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Profile: Just Coffee
the Midwife: Healthy Teeth in Pregnancy & Infancy
& Drink Recommendations
Earthen Courtyard Community Building Project
a New Food Cooperative
Not Just Another Coffee Company
Member Services Manager
If you live on the near-eastside of Madison, you’ve probably heard
of Just Coffee, but few people probably understand the complicated road
that this small company has taken in becoming a coffee roaster/philanthropic
benefactor. Matt Earley and his business partners, Mike Moon and Ben Hung,
along with few other employees have been dry roasting and marketing Just
Coffee for a couple of years while working with Cooperative Coffees. Cooperative
Coffees is a green coffee importing cooperative, comprised of 17 community-based
coffee roasters in the USA and Canada, committed to supporting equitable
and sustainable trade to the benefit of farmers and their exporting cooperatives,
families and communities.
I recently caught up with Matt Earley and had the following conversation.
LO: How did Just Coffee get its start?
ME: The idea for [Just Coffee] actually came from a project that Mike
Moon and I were working on in Chiapas, Mexico with Zapatista communities.
We were working with Community Action in Latin America (CALA) and we had
formed a partnership with some autonomist Zapatista communities that were
trying to make a go of things without having anything to do with the government—forming
completely their own government, their education system, trying to do
things from their point of view, right.
Because of that, the indigenous people in Chiapas already have a hard
time, even when they’re working with the government and accepting
subsidies and doing things that way. So these people are even further
disadvantaged because they were turning all of that down. They looked
at it as charity and the government trying to buy them off.
We were looking for ways, with them, to help bring investment into the
communities to help develop the communities in a way they wanted to see
them developed. They wanted to have access to medical care and [get] community
health people trained. The biggest problem was that there were no resources
to do that. So, when we sat down with them to talk about it one thing
that most of the people had in common was that they were coffee farmers
and that was their primary source of living. And even though they’re
still growing subsistence crops, like corn and beans for their own consumption,
they didn’t have a way of generating cash into the community.
Coffee’s always been the way to do that, but they had been selling
as individual farmers to middlemen who come down the roads, and actually
in these communities there aren’t even roads going there, so they
would meet them at a road and they’d sell their coffee. They had
no way to know what the market price was and the market price was low
anyway, so a lot of times they’d tell us they’d make like
20 or 15 cents a pound for their coffee and weren’t even meeting
the price of production. One of the things that we talked about was, they
wanted to know about fair markets and fair trade and this was like 1999
or 2000 and it was something that (we) were just starting to understand,
so we said we’ll find out all we can about this and we’ll
help you get into it.
Their idea was that they would cooperativize, so they could have the power
of collective bargaining and the power of having numbers and being able
to work on costing. It started out there were only a few dozen, now skipping
ahead their cooperative is called Yachil and there’s like 1,500
farmers. They started out last year selling to Europe. They sold one container
which is 250 bags of 154 pounds of coffee and now this year they’re
selling one [container] to the U.S. that we’re getting a piece of,
so it’s taken years to actually get their coffee up here because
there’s such a process of going through and getting officially recognized
as a cooperative.
They had to go through the government for that and it’s really hard
for them. They feel like there’s a lot of humility that they have
to deal with and the government gives them twice as hard a time. Papers
are lost and new papers are needed and a lot of money has to go, which
we’ve tried to raise funds here to help them pay for some of the
expenses. But they’re doing it now.
Basically, they cooperativized and a few of us went down, a few of us
from CALA, to see how they were doing and they were totally organized.
They had it completely together, they had everything going, they had a
president of their co-op, they had an office for their co-op, they were
really getting it together, so they said, “How much coffee can you
guys buy?” and we were like, “We don’t buy coffee, we’re
a non-profit solidarity organization, we don’t buy coffee”
and they were like “No, you guys said would help us find markets
if we got it together and now we need your help, are you going to buy
coffee?” So, we said no, but we’re going to find out more.
