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5 Steps To Fixing Fair Trade Coffee

5 Steps To Fixing Fair Trade Coffee

Coffee farmers are some of the hardest working people on the planet. Typically one tree produces one pound of coffee per year. That’s 2,000 beans. That means a farmer needs to pick over 1,000 coffee cherries to produce one pound of coffee. And that doesn’t include the labor involved in processing the beans after picking. In spite of the fair trade movement coffee farmers only receive pennies for every pound you buy. This is because of the unintended fair trade coffee problems. There is a better way — fixing fair trade coffee.

Fixing Fair Trade Coffee Step #1:

Buy Coffee That Gives a Hand Up Not a Hand Out

If we will give coffee farmers a hand up instead of a hand out, they will work their way out of poverty. A hand up can take many forms. A hand up can be loans, education, and support. A hand up is supporting farmers in a way that enables them to work themselves out of poverty. If we simply provide hand outs in the form of food, materials for shelter, or medicine, we make ourselves the savior of the rural poor. By enabling coffee farmers to provide for themselves we allow them to have dignity and independence. At Camano Island Coffee Roasters the idea of a hand up instead of a hand out is a crucial tenet in helping coffee farmers eradicate poverty in their countries. It is an important first step in fixing fair trade coffee.

Fixing Fair Trade Coffee Step #2:

Buy Coffee That Promotes Land Ownership

Fair Trade International and Fair Trade USA require farmers to own land to participate. So many farmers, however, merely work for a larger coffee plantation. So before we can begin discussing, education or improved agronomy techniques, the coffee farmers need land to call their own.

One nonprofit that helps with this is Agros. Agros helps the rural poor in Central America to purchase their own land. Agros will work with the local community to buy a large tract of land. Then they divide the land into parcels for individual families based on the type of land, and the type of agricultural business the family plans to build. These families then work their business on their land and repay the loan to Agros in 7 – 10 years. Agros can then take these repaid funds and invest in another village further propagating the system.

Fixing Fair Trade Coffee Step #3:

Buy Coffee That Partners With Farmers In Utilizing Modern Agronomy Techniques

The next step in the journey to end poverty is education. Agros also helps farmers to improve their crop yields, through education. Agros employs a team of Agronomists who help their farmers improve their yields and also diversify their crops.

Fixing Fair Trade Coffee Step #4:

Buy Coffee That Helps Farmers Diversify Their Crops.

Agros also encourages farmers to diversify their crops — from chili pepper farming to tilapia fish farming. This diversification of their crops on their land ensures they always have something to eat or sell.

Another nonprofit we consistently support, Food 4 Farmers, also helps coffee farmers diversify their crops. Food 4 Farmers provides education and mentorship in diversifying crops and expanding businesses. One of the best examples of this is bee-keeping. To learn more about bee-keeping and the impact it had on one coffee farming family, click here. Even if pests or monsoons tear apart their coffee crop, these farmers have another way of providing for themselves.

Fixing Fair Trade Coffee Step #5:

Buy Coffee That Rewards Best Practices

One of the fair trade coffee problems is the unintended consequence of selling inferior beans as fair trade. A better approach is to reward farmers for cultivating the very best beans. Paying for excellence incentivizes farmers to do their best work and also gives them an opportunity to make much more per pound than lower quality coffees.

Organic coffee is a great example of the right incentive. The coffee tree is one of the most absorbent crops on the planet. It drives its flavor from the mix of minerals and type of soil in which it is grown. And, then consider that most coffee grows in the developing world. This results in a lack of pesticide regulation. Years ago here in the US we banned many of the same pesticides readily available in the developing world. Farming using dangerous, unregulated pesticides results in harmful exposure to carcinogens and also birth defects for farmers and their families. Also, what effect can these unregulated pesticides have on the coffee drinker?

Encouraging Shade Grown coffee is also very important to farmers due to the impact environmentally on their farms and their local environment. When big coffee moves into a region and clear cuts the forest to increase the total yield per acre, the unintended consequences can be soil erosion. Additionally, when the rainforest is removed, lasting damage is done to the environment and specifically bird habitat further damaging the ecosystem.

Farmers earn a higher price per pound for excellence. Encouraging farmers to cultivate the best tasting coffees ensures farmers receive the best price per pound possible. In addition to organic and shade grown coffee, Arabica beans help farmers earn more — simply because they taste amazing. The alternative Robusta contains twice the acidity and caffeine of Arabica. The easiest coffee beans to grow are robusta, but they also contain twice the caffeine and acidity. Robusta coffee gives very bitter flavor. Due to the better coffee experience, the market dictates a higher price per pound for Arabica. Why not reward farmers for providing a superior coffee experience.

