A Better Option for the Impoverished Farmer

cappuccinoThe fair trade movement has grown exponentially in recent years thanks to large corporate partnerships and more global awareness. It’s arguably made a difference for many tradespeople on whom wealthy countries depend.

But it’s not the only option out there if you’re interested in ethical consumerism – there are alternatives to fair trade that can work as well or better.

Recently the New York Times picked up the story of Ken Lander – a Georgian lawyer who moved his family to Costa Rica after purchasing a coffee farm. When the financial crisis hit, he became dependent on the farm for a serious profit; but he found, as many have before him, that it’s hard to profit off a coffee farm.

He was selling beans straight from the ground at their typical, cheap price. As the beans worked their way through the supply chain, they were sorted, roasted, packaged, and sold at much higher rates. After observing this process, he and some partners decided to become more intricately involved in that part of the process – the value added part, the part that makes your cappuccino $3.80 instead of $.45.

As a result, he started Thrive Farmers Coffee, which attempts to give farmers more control over their product through the whole supply chain process. According to the Times:

In the system that Thrive is trying to develop, farmers are paid only after their coffee has been exported, packaged and sold — at a much higher price — to retailers. If coffee is sold for, say, $7.25 a pound, Thrive splits the proceeds 50-50 with the farmers, who end up, in that example, with about $3.60 a pound.

This system pays farmers far more than they’d make on their own or even through most co-op systems. However, it also requires they wait much longer to be paid. Farming demands an investment in each new crop, which means waiting too long for last season’s payment can hurt (UPDATE: see Kenneth Landers’ comment below for clarification on this). That’s why a lot of farmers sell less of their beans through Thrive at the beginning.

It can also be difficult to manage quality, the Times reports. I had to chuckle when I read that because I’ve had fair trade-certified coffee from Starbucks that was so brutally charred it tasted like coal residue off the side of a freight train (or so I’m guessing).

Point is, there are always alternatives if you’re suspicious of the fair trade brands out there. I like any option that pays farmers well while giving them the opportunity to join in the processing of their product, if they choose.

Such a system – so hip and chic today, so progressive and conscious – is what we used to call “farming.”

4 Responses to “A Better Option for the Impoverished Farmer”
  1. Thanks so much for continuing this conversation and raising awareness. We are working hard to align the consumer with the farmer and consumer awareness is key. One thing that is great clarify is that the farmer is paid all year round in 6 payments as the coffee sells. This actually helps with cash flow over time because with the added revenue through the system, the farmer is receving an income stream year round. This is a effective answer to the feast or famine payment once a year at a much lower price. Also, to minimize risk in the initial year we counsel the farmer to only put a small percentage of his crop in the system to invest for the next year to hopefully put more with a smooth transition for a new way to do business.

    We so appreciate this conversation! Thanks, Ken

    • JCM says:

      Thank you for that clarification! The Times used unfortunate wording to describe the payment system, but I’ll add a note to see your comment. And it makes sense in invest a small % at first. Best of luck moving forward!

  2. Brian Cramer says:

    1) Can anyone explain “the part that makes your cappuccino $3.80 instead of $.45.” and hopefully indicate how, with Thrive and other activity groups, that Cappuccino can go down in price? While the farmers have been skinned alive, the consumer is also being skinned.
    2) Please be less daring with those illustrations… some of us read this on an empty tummy… looks too good to be real 🙂

  3. David LaVallee says:

    I for one applaud the efforts of the Thrive Farmer’s Coffee Team for all their efforts to help the hard working coffee growers and their families! Please keep up the good work…

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