cycle if we all got behind them, and sacrificed a little to push these ideas from the printed page to a working reality:

  • Fight the geographic extension of Robusta coffees
  • Support pure Arabica blends
  • Support organic farming practices
  • Support Shade-Grown and Smithsonian Bird-Friendly practices
  • Support Cup testing as an integral part of the grading process at origin
  • Support an SCAA origin certification system
  • Support an SCAA coffee rating system
  • Support Coffee Kids
  • Support an auction system for Arabica specialties
  • Support fair labor practices at origin and in consuming countries
  • Support Grounds for Health
  • Support high environmental protection standards on the farm and in the roasting cities
  • Support partnering with small farmers and farmer cooperatives at origin
  • Support the establishment of national policies at origin that support the small independent farmer such as credit, technical assistance, market information, and assistance toward sustainable diversification.


People of good will are concerned about the plight of the farmer, but being concerned isnít enough. Wringing our hands and talking about long-term solutions just isnít enough. As imperfect as it may be, there is a mechanism in place with which we can do something right now with an immediate effect. Independent roasters can buy Fair Trade and other value-added coffees to illustrate our solidarity with the independent farmers. If each of us bought just five bags more of these coffees next month than we would have normally purchased of these sustainable coffee assets, we would increase consumption of these coffees by about 25 containers (6,000 bags) instantly.

Fair Trade agreements are not the perfect answer to todayís coffee crisis, but Fair Trade and the other value-added products such as the Smithsonian Instituteís Bird-Friendly program and organic coffee availability are in place. They have been proven to work for the farmer, and the crisis is happening right now. This is not charity. These are mechanisms of support that guarantee the farmer a better deal in the marketplace. In return it leaves the roaster with produce of his personally approved cup quality and a story with which to sell his goods. Go out and buy some Fair Trade, or Organic, or Shade Grown coffee today. Never mind about signing a fancy agreement with a licensing organization. Frankly, there just isnít time to wait for the bureaucratic organizational paper pushers to set everything up. Start the paper moving and go and buy some coffee. Just do it. Youíll thank yourself for taking the initiative to support these folks. They have, after all, been supporting our efforts for years. Itís now our turn to pass some of the rewards of our own good work and good fortune forward to our farmer-partners and help them out of a tight spot. It is the right thing to do, and we must and can act right now.

Specialty Coffee cannot save the situation alone. We can be pathfinders, but we havenít the clout to turn the market forces around all alone. This is a golden opportunity for the largest coffee companies to step up and be counted. Kraft, Folgers, Sara Lee, and the other large roasters have the unique opportunity to take the high ground with the consumer, and their sources at origin, and declare that they support the concept behind the fair-trading idea if not Fair Trade itself. They can in one bold stroke change the economic coffee landscape with an initiative in support of the coffee farmers in the global village. It is a perfect opportunity for the biggest money players with the most economic, human, market and political resources to work with the smaller specialty coffee community in a joint effort with farmersí organizations to support sustainability at origin.

In the past I have been vocal in my criticism of Big Coffee and their trade group, but I tell you friends, it is time for all of us to summon the moral courage to stop our territorial squabbling, stand up, and begin the task. Together Iíll bet we can figure out a way to lend a hand to our friends and their families, in coffee growing lands, by taking the first steps to help them break free of the ďCĒ Contractís tyranny. 7

Don Schoenholt is c.e.o. and master-of-coffee at Gillies Coffee Company, Brooklyn New York. Gillies is a roaster of sustainable coffee, a Founding Supporter of Coffee Kids and a member of the Smithsonian Instituteís ďBird FriendlyĒ shade-grown coffee program. Gillies was the first corporate supporter of Grounds For Hope.

Tea & Coffee - December/January 2002
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