Summary: Fixing Fair Trade

Buy coffee that gives a hand up not a hand out. Empower farmers to work themselves out of poverty sustainably.

Buy coffee that promotes land ownership. This gives farmers the foundation to work their way out of poverty.

Buy coffee that partners with farmers in utilizing modern agronomy techniques.

Buy coffee that helps farmers diversify their crops.

Buy coffee that rewards farmers for producing the highest quality coffees.

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5 Unintended Fair Trade Coffee Problems

5 Unintended Fair Trade Coffee Problems

What if fair trade could guarantee a fair wage for a beautiful product like coffee? Unfortunately, unintended fair trade coffee problems can hinder the coffee farmer’s long term future. But there is hope. There is a better way.

How Does Fair Trade Work?

Fair Trade International and Fair Trade USA organizations created what we know as Certified Fair Trade. They based Certified Fair Trade on a cooperative approach where farmers join the Fair Trade Organization and follow best practices. Green bean purchasers pay a price minimum — currently at $1.40/lb — plus premiums of $.30 per pound. Also, coffee farmers pay certification fees to participate. Yes, growers must pay to receive a ‘fair price.’ In fact a 2010 study by the University of California estimated growers pay $.03/lb just to be part of the process.1

While the minimum price floor of $1.40 may be good for farmers (you will see it has its flaws too), the premiums paid by buyers rarely end up in farmer’s pockets. $.10/lb goes back to the Fair Trade organizations. This is essentially marketing for Fair Trade. The remaining $.20/lb does not go back to farmers directly either. Instead, this portion of the premium is intended for local cooperative projects such as equipment upgrades, and education (you will see this has flaws too).

The fair trade organizations set up Certified Fair Trade with the best of intentions. In their words “use a market-based approach that empowers farmers to get a fair price for their harvest, helps workers create safe working conditions, provides a decent living wage, and guarantees the right to organize.2 In practice, however, unintended fair trade coffee problems impact not only the coffee farmer, but also the coffee consumer.

Unintended Fair Trade Coffee Problems #1:

Lower Coffee Quality

To understand how fair trade works you need to know some basics about the coffee market. The coffee market is split into different categories based on quality. From lowest quality to highest quality: Off-Grade, Standard Grade, Exchange Grade, Premium Grade, and Specialty Grade. The most well known — Specialty Grade — is where your high-end coffees come from.

Fair Trade coffee can come from any category of coffee, however.3 So farmers can use lower quality coffee as fair trade. Due to its “fair price” requirements the industry considers Fair Trade specialty. This creates a quality problem. Since low quality coffee can be fair trade and therefore specialty without maintaining the higher quality standards required for other specialty grade coffees, farmers sell their lower grade coffees as fair trade. Then their higher grade coffees they sell on the open market, since they receive a higher premium for the coffee due to its quality.

The unintended fair trade coffee problem is the well-intentioned consumer — buying fair trade beans — is left with an inconsistent and low quality product. This is not sustainable. Consumers will not continue to pay a premium for a poor flavor experience. This creates an inconsistent and poor experience for the consumer and also undermines the effort of the farmer and intentions of fair trade.

Unintended Fair Trade Coffee Problems #2:

A Price Ceiling Instead of a Price Floor.

Due to lower quality coffees being placed in Fair Trade offerings, the reputation of Fair Trade coffee has been tarnished. Many coffee importers and roasters are shying away from Fair Trade due to the quality issue, and because of this they are less likely to pay more than the pricing floor of Fair Trade. So in some cases even if a particular crop is higher quality, the perceived value of Fair Trade being lower means that the Fair Trade rate of $1.40 is the highest a buyer will pay. This leads to a pricing ceiling of $1.40 instead of the minimum price.4

Unintended Fair Trade Coffee Problems #3:

Those Who Need It Most, Don’t Have Access.

For all intents and purposes, Fair Trade is essentially a massive collection of co-ops. Most Fair Trade coffee comes from the countries that already have some form of development: mostly Central and South America. The lesser developed coffee growing countries — such as those in Africa and Southeast Asia — do not have access to the Fair Trade market as they are small landowners who cannot afford the Fair Trade certification fees. Additionally, land ownership is an integral requirement for participation in the Fair Trade cooperatives.5 In the poorest parts of the world many farmers work for larger plantations and do not own their own land. Thus the efforts of Fair Trade do not help these farmers. Unfortunately, Fair Trade does not help the poorest of the poor.

