Business Is Brewing For
Sustainable Coffee Importer
The Entrepreneur’s Latest Venture Uses the Internet and a Growing Fair Trade Economic Model That is Good for Mexican Coffee Farmers, the Environment and Consumers
By Michael LeBel
Will this mug of Fair Trade, organic Pluma Hidalgo Trinidad coffee I am sipping really help to change the world? “Definitely,” says David Griswold, President and importer for RoastYourOwn, one of the largest importers of sustainable coffee in North America. “My trip to Mexico last month proves that during the current era of rock-bottom world coffee prices, the demand for Fair Trade, certified organic and shade-grown coffee is having an incredible impact on small farming communities,” notes Griswold.
“People who buy sustainable coffee may not know it, but they are helping kids in coffee regions afford to go to school, obtain medical care and eat a healthy diet.” I learned from Griswold that the Fair Trade, organic Pluma Hidalgo Trinidad coffee I am drinking was grown and processed on the family farms of La Trinidad Cooperative. La Trinidad is a fine example of how the emerging Fair Trade economic model is improving product quality and the lives of coffee workers, while protecting the fragile ecosystems of mountain growing regions.
Griswold’s passion for sustainable coffee began in 1989 when he picked beans on a coffee farm in Mexico as a volunteer. By 1990, he was helping Mexico’s National Coalition of Coffee Farmers create a farmer cooperative to sell coffee directly to the market without expensive middlemen called “coyotes.” He has made his annual pilgrimage to Mexico to purchase coffee and meet with communities since his volunteer experience in 1989. One memorable trip to Mexico in the early 90’s sourced the beans for Ben & Jerry’s coffee ice cream.
The growing Fair Trade economic system is based on direct relationships, causing marketing and resource sustainability. Griswold knows how important the growing demand for sustainable coffees is to the people of Pluma Hidalgo and the villages that surround it. “Instead of competing against the glut of cheap, generic coffee on the market that is putting thousands of farmers out of business, our Fair Trade relationship with La Trinidad allows farmers to specialize and invest in a high-quality organic crop that is sustainable,” notes Griswold. “Consumers who care about great flavor, the quality of the environment and the quality of life for coffee workers are willing to pay a higher price for La Trinidad’s specialty organic coffee,” he adds.
Griswold’s claim is backed up by survey data. According to recent marketing research by Cone/Roper, 78% of adult consumers said they would be more likely to buy a product associated with a cause about which they care, and 66% said they would switch brands to support a cause. Another market survey indicates that 50% of American consumers are prepared to pay $1.00 to $2.00 more per pound for certified Fair Trade coffee.
“The Fair Trade coffee movement is growing at a sharp pace,” says Griswold, who also serves on the Board of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Trans-Fair USA, the only third-party agency that monitors Fair Trade purchases in the U.S., certified 2 million pounds in 1999 and 4.3 million pounds in 2000. The estimate for 2001 is expected to exceed 9 million pounds. More than 550,000 farmers in 300 cooperatives grow Fair Trade coffee. Griswold’s company, RoastYourOwn, is the first home roaster company accredited by TransFair USA.
“Fair Trade guarantees farmers a livable wage, access to credit and efficient trade links, while promoting sustainable farming practices,” Griswold explains. Beans are purchased under contracts where farmers sell directly to roasters and retailers, bypassing the middlemen that divert profits from small growers. Fair Trade farmers receive more than a dollar per pound with the rest of the price going to their cooperatives. In contrast, farmers not participating in the program receive about 30 cents per pound, with the rest of the money going to middlemen. Organic Fair Trade coffee commands an even higher price for the farmers.
HUMAN CONNECTIONS MADE BY CYBER-VISITING FARMS “Log on to RoastYourOwn.com and visit the farms with me,” invites Griswold. In 1995, he founded RoastYourOwn, an innovative home coffee roasting company that offers Fair Trade, organic and shade-grown coffee beans from around the world. The latest E-commerce tools allow RoastYourOwn.com to provide an efficient farmer-direct-to-consumer sales channel, creating better pay for farmers and cheaper coffee prices for customers. “In addition to being a much more efficient economic tool, Roast-YourOwn.com is a vehicle for communicating “relationship” information about a product’s origin, and our customers care about that,” Griswold says.
The new website’s Relationship Coffee feature takes visitors on a cyber tour of the family farms and cooperatives that grow their beans, including photos from his visits. Griswold’s recent trip to Pluma Hidalgo took place in December, a time when tourists flock to the busier regions of Oaxaca to enjoy famous holiday festivals. High above in the mountains, Griswold witnessed a different sort of celebration: the coffee harvest was underway. “During the harvest, the mountainside is stippled with La Trinidad’s Typica heirloom varietal trees that are heavy with ripe, cherry-colored beans,” Griswold says. “The vista of families carefully picking, washing and drying the beans is hard to put into words. That is why we include photos from all of my trips on RoastYourOwn.com,” adds Griswold.
During his trip, Griswold witnessed the improvements his Fair Trade program has made for the quality of the coffee and the quality of life for farmers. “2001 was a great year for La Trinidad,” claims Griswold. “They received new price premiums because of Fair Trade certification. They also achieved additional premiums due to improvements in coffee quality,” adds Griswold. “Cooperative members voted to use the surplus funds to create community markets to supply basic goods and school supplies, construct a community center and coffee warehouse, and pay bonuses directly to member farming families,” says Griswold.
More than 40 farmers turned out from La Trinidad to welcome Griswold. They demonstrated how their quality control programs, organic farming techniques and meticulous wet milling operations are producing better coffee than ever. Griswold observed farmers fermenting their beans using small hand mills that gently remove the fleshy pulp from the parchment. Others gathered the pulp debris for com-posting. Griswold inspected how the coffee beans are dried on stone patios in the blazing sun, and how defective beans are removed painstakingly by hand. The growers proudly exhibited their newly constructed de-pulping stations and drying decks, which will improve product quality for hundreds of small member farms.
Griswold also listened to growers share their experiences in the “Let’s Talk Coffee” training program, sponsored by indigenous Zapotec village leaders in partnership with a nonprofit called Fomcafé. The program content, which was created by the growers themselves, educates workers and sets the standards for La Trinidad’s coffee production. “It is exciting to know that I will see even more progress during my next visit,” says Griswold.
“It is amazing that La Trinidad’s farming community is prospering during hard times in the industry,” says Griswold. “Many farmers around the world are struggling and leaving the business,” he adds. Under the Relationship Coffee model, the best of the farm’s harvest is guaranteed to the buyer and sold under an exclusive, like Pluma Hidalgo Trinidad. The importer works with the grower and roaster to build brand identity for the grower and the importer visits growers and roasters to understand their operations and opportunities for investment.
For more information about RoastYourOwn, Fair Trade and Relationship Coffee, home roast-ing and Griswold’s coffee buying trips around the world, visit www.roastyourown.com .
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