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Sharing Our Story

Friday, December 16, 2011

Lee Wallace, Peace Coffee Queen Bean

There's a lot of conversation these days about our economy and the myriad ways in which it's broken. Whatever your policy solution, there's a wish that our humanity and our pocketbooks weren't so estranged from one another. How does one build an economy that values people and relationships?

Last month our Queen Bean (a.k.a. CEO), Lee Wallace, explored that topic from the vantage point of a committed fair trader in a talk she gave to a gathering at St. Joan of Arc Church, our long-time neighbor and partner. 

Here is what Lee had to say:

"I run a fair trade coffee company, called Peace Coffee. Peace Coffee was born out of conversations with farmers, and it is through ongoing relationships and conversations with the people we purchase coffee from that we continue to chart our course into the future. Simply put, I am blessed by getting to work for a place that exists to do the right thing—to build healthy local economies in all the communities in which we do business.

All of the coffee that we buy is fair trade. So, what is fair trade, and why does it matter? Fair trade is a way of providing small-scale producers with market access and leverage to get a price that sustains their families and their communities. It is doing business with a goal of social and economic justice. The example I know best is coffee, so that's what this talk focuses on.

More than half the worlds' coffee is grown by farmers who have parcels smaller than eleven acres. Individually, farmers who have such small plots do not have enough product to market directly to coffee buyers— so they have two options, to sell their coffee to an intermediary, who will dictate all the terms of the purchase, often paying the farmer much less than their product is worth, or to become a member of a cooperative and market their coffee collectively.

I would be remiss if I did not take the time to explain the difference between a small farmer selling coffee to an intermediary versus selling through their cooperative. It's huge. When selling their coffee to an intermediary, the farmer has no information about how much the coffee will eventually be sold for, no guarantee that when the next bag of coffee is ready that the terms of purchase will be the same, and no bargaining power.

The cooperative, on the other hand, is owned by the farmers and works on their behalf to negotiate the highest price possible. The co-op provides technical assistance to improve the coffee quality and yields, and advances money before the harvest so farmers don't have to choose between feeding their families and fertilizing their fields.

Peace Coffee purchases our coffee exclusively from cooperatives. We, and other committed fair trade companies, pay a socially responsible price for the coffee. On top of that, we pay a small premium per pound -- a portion of every purchase in the fair trade system that goes into a community fund. At the end of harvest season, once all the accounting is complete and things are squared up, members of the cooperative democratically decide how they are going to spend that money. Thus we're not just paying a fair price for our beans, we're supporting community-driven, community-prioritized, and community-owned development projects.

It's hard to generalize about the eleven different countries where we do business, but if you've ever been to rural communities in Central or South America or Africa, you know that these are incredibly beautiful places with few very resources. Lack of access to education, clean water, transportation infrastructure, electricity, health care—these are all common barriers in the communities where Peace Coffee does business.

Recent research done with just under two hundred coffee farmers in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico found that 67% of the families interviewed reported extreme scarcity of food for between 3 and 8 months out of the year.

The organizations we work with in coffee-growing communities are working on solutions to these very real problems. As are we. My hope -- and what inspires me to get up most days -- is to be a part of a system, and a community, that is working for meaningful and long-lasting change.

Some days, the complexity of what we are trying to do — build a company that trades fairly with farmers, provides living wage jobs and health insurance to both our retail and wholesale employees, and actively advocates for a fair trade movement that genuinely serves the best interests of the most marginalized communities—makes me want to pull my hair out.

These things become more complex all the time it seems.  The world around us is changing in unprecedented ways. Increasingly volatile commodities markets make trading coffee more of a roller coaster than ever before. Food prices are skyrocketing, as are interest rates, and in many cases, these expenses are growing faster than farmers' incomes.

And then there's climate change. Climate change isn't a policy debate in farming communities in Central America.  It's a reality. Last year I visited northern Peru where areas that were lush with mango and pineapple trees a few years ago are now mainly growing coca.  Actually, what I first noticed were the guards. When I asked why there were men with semi-automatic weapons stationed along the road, I was told that people were taking it upon themselves to fend off the recent influx of drug gangs. I learned that southern Colombia is no longer hospitable to growing coca because it has gotten too rainy. In northern Peru, changing weather patterns mean that mango yields have plummeted and farmers are struggling to make ends meet. The promise of quick cash has lured some impoverished former mango farmers into the drug trade. I was shocked -- why hadn't I heard about this?

From my office in Minneapolis, the challenges can seem daunting. But the best way for me to regain my sense of hope, of optimism, and get my rudder pointed in the right direction again is to get on an airplane.  I am fortunate enough to travel regularly to the communities where we buy coffee. On these trips, I get reports on how the harvest is going, initiatives the cooperative is undertaking—both to improve their community and to build a stronger organization -- and I get to hear about people's hopes and dreams for the future. And, as the story of my trip to Peru illustrates, I learn things I would never know if I stayed in Minneapolis.

A few weeks ago, I visited a coffee growing community in the Dominican Republic. After touring the processing facility, tasting coffees, and getting presentations from the predictably male leadership group that runs the cooperative, we were asked if we would like to learn more about the co-op's women's project. We said yes. The door opened and eleven women filtered nervously into the room. After a slow start, they stood up and, one by one, began talking.

Three years ago, the cooperative had become part of the Café Feminino network, which means that the men pledged to give over a certain amount of the land to women farmers. The women learned how to grow and process coffee, how to deliver it to the cooperative, and how to manage their new business' money. As each woman spoke, she talked about how this endeavor had changed her life, allowing her to contribute to the family finances, to make autonomous decisions, to build a better future. All around the room, each woman told her story. But then, one by one, the women started standing up again. Their exuberance was so great that they all wanted to talk again. That meeting, though long, was truly inspirational.

Through my travels, I build relationships with the people I buy coffee from. People who inspire me because they believe they can build a better future for their community.

Through my relationships, I get grounded in the right-ness of a fair trade approach:

  • That people deserve to be treated with dignity and are entitled to economic justice.
  • That businesses can, and should, be built on principles of fairness.
  • That by building relationships, traveling, and telling stories, I am following the right path.
  • That people truly know how to solve their own communities' problems; our role is to help eliminate the inequities that prevent them from doing so.

I feel fortunate to be able to tell you my story today. Understanding and remaining aware of these connections is an important part of our humanity and, from what I can tell, is the first step in building a new economy. Part of what I love about what I do is that the end story is pretty simple -- by buying a fair trade product, you help build an economy that values people and relationships. Thank you for listening."

And thank you, loyal Peace Coffee fans, for reading. We could not be "following our path” without the individuals like you supporting us every step of the way. Whatever holidays or special moments you celebrate this season, take a moment to acknowledge that you are helping to make a positive difference in the world. Cheers, and see you in 2012!

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