Unintended Fair Trade Coffee Problems #4:

Fair Trade Creates Laborious Bureaucracy For Farmers

Fair Trade International requires good record keeping at the farm level. Collecting data helps both farmers and Fair Trade International make better business decisions. Data collection ignores the real-world challenges of farmers, however. First, many coffee farmers in the developing world are illiterate, making it impossible to keep good records.6 For literate farmers, keeping records on top of cultivating their crop is impossible for some. Partly due to low wages, but also because coffee growing is labor intensive, many coffee farmers work long hours during harvest season and simply lack time to keep records. Just trying to provide for their families is a farmers primary objective. The time consuming aspect of maintaining the paperwork along with the fees of Fair Trade mean many farmers don’t participate who would otherwise benefit. This lack of participation further undermines the movement.

Unintended Fair Trade Coffee Problems #5:

Fair Trade Premiums Building Offices Not Schools

Another critique of the Fair Trade cooperative model is the small amount of funds that actually make it back to farmers. Ndongo Samba Sylla, the author of The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich, estimates that no more than $.03 of every pound makes it back to the individual farmers.7 While the $.20 premium meant for infrastructure projects, oftentimes goes towards improved offices for the co-ops instead of . . . schools or organic farming.8

Summary of Unintended Fair Trade Coffee Problems

While started with the best of intentions, Certified Fair Trade falls short of helping the poorest of the poor. Certified Fair Trade incentivizes production of lower quality beans, lowers earning potential of some farmers, and costs farmers to participate.

1. Fair Trade Coffee maintains a minimum price of $1.40 per pound of green beans.

2. An additional $.20 per pound must go back to invest into the producer cooperatives and the local community but often times goes to co-op office buildings.

3. Some Researchers estimate that no more than $.03 per pound makes it back to the farmers.

4. Farmers must pay to be part of a local Fair Trade cooperative and maintain cumbersome records.

5. Inadvertently rewards cultivation of inferior beans.


  1. Alain de Janvry, Craig McIntosh, Elisabeth Sadoulet. “Fair Trade and Free Entry: The Dissipation of Producer Benefits in a Disequilibrium Market”. University of California. July 2010.
  2. Colleen Haight. “The Problem with Fair Trade Coffee”. Stanford Social Innovation Review. 2011.
  3. IBID.
  4. IBID.
  5. IBID.
  6. IBID.
  7. The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. By Ndongo Samba Sylla. Translated by David Clement Leye. Ohio University Press; Found in The Economist. July 5th 2014.
  8. IBID.
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What the heck is cascara?

What the Heck is Cascara?

We have a special post from our friends at Triple Bar Coffee. Here is a informative piece by Tyler on Cascara Tea– made from the fruit of the coffee cherry:

In the last few years, a new buzzword has gained popularity in coffee/tea culture: cascara. You may be wondering, “What is this mystical sounding thing and how do I drink it?” Cascara, which means “shell” in Spanish is the outer skin of the coffee fruit.

While most of the stuff we drink tends to be brown, coffee actually begins as a red or yellow berry. This berry, often referred to as the coffee cherry or coffee fruit, grows on the coffee tree. Inside of these cherries is a pit that we know as the coffee “bean.” We call these “beans” because, when they are halved, each seed resembles a bean in size and shape.

The Makeup of the Coffee Fruit

Each coffee cherry is made up of the outer skin, pulp, mucilage, parchment, silver skin, and the coffee bean.

How Coffee is Processed

A lot of processing is involved before a coffee roaster can roast their beans to perfection. When the coffee cherry is ripe, it will turn a red or purple shade. Farmers pick the cherries and then remove the beans from the fruit. This usually involves using a machine to separate the beans by force, but sometimes farmers will leave the cherries out in the sun to dry the fruit off of the bean.

Using the Coffee Fruit

In the past, the coffee cherry has long been considered a byproduct of the coffee growing process. Historically, everything except the bean was discarded or composted and considered to be of little value. Recently, with the surge of environmentalism, savvy farmers and coffee processors began harvesting and processing the fruit with the intention of keeping both the coffee bean and the fruit.

Caffeine Content

Although cascara comes directly from the coffee fruit, it has nowhere near the amount of caffeine that a coffee bean has. Think more along the lines of black tea. The coffee experts at Square Mile Coffee Roasters did a study of the contents and found that cascara only had around 110 mg of caffeine per liter, while a cup of brewed coffee can range from 400 to 800 mg of caffeine.

