More Than Just Coffee

How a local co-op strives to bring us the best beans in the fairest way possible

Top left photo: Yideg Haile, master 
roaster Casey Blanche, Dan Ryan, 
Scott Coleman, Timmy Smith and 
Ada Love all of Just Coffee. Bottom right photo: Just Coffee co-founder and co-owner Matt Earley.

Top left photo: Yideg Haile, master roaster Casey Blanche, Dan Ryan, Scott Coleman, Timmy Smith and Ada Love all of Just Coffee. Bottom right photo: Just Coffee co-founder and co-owner Matt Earley.

PHOTOS BY JACOB BIELANSKI AND GRAYDON SCHWARTZ

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The Dominican Republic village of Polo has one paved road and little else. Set halfway up the mountains in the Caribbean country’s southern region, this is where a cup of Just Coffee’s Polo blend begins.

Along with El Corazon, Yirgacheffe, Gumutindo, Revolution Roast, Solidarity Blend and twenty-three others, Polo is a fair-trade, organic coffee sold by Madison craft roaster Just Coffee. Beans for the dark roast come from a farmers’ cooperative in the Dominican Republic, one of fourteen co-ops Just Coffee works with in Latin America and Africa through its importing group, Cooperative Coffees.

While Co-op Coffees has its own farmer relations staffer who regularly visits the farms on behalf of its twenty-four member coffee roasters spread across the United States and Canada, Just Coffee co-owner Matt Earley prefers to visit producers personally. In 2013 alone, he’s trekked to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and, in May, the Dominican Republic; he hopes to get to Columbia, Peru and the Democratic Republic of the Congo before the end of the year.

“We want to build direct, direct, direct relationships,” explains Earley, adding that his group seeks out farmers who have only two and a half acres or less of land and operate with democratic principles. “The general model in the coffee industry is to shop around—not long-term relationships.”

Those relationships are at the heart of Just Coffee, Madison’s only worker-owned coffee-roasting co-op whose mission is to practice trade based on transparency, equality and human dignity—and produce a stellar cup of coffee. But, as Earley’s recent visit to Polo revealed, doing all this is hardly an easy task.

Even with its large tires, the black Hyundai truck carrying Earley to the source of Polo coffee slips and occasionally stalls as rain comes in spastic fits. These qualities—the mountain slopes, tropical temperatures and on-again, off-again precipitation—are the ones upon which quality coffee beans thrive.

Earley’s here to visit the group of farms dedicated to fair trade that Co-op Coffees has been working with since 2009. He’s greeted with smiles from a small gathering of farmers, and he quickly gets to work shaking hands and returning grins, but also examining the conditions of the farm.

Just Coffee has been happy with the quality of the Polo coffee—it’s been selling well in cafés, co-ops, markets and companies in Madison, as well as in roughly thirty-five states across the country—but a few other members of Co-op Coffees have concerns.

Coffee quality is scored on a one-hundred-point system. Eighty is considered the low end for specialty coffees; Polo’s current contract demands a minimum of eighty-one and they have had trouble hitting that mark. A wide range of “precarious” factors can contribute to quality, from farmers’ plant choices to the timing of picking the cherries that encase the beans to their methods of de-pulping, fermenting, washing and drying.

“It’s an incredibly complex process,” Earley says. He’s heard rumblings about drying being the problem area for Polo. It turns out the farmers don’t have enough space to dry beans, and the process is taking longer due to climate change bringing more rain and moisture to the region. 

And another problem is wreaking havoc before the cherries are even ready to be harvested. A fungus called roya develops at the base of coffee plants and spreads to the leaves, discoloring them with brown spots, and then the cherries, preventing them from fully maturing. Roya has destroyed between thirty to seventy percent of the organic coffee crop across Latin America and Earley says it’s doing no less than changing the entire landscape of the specialty coffee industry.

Chemicals exist to combat roya, but they’re not an option for organic farmers. Instead, they are starting to plant hybrids that are more resistant to the fungus; they’re hardier plants but produce beans that don’t taste as good. “There is definnitely not a silver bullet with roya,” Earley says. “It’s heartbreaking. This is a slow-motion disaster.”

Also heartbreaking is the reality that even though Co-op Coffee pays its producers more than the fair trade minimum (of $1.40 per pound for fair-trade washed coffee with a thirty-cent premium for organic certification), that alone will never pull those workers out of poverty. When Earley first started Just Coffee with friend Mike Moon in 2000—while a UW–Madison grad student of Latin American studies with an interest in co-ops, coffee and workers’ rights—he thought that dealing in fair trade would change the lives of the farmers.

“It’s degrees of poverty,” he says. “Small-scale farmers simply cannot grow enough coffee on their plots, which are usually less that two and a half acres. The math—even at $5 or $10 per pound —does not work if growing coffee is a farmer’s only connection with the cash economy. The key is trying to get enough resources to farmers to help them diversify in ways that will help them be less dependent on coffee.”

That’s where those long-term relationships come back in. Just Coffee’s partner farms can count on them to care about their problems and work toward solutions, help them get affordable loans, share ideas on how to diversify their businesses and bring in nonprofit organizations working in education, health care and other areas of need.

In fact, Earley helped form his own nonprofit to provide such community development. Just Coffee and Community Action on Latin America, a Madison-based organization that pursues issues of social justice in Latin American affairs, run Outside the Bean, which promotes and coordinates partnerships between Madison and coffee farming families, helping them secure safe water and food and determine ways to move away from a strict dependence on coffee farming. In the fall of 2012, they raised funds for a clean water project in Chiapas, Mexico, and they’re now planning a project with an all-women co-op they work with in Nicaragua.

“The idea is that it’s a partnership,” Earley says. “Some of these folks, I’ve known for ten, twelve years.”

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