I gave up coffee in January as part of a 21-day cleanse. What did I learn? That I could live without it and should probably drink less of it, but why would I want to? Coffee is the ritual the punctuates my day. That first cup in the morning. The way I ease into my work routine and how I like to end my lunch. That first post-cleanse cup of coffee was truly sublime. Frankly, one of my biggest problems with coffee is that we seem to run out of it at extremely inconvenient moments. Like 6:00 a.m. Of course, living in Manhattan we have the dubious luxury of hitting a Starbucks within one block of our apartment in every direction, but still – it’s annoying to make the trip.
There is no way to make coffee local here in the Northeast, but there are ways to make it more ethical. Last winter, I wrote a post on grocery shopping alternatives and was amazed to find such a wide variety of food purveyors out there. One of the most interesting was the Coffee CSA started by Pachamama, a coffee cooperative based in Davis, California, that is made up of farmer-owned cooperatives in Peru, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico and Ethiopia. Their coffee is organic, fair-trade certified, and the model is simple: small coffee farmers join cooperatives in their regions and deliver their coffee to a central location, the cooperative sends the coffee to California where it is roasted and sent to the customer. The prices are competative at $10/lb (the shipping making it about $12/lb), and you can sign up to receive it on a monthly basis in automatic shipments. I calculated that we go through a little more than a pound of coffee a week in our house and ordered up the 5 lb. bag. As the operation is fully farmer-owned, they receive 100% of the profits by cutting out the middle-man. According to an article in the New York Times last year, while the fair-trade coffee farmer earns roughly $2.60 per pound. farmers who participate in a cooperative take home a larger share of the profit often earning closer to $4.00 per pound. The relationship is so direct that when you log onto the website to order your coffee, you can choose a specific country and farm you would like your coffee to come from. It might not be local, but it is personal.
After browsing the website (which is beautifully designed, I might add), I selected Caterina Yac, who owns a 3-acre farm in Santa Clara la Laguna, Guatemala, on the edge of Lake Atitlan and not far from where I myself once worked for a fair-trade organization helping to organize weavers into a textile cooperative near Panajachel. That was in 1994, near the end of Guatemala’s long civil war, at the beginning of the fair-trade movement and before the internet. There were a number of challenges in setting up a textile cooperative back then: communication between the weavers and the organization in Guatemala City was difficult, as was raising enough funds for materials for them to work with. Then there was managing the export of their finished product and finding a consistent market for it in the U.S. My job was to stay in the communities with the weavers and record their stories and I was taken in by the leader of the cooperative who lived in a one-room house with her husband and 4 children. I learned to weave on a backstrap loom and got to know many of the families in the village in what was one of the more formative experiences of my adult life. Ironically, the village was surrounded by coffee farms, but we only ever drank Nescafe! It has been encouraging to see the flourishing of the fair-trade movement over the past 20 years in Guatemala, but no matter how incredible their handwoven textiles are, there will only be so many one person can buy. Not so with coffee, which is why using the community supported agriculture model is such a great idea. It invests in the farmers up front and ensures that they will make a living and be able to continue producing their crops.
We have been drinking Caterina’s coffee for 3 months now. It arrives in a 5-lb bag, freshly roasted at the beginning of every month and I haven’t been on a last-minute coffee run since. In fact, having traveled quite a bit in August we have the opposite problem of not finishing one bag before the next arrives. The solution, however, is easy: put it into a decorative bag and give it away to your friends. Who knows? Maybe they will want to join the CoffeeCSA, too!