Uses of Cascara

The main use for cascara is as tea. I’ve found that when it is steeped like a traditional tea, it produces a wonderfully tart and aromatic drink. If you’re a fan of herbal tea, the scent and flavor of cascara will feel familiar.

Historically, cascara has been used in combination with cinnamon and ginger in a drink called qishir, and though I haven’t tried this variation, it sounds like a great way to literally spice up your drink.

Since cascara is so trendy at the moment, other, more creative uses for cascara like — cascara beer and cascara toddy — are popping all the time.

Aside: Do note that some people vehemently oppose using the word “tea” to describe cascara, and while they might be technically right, nobody should want to be that guy. If you’re expecting anything like coffee when you go to drink your cascara brew, you’ll probably be disappointed.

Brewing instructions

With cascara being so new to the coffee and tea scene, there aren’t many tried and true recipes for brewing it to perfection. Square Mile coffee suggests using 5 to 7 grams of coffee for every 8-ounce cup of water. Be sure to let the water boil, then remove it from the heat and let the boil reduce before pouring the cup. As with teas, the longer you steep it, the stronger the flavor profile will be.

Other coffee shops suggest using the cold brew method and serving the cascara tea iced. If you decide on this method, be sure to use 6 tablespoons of cascara per 10 ounces of water. You’ll want to let this brew in your refrigerator for at least 24 hours. Once the waiting period is over, just strain the brew to remove the cascara. Then pour it over ice, and enjoy.

Why You Should Try It

The production of cascara is an intelligent blend of environmentalism and capitalism. In the past, the coffee fruit was considered to be a waste stream in coffee processing. By farmers developing a niche around the byproduct, they were able to cut down on waste and improve their bottom line.

Cascara is also great for tea drinkers who want to feel like coffee drinkers. We all have that friend who hates coffee, but whenever it comes up interjects, “But, I like tea!” Now that person can have a guilt-free seat at the coffee table.

An additional benefit to drinking cascara tea is the amount of antioxidants it has. It also is low in caffeine, which is great for those of us who prefer half-caf or decaf beverages.

Want to Try it?

If you’re interested in trying out tea made from the coffee fruit, odds are a specialty coffee shop in your area is selling it. If not, you can purchase dried coffee fruit from a variety of online sources. Here at Triple Bar Coffee we’re partial to Sweet Maria’s because we often source green coffee beans from them, but you should be able to find cascara from most green coffee importers.

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Ending Hunger with Honey Bees – How Bees Saved The Gomez Family Farm

How Bees Saved The Gomez Family Farm

Juan Colas Chel Gomez is a member of the Maya Ixil coffee cooperative. He lives in Nebaj and has a ranch in rural Santa Avelina where he keeps his hives. The Gomez family is a great example of how beekeeping helps coffee farmers.

Several years ago, Juan came to the US, worked in construction for a while, then returned home to his family in Guatemala with enough savings to buy a small coffee farm. Unfortunately, in the farm’s first year, it was hit hard by coffee leaf rust disease, and Juan lost  80% of his coffee crop.

Without coffee, Juan and his wife didn’t know how they would be able to put food on the table for their children. They rented their home and lived with relatives in Nebaj. But their coffee farm remained idle, because Juan didn’t have the means to renovate the coffee plants, or put in new ones. Then, Juan heard about how Beekeeping helps coffee farmers diversify their income. Juan discovered a beekeeping program starting up at Maya Ixil, managed by Food 4 Farmers and social lending organization Root Capital. After attending a meeting to find out more, he came home and announced to his family, “We’re going to have hives!”

Juan enrolled in the program. He learned about the basics of commercial beekeeping, attending 5 week-long trainings over the next 16 months. In Dec 2015, Juan received his first two hives and necessary supplies to start his own beekeeping business. Today, he has 14 hives, and is selling honey and pollen. Juan told us that without this program, his family would have had to sell their house.  His son was two years old when the coffee rust crisis hit, was malnourished, and became chronically sick because Juan and his wife couldn’t afford enough food for the family and had nothing left after their coffee farm failed. 

Today, his son’s health has improved, with the help of the income Juan earns from honey sales, and by eating honey and pollen every day. Perhaps just as important, honey production has given Juan, his family, and other Maya Ixil coffee farmers hope for the future, and a sense of pride that they can now provide for their families.

Thanks to our Coffee Lovers Club members we are able to support nonprofit work like Food 4 Farmers.