We went to San Cristobal, which is the main town up in the highlands in
Chiapas and we talked with a fellow named Tomas from Cloud Forest Initiatives,
they’re based in Minneapolis and he’s lived down there forever
and does coffee and he said, if you really want to get these guys into
it, you need to start your own company and you need to get in touch with
Cooperative Coffees and talk to this guy Bill Harris and he’ll get
you involved and set you up in such a way that you can actually afford
to import coffee because you’ll do it with all these other roasters.
So we called him and talked to him about his cooperative, which we’re
now a part of and basically now it’s 17 small roasters, 14 in the
U.S. and three in Canada, and we all pool our money together and buy directly
from the same farmers every year. We have personal contact with the farmers.
Small groups of roasters go and visit every couple years, every single
co-op, so we've got guys going to Ethiopia and Sumatra and all over Latin
America, which is where Mike and I have been this past winter. And it
gave us the collective power to be able to come up with the money needed
to pre-finance growers and to buy the growers beans. Bill said, "Yeah,
I’ve got a roaster, if you want to do it, let’s do it, let’s
set you up and I’ll walk you through it as much as we can."
Mike comes from an activist farming background and I come from an activist
student background so neither of us had any experience with business at
all. We started getting this thing going and thank god, it moved a lot
slower than we wanted it to, so we were forced to take the time that we
needed to take in order to do things the right way, to come up with a
good business plan, to talk to people like Alicia Leinberger from Equal
Exchange who’s helped us along the way giving us great ideas and
just cooperating with us above and beyond the call of duty.
Then we picked up a third partner named Ben Hung, who works for the DNR
full-time and Ben has great organizational skills and he understood a
little bit more of the business stuff from the get-go and he also had
the capacity to understand the language more than Mike or I did, so he
was a great fit. The three of us got it going and we finally started selling
coffee in September 2002 at the Eastside Farmers’ Market, which
is the first place that gave us a break to sell our coffee and from there,
slowly and surely, we started getting into the food co-ops and the small
markets and then some of the cafés and restaurants. The whole model
of this business has been to try to examine every part of the capitalistic
business that we take for granted every day and try to find ways to sort
of mutate it into something worthwhile.
LO: Do all of your coffee blends have an association with
a not-for-profit organization?
ME: More than half of our blends and varietals are linked to fundraising
attempts. We work with groups like Democracy Now Radio and starting something
up with the Green Party. We work with WORT, Madison Area Peace Coalition.
One of the things we wanted to do was to get involved in different community
initiatives and different groups and be able to sell coffee in their name
with their help. It’s good for us because it helps us get connected
with different people and we also can kick money back into projects so
we feel like it’s a really sustainable initiative.
We started at Lapham-Marquette and it’s called the Schoolhouse Blend
and we sell it for ten bucks a pound and out of that we keep six and we
give them back four and we’re really pleased with it, we’ve
raised over $1,000 for Lapham-Marquette in the first year. When they first
approached us about it, Josh Day said, “Look, we have these fundraisers
where we’re selling wrapping paper and it’s probably made
under crappy circumstances, out of the country, it comes here, people
don’t really want it, the kids have to sell it, so the kids are
going door-to-door hawking stuff and it’s stuff that people don’t
really want but they want to contribute money to the school, so they buy
it for outrageous prices, only a small percentage is returned to the school
and the rest is shipped off to some nameless corporation in Florida. So
we thought look, we can get this coffee, we know it’s being produced
under dignified circumstances and we can guarantee that these people are
being paid a fair wage. We get it here, the kids don’t have to sell
it, we’ll sell it through the Parent Teacher Group newsletter and
also at events, so the kids don’t have to spend their homework time
LO: The farmers are getting $1.41 pound for organic coffee,
but you’re selling it for $10.00 a pound. How do you justify that
and is that price making enough of a difference for those farmers?
ME: In the coffee industry a lot of this stuff is shrouded. The co-op
buys it for $