There’s pleasure all ’round with Fair Trade coffee

Bonus charge opens up schooling opportunities in far-off Colombia

Gwen Repeta
Gwen Repeta

Coffee is an important part of the day for many of us. Hot, iced, dark, light, decaf, are just some of the adjectives describing the many forms of drink. We all have distinct reasons for the choices we make; we don’t, though, often ponder where our drink is coming from.

In 1997, four Vancouver families came together with the idea of improving the lives of disadvantaged producers through trade. They called themselves Level Ground. They were inspired by the work of Ten Thousand Villages and were keen to see its principles of Fair Trade applied to foods we consume every day. Level Ground’s first Fair Trade initiative was buying coffee from a co-operative in Colombia.

An Ethiopian coffee farmer and a fan from far-away Canada.
An Ethiopian coffee farmer and a fan
from far-away Canada.

Level Ground adds a premium payment to the regular coffee price for investment in improved living conditions for the producers and their families. Colombia’s producer group is committed to investing the money in rural schools and educational scholarships, and today supports 28 rural schools while financing 200 scholarships a year. We at Ten Thousand Villages have loved watching the amazing students grow up to become incredible professionals including doctors, agronomists and social workers.

For many years, coffee was Level Ground’s one and only product! The British Columbia group works with Co-operativa de los Andes, which has performed in stellar fashion, helping Level Ground buy coffee in specific regions from specific farmers so that they can stay directly connected to the communities where they feel their purchase makes the biggest impact.

Many Level Ground members have enjoyed the hospitality of the coffee growers on their steep hillside farms.

Four small associations of farmers – less than 250 farmers in total – sell dry parchment coffee to Co-op Andes for shipment to Level Ground. Farm sizes are small: two to seven acres. Coffee is the farmers’ main source of income and only export crop. Banana, cassava, citrus, grass for cattle, corn and beans are also grown, interspersed with the coffee trees.

Level Ground also purchases coffee from the Fero Co-op of the Sidama Coffee Farmers’ Union in Ethiopia. The co-op has approximately 3,000 farmer members. It operates three washing stations several kilometres apart. Processed coffee is sent from the stations via truck to Addis Ababa in central Ethiopia for milling and grading, and then trucked another 600 km to the port of Djibouti.

Coffee is the primary source of income for fellow producers in Yirgalem, Ethiopia. The coffee from that region of grass and forests is considered among the best in the world, and its Fero Co-op producers receive great prices for it.

The farmers’ plots are small, often covering less than two acres. Coffee trees are often very old – older than 20 years – and in severe need of pruning. Some coffee trees are over four metres tall. Coffee produces 90 per cent of the farmers’ income. Farmers also grow vegetables, fruit and cereal grains amidst the trees.

The co-op puts its Fair Trade premiums into capacity building and also into supplementary payments to its farmers.

Here at Ten Thousand Villages we’re hoping that knowing a little bit about the impact of Fair Trade coffee purchases – knowing, that is, that the coffee is not only good-tasting but a life-changer for some worthy producers in far-off lands – you might want to give it a try.

Ten Thousand Villages carries coffee of six to eight origins – sold as decaf, bean and ground – purchased through Level Ground. There is always coffee to taste in the store, and our volunteers are happy to talk about their favourites. Our annual coffee sale is scheduled for Sept. 12 to Sept. 22, a perfect time to learn how fair trade and quality work together.

Gwen Repeta is Canada rug program co-ordinator and program manager at Ten Thousand Villages in Winnipeg.

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