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August 16, 2011

Fair Trade Coffee Means Happy Farmers, Right?

IMG_2823Fair Trade isn't always fair. The PC goodness we feel when we shell out more than $10 a pound for Fair Trade coffee beans is challenged in a new film made by none other than... Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. Staff there also used to think that fair prices alone went a long way toward keeping farmers and their families fed.

About four years ago, GMCR cosponsored a study that uncovered a startling fact: Two-thirds of coffee farmers, including those who belong to Fair Trade cooperatives, have trouble feeding their families consistently throughout the year. Most live on a dollar or less a day, and some keep their kids home from school because they lack money for uniforms and books.

Rick Peyser had worked at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters for 19 years when the study's results were released, and he was stunned. "It bothered me to the point that I wasn't sure I wanted to stay in the coffee business," says Peyser, now the company's director of social advocacy and coffee community outreach. Over the years, he had taken many trips to coffee-growing regions, on his own and on GMCR-sponsored trips. Even so, he hadn't known the extent of post-harvest need among the families. "I felt really stupid and angry that I had spent so much time in coffee communities and hadn't heard of this," Peyser laments.

The cycle goes something like this: Farmers harvest and process their beans in midspring, often receiving a lump sum intended to last through the year. They pay off the loans taken out during the previous season, then buy food at a time when corn, beans, yucca and other staples are at their highest prices. That lasts but a month or two, then the farmers begin to struggle again.

The phenomenon is so common in coffee-growing regions, in fact, that farmers have a name for it: los meses flacos, or the "thin months." This can last the entire rainy season until harvest begins again in the fall. And as the price of coffee has risen over the last decade, farmers have given over much or all of their land to the crop, rather than growing their own food, which leaves them especially vulnerable during bad years.

GMCR began funding projects to address food insecurity, including encouraging farmers to diversify their land and businesses.  Even so, Peyser knew that, like him, many of his well-meaning colleagues in the industry were in the dark about their farmers going hungry. Most usually visited their producers during or just after the harvest, when things are buzzing. "During the harvest, people are happy. They've got money in their pocket," says Peyser.

Picture 4A powerful way to tell the farmers' stories, thought Peyser and co., was visually. Last fall, with colleague Laura Peterson and a two-man camera crew, he traveled to Nicaragua and Chiapas, Mexico, to collect tales for a 20-minute film, After the Harvest: Fighting Hunger in the Coffeelands. Susan Sarandon, a longtime supporter of Heifer International, agreed to narrate.

After the Harvest debuted at a specialty-coffee industry conference this spring; farmers such as Crecencio Pao explain why they gave most of their land to coffee, only to run out of money, and food, a month or so after the harvest. "We shouldn't be so poor. We are producers and we are owners of such rich land," puzzles Pao in the film.

How did Peyser's colleagues respond when they saw it? "Just silence. It was about 15 or 20 seconds until people started clapping. Some people were in tears," recalls Peyser. Several approached him about collaborating with GMCR to improve the farmers' plights. 

After the Harvest is now on the festival circuit. In Vermont, it will be screened tonight at 7 p.m. during the "Media That Matters" film showcase at the Main Street Landing Film House in Burlington — Peyser will be on hand to answer questions — and again tomorrow at GMCR in Waterbury.

Peyser thinks Vermont farmers have quite a bit in common with their coffee-growing counterparts: They watch their kids migrate to cities, and they endure wearing cycles of boom and bust. In all farmers, diversification is key. "The bottom line is that farmers cannot survive on coffee alone," Peyser says.

Photo courtesy of GMCR.

Good for GMCR for making efforts to address the poverty and exploitation of coffee growers, but did the Fair Trade folks not finish their homework? What's "fair" about living in abject poverty?

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