What Does “Local Coffee” Really Mean?

By Charlie Mitchell

Vermont is widely known as a haven of innovation and progress for all things related to food and agriculture. We take care to buy local, know our farmer and promote practices that are good for the earth. So what about coffee?

local coffee

Photo by Marco Verch

Most of us drink it every day, but it’s impossible to grow in Vermont. You’ll only find it in select areas of the world—mostly Central America, Brazil, Vietnam, Ethiopia and India. The Burlington area is ripe with local roasters and coffee shops, along with some bigger players, like Keurig Green Mountain and Vermont Coffee Company. We’ve seen labels like organic and fair trade. How can our daily java really support the people who grew it? And first of all, what are some of the problems of the coffee industry?

“Most small farmers don’t have enough land to grow enough coffee to really take care of all of their financial needs,” says Janice Nadworny. She co-directs Food 4 Farmers, a Burlington-based nonprofit made up of “veterans of either nonprofits or companies that work in the coffee world.”

Nadworny explains that these coffee-farming families across the world all compete against one another on the same globalized commodity market that industrialized mega-plantations participate in. These commodities are traded in financial markets and the prices that result are completely abstracted from the price of production. “Coffee prices, in real terms, haven’t increased in the last 50 years.”

Food 4 Farmers was established as the result of research that determined that coffee farming communities suffered from season food insecurity after the funds from their annual harvest payout had run out. Buyers tend to visit in the harvest season, when the money is in and things are going well. They often buy from cooperatives, groups of farmers ranging in the tens to multiple thousands, that have combined forces in a single area to provide more bulk.

Because of the cash economy we live in and the potential rewards of a good harvest, coffee growers plant as much coffee as they can. Often, they used to raise vegetables and livestock for their families, but now “most food in coffee growing communities gets trucked in from cities or imported from other countries because there’s nobody growing food.”

The nonprofit with local implementing partners in several coffee-growing communities to assist farmers in diversifying their operations—growing vegetables for their families, making honey and other products, growing for schools and establishing farmer’s markets. The extra cash flow helps keep farmers less vulnerable to a bad harvest.

But overall, Nadworny says the system needs to pay farmers a better price. “If coffee prices were detached from the commodities market, and if people were paid based on supply and demand, then I think coffee farmers would be able to earn a lot more.”

 A Fair Price for Farmers

If Vermont has a “Coffee King”, it’s probably Mané Alves, an international coffee expert who has spent 25 years traveling to teach classes on production and quality. He runs Coffee Lab International out of Waterbury Center and is also the founder of Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea, a micro-roaster that provides Vermont retailers around the state with farm-direct and blended coffees.

Alves’s career at the Coffee Lab requires him to visit coffee-growing areas across the globe regularly, so if you buy a cup of coffee from him, he can tell you exactly who it came from. He says the only way to really know is to go there yourself. “If you’ve never been there, you don’t know the farmers, you don’t know what’s going on.”

In his view, the only way to know you are getting a fair price for the farmers is to pay them yourself. We look for standards like fair trade and other labels, but besides organic, these certifications are “not only difficult to control but difficult to verify. Sometimes there are a lot of good intentions, but it ends up not working.”

“I pay for the [fair trade] certification but I don’t use it,” says Alves, “because I found that it doesn’t work that well compared to just paying a better price to the farmer directly.”

Alves has not built a coffee business solely on these principles, and he doesn’t believe it’s possible. Visiting and teaching classes around the coffee-growing world funds his adventures. Like some of these coffee growers, he has diversified. “The coffee lab allows me to travel to all these places, and the buying is just a consequence of the traveling.”

But most retailers face significant barriers to doing this diligence.

Bud Smith is one of these smaller roasters. He began roasting in Middlebury around 2000, as he was nearing his retirement. “I just wanted to have a good cup of coffee,” he said. “I started roasting because I didn’t really like the coffee that was around.”

He’s a lifelong craftsman and business owner who has run a convenience store, carpentry and other businesses in Middlebury for a long time, so it’s a fitting project. His coffee is branded with a colorful rooster under the label “Bud’s Beans.”

He roasts his beans in a barn on South Main St., a few hundred feet from the downtown area, where he also lives with his wife. He personally delivers his beans to his accounts around town—the bagel deli, the co-op, the bakery—and to two neighboring towns, Vergennes and Brandon.

Bud’s Beans is about as small as they come. His entire operation fits into a room about the size of an average home office. Several 150 pound bags of beans are on a pallet next to his roaster, a large red contraption that roasts around 20 pounds per hour, “probably the smallest commercial roaster you can buy.”

He buys his beans from a broker called InterAmerican coffee, which is based in Houston. “I rely almost 100 percent on this broker. It’s a very large company. I’ve been dealing with the same woman ever since I started buying coffee.”

He’s traveled once to visit a coffee-growing area, but it was really to see his son, who lives in Brazil. “Bud’s Beans can’t afford to send me anywhere,” he laughs.

Smith’s business is a hobby, but to Mané Alves, the bigger roasters should be doing their homework. “For a slightly bigger roaster, in my opinion, that makes no sense. You really want to go out and meet the people that produce the coffee for you.”

The Benefits of Buying Local

So if the smaller roasters might not have the cash to visit the farmers they buy from, what’s the difference from buying Dunkin’ Donuts? To Alves and Nadworny, it’s still important to buy local. But it’s a little more complicated than buying a bunch of beets at the farmers’ market.

“You should always buy from a local roaster,” says Alves. “From the perspective of buying local, it makes absolute sense. If you think you are helping somebody in Central America, that most likely will not happen. With fair trade you do have that illusion.”

Nadworny contends that there are signs that can help a consumer tell how much care a local roaster is taking to get to know the faces behind their product.

“If a roaster/retailer communicates where that coffee comes from and who grows it, then that’s a really good indicator that they have a sense of that relationship. And many roasters and retailers will take other steps to give back to the community that grew the coffee or coffee farmers in general.”

This includes partnerships with nonprofits like Nadworny’s. Magda Van Deusen, co-Founder of Burlington’s Brio Coffeeworks, is the board chair of Food 4 Farmers.

When we buy locally roasted coffee, we’re putting money in the hands of companies that are working to generate the momentum to build more relationships in the communities they buy in. But Alves encourages us to strive to know our coffee farmer like we know the women and men behind the farmers’ market stand. And that means paying a premium for it.

Janice Nadworny thinks solutions will be forthcoming from Vermont. The University of Vermont’s Ernesto Mendez’s research has informed work locally and abroad.

“Vermont is small, but there’s some stuff going on here with food that has been really powerful and we’re trying to do the same thing with coffee . . . I think we have the potential to share that with others and make some change.”

Charlie Mitchell is studying Food Systems at Middlebury College. He is on the management team of Middlebury Foods and serves on the board of ACORN, the Addison County Relocalization Network.

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