Editorial: A Tribute to our Producer Partners

Written by Cafe Campesino on Apr 3, 2009 in Editorial, NEWSLETTER |
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Celebrating Cooperative Coffees’ 10th Year: A Tribute to Our Producer Partners

By Tripp Pomeroy (President of Café Campesino, a most dedicated java lover, and one of the hardest working people we know)

A few weeks ago, I approached my business partner and friend Bill Harris to let him know that I planned on writing a brief article for this issue of Fair Grounds… and that it would draw some attention to his role in the founding of Café Campesino and Cooperative Coffees. Bill’s never been anxious to jump into the spotlight nor is he particularly comfortable with the title of founder. But after conducting my due diligence (re-reading our history, talking with some of the founding members of Cooperative Coffees, and matching DNA samples) I have confirmed that it was, in fact, Bill who set out from Americus more than ten years ago in his beige Volkswagen van to recruit roasters for what he dreamed would be the world’s first and only fair trade, organic green coffee bean purchasing collective… what we now call Cooperative Coffees. (By the way, I think I speak for everyone in commending Bill and the founding members for choosing the name Cooperative Coffees… in an industry known for its enthusiastic use of acronyms, I’m pretty sure FTOGCBPC would have encountered insurmountable name recognition problems!)

So, yes, it was over ten years ago that Bill ventured out in his camper van to make what were essentially cold calls on 35 or so coffee roasters across the country. His goal: to see if any of them had the chutzpah to join his imaginary cooperative. Here’s the kicker… six of them did and within a few months of their first meetings with Bill, they all traveled to Atlanta, where they met in a small hotel room to form Cooperative Coffees. Shortly after that, this motley crew of caffeine-fueled fair trade believers purchased their first two containers of green coffee beans from our friends at Mut Vitz in Mexico and Apecaform in Guatemala, and embarked on a shared mission to make trade fair. And who were these six renegades, these optimists, these weirdos who actually believed that a fair, win-win approach to business makes good business? Peace Coffee, Heine Brothers Coffee, Los Armadillos (now Third Coast Coffee), Bongo Java, Larry’s Beans, Dean’s Beans, and Café Campesino – that’s who… as diverse a group as any, social entrepreneurs extraordinaire and a testament to the possibilities of solidarity.

You may have noticed that I haven’t used the phrase “and the rest is history” to segue into the rest of this article. Well, this is for the simple reason that the success of Cooperative Coffees depends on how effectively we partner with our producers in the name of fair trade and the degree to which we are able to help deliver a higher quality of life to the small-scale farmers with whom we work. And, while we’re doing pretty well on the former, we ain’t there yet on the latter… not even close.

In the past ten years, Cooperative Coffees has grown to 24 members – from the great white north of the Yukon to the steamy, hot streets of Gainesville, Florida – and has become a respected voice in the global movement to make trade fair. Since 1999, the members of Cooperative Coffees have collectively purchased more than 10 million pounds of Fair Trade, organic coffee, paying over $20 million out to our producer partners. And yes, we have spent these past ten years working together to deepen our business and personal relationships with 24 coffee farmer coops throughout the world’s coffee lands and bring them face to face with our customers here in North America. We feel good about these achievements and know they are making a difference

But ultimately, this celebration of our first ten years needs to be more of a tribute to our producer partners rather than a congratulations to ourselves for the slow but steady progress we’re making in changing the way people trade with each other. Any honest, genuine celebration of Cooperative Coffees must be directed at our coffee farmer friends and their coops, who against unimaginable odds, have sustained their coffee businesses, preserved their coops, and maintained an unflagging commitment to Fair Trade and those of us who roast their most special coffee beans. In Cooperative Coffees’ ten year history, not one of our producer partners has ever defaulted on a loan or other financing provided or facilitated by Cooperative Coffees. Not one. Further, I can point to numerous examples of our producer partners’ ability to create, implement, and sustain projects, programs, and ventures that build on their cooperative coffee enterprises. From micro lending and women’s enterprise development programs at CAC Pangoa in Peru to the creation of a nursery (plants) venture at APCO in Colombia, our producer partners not only work their individual coffee crops but also find the time to contribute to programs and ventures that benefit their coops and communities. Social entrepreneurs extraordinaire!

The truth about fair trade, at least as I see it, is that we’ve only just begun. Bill often reminds me that we, as Fair Traders, have to be very careful not to oversell what Fair Trade is accomplishing as too many of our producer partners, their families, and their communities remain mired in poverty. We’ve come a long way in these last ten years but boy do we have a ways to go before we can pat ourselves on the back.

The current global economic crisis is revealing, in dramatic form, the harsh consequences (for the human race and Mother Earth) of an economic system that strips people of their identities and disconnects consumers from the hard working people who produce the goods we consume. Cooperative Coffees – roasters and coffee farmers alike – has proven that partnering closely and trading fairly with each other is not only healthy, but is also viable and sustainable… it’s good business. This, we celebrate.

But let’s remember that while Cooperative Coffees has ten years of experience successfully working with small scale coffee farmers and their coops, our producer partners have a lifetime of experience surviving perpetual economic crisis, with help arriving in the form of Fair Trade only recently.

I say we celebrate Cooperative Coffees by acknowledging the integrity, tenacity, and remarkable spirit of our producer partners and by renewing our commitment to them and doing whatever it takes to make fair trade the norm and not just a niche.

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