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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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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.

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Changing Lives With Goats

Changing Lives With Goats

Over the years your coffee purchase has helped to change the lives of 24,000 farmers. One of the ways your coffee has helped is the funding of the Goat Initiative in Ixil — the largest of its kind in Central America.

What on earth is a Goat Initiative?

Goats are incredible resource for milk, cheese, and yogurt production. Their milk is very nutritious and easy to digest. Unlike cows, however, goats also do not compete with human food supply. They’re also much easier on the land. In addition the initiative has helped to provide jobs to more than 2600 families in the Ixil region.

Thank you

This goat initiative has clearly created generational change. This change has broken the path of destruction and tragedy, filling this region with hope and means of sustainability after so many years of civil war. Thank you for being a part of this amazing journey.

Just think: all this with just your daily cup of coffee.

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Top Reasons to buy organic coffee

Top Reasons to Buy Organic Coffee

Waking up with a fresh cup of coffee each morning is a great way to charge your energy levels and invigorate your senses so you’re ready to take on the tasks and responsibilities of the day. And while there are plenty of reasons to make sure that your coffee is organic and not made using conventional methods, our friends at Modernize have put together a list of some of the most important.

Avoid Pesticides

Unfortunately, coffee that is not grown organically is commonly treated with herbicides and pesticides such as endosulfan, diazinon, and triadimefon. But when you stick with organic coffee, you don’t have to worry about sucking up any dangerous chemicals that can produce serious side effects such as breathing problems, inflammation, and heightened blood pressure.

Enjoy Better Flavor

Because organic coffee is not produced using pesticides and chemicals, you can expect every sip to taste significantly better than its conventional counterpart. Whether you enjoy drinking your coffee black or with some milk and sugar, choosing organic is sure to eliminate any strange aftertastes or flavor inconsistencies.

Improve Your Nutrition

Organic coffee is full of antioxidants that help to keep the body strong, improve the immune system, and increase energy levels without having to experience a drop in energy once the afternoon comes around.

Take Part in Fair Trade

Many organic coffees happen to be fair-trade certified, which means that everyone who plays a role in their production is paid a fair wage and does not face dangerous working conditions of any kind. You can feel good about knowing that people in Colombia, Papua New Guinea, and Ethiopia where much of the coffee is grown won’t suffer just so you can enjoy your daily cup. Also, Camano Island Coffee Roasters contributes above paying fair trade prices. 4% of revenue received from the Coffee Lovers Club go back to support nonprofit organizations helping farmers build sustainable businesses at origin. Learn more here.

With these considerations in mind, it’s easy to see why buying organic coffee is so important. And the best part is, you’ll likely find that buying organic isn’t much more expensive than buying conventional overall. If you would like to give Organic coffee a try, feel free to get a free pound of organic Camano Island Coffee when you join the Coffee Lover’s Club. Click here to learn more.

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Yvonne’s Garden Corner: Gardening with Burlap Bags

Yvonn’s Garden Corner: Gardening with Burlap Bags

The gardening season is in full swing, and with it, we look for the best way to curb the growth of those persistent weeds while continuing to nourish our soil — gardening with burlap bags can be extra helpful. Burlap bags are made of biodegradable, natural fibers, which break down in the soil and provide a rich layer of nutrients for your plants. If you haven’t thought gardening with burlap bags, now is your chance to learn a little bit about it and see if it’s a possibility for you!

Burlap bags are usually made out of several different ingredients, with the two most common being Jute and Hemp. Jute is a small, soft plant which is grown mostly in Bangladesh and some parts of India. It thrives in wet/monsoon climates and is the second largest natural fiber grown around the world after cotton. Jute leaves are rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, beta-carotene, iron, calcium and vitamin E. The leaves of the Jute plant historically were eaten to restore youth and good health.  Jute is woven into burlap bags, along with hemp, agave, and vegetable fibers, and is then exported all over the world.

Follow these easy steps for gardening with burlap bags!

  1. Choose the right location for gardening with burlap bags. I usually place mine in areas with tough weeds or along garden paths.
  2. Place the burlap directly over the weeds and layer if necessary. If you have time, you can choose to dig up the weeds before covering them with burlap. This can lead to stronger weed prevention!
  3. After placing the burlap in your garden, cover with sand, soil, bark, or rocks. This simple step before planting will fortify your garden soil with rich vitamins and will keep weeds at a minimum.

Tip: If the weeds in your garden are extra persistent, first place newspaper or cardboard beneath the burlap to create a stronger wall between the weeds and your plants.

Let us know how gardening with burlap bags has helped you show off your garden in the comments below!