Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sustainable Coffee: The Story Behind Your Farmer Direct Cup

We were out in the evening, which is a rarity for parents of young children. As a treat, we decided to stop for a cup of coffee. Apparently our neighborhood is the center of a great proliferation of coffee shops: three chain stores and an independent for the picking. I hemmed, I hawed, I debated which one to pick. One was closed. That helped. One had no organic, the next had organic wares, the third had organic and farmer direct. Farmer direct? What was that?

You may have heard of the idea of fair trade certification. Simply put, that’s a stamp that says that the farmer of your coffee has received a decent wage for what he’s picking and has been treated fairly. Although we don’t always think about the farmer who made the black brew that we’re drinking, the fair trade stamp means that someone has – the farmer has received fair wages in a democratic workplace that cares about environmental sustainability. Fair trade also means that farmers can access financing to improve what and how they grow. Since access to credit can be a major stumbling block for small-scale agricultural producers, this is vital.

But what of the farmer direct label? Is it a play on fair trade, without the certification? In principle, farmer direct coffee means that those who sell the coffee have connected with the grower of the beans. In the vast market of coffee production, the beans from one farm can get lost in the mass of coffee being processed, and the coffee is classified based on its country of origin rather than its farm of origin. In a way, farmer direct is like the transnational equivalent of community supported agriculture. A company cultivates a relationship with a farmer, or more likely with a cooperative of farmers. When you know your farmers as people, there’s more likelihood that you’ll understand their needs as people: needs for a good wage, a healthy workplace, and respect for cultural traditions.

While farmer direct isn’t a certification program, it’s a way for a company to state that it’s interested in the people behind its coffee. And for the consumer? Is farmer direct just another label to make people want to buy a particular brand? A nod towards local eating and connecting with the land, with a global twist? Perhaps it is, and perhaps not. Companies like Crop to Cup certainly market the single-source coffee experience, even giving the opportunity for coffee buyers to connect with farmers.

For me, food is about connection. It’s about a connection to the land and to the people who grow my food, and it’s about cultivating relationships. Will I buy fair trade? Of course. Will I buy farmer direct? If I respect and trust the organization that is producing the coffee, I will. Our global commerce in food means that choosing a sustainable cup of coffee has become a much more multi-dimensional experience than trolling down the beverage aisle, an experience in which environmental and social issues both play a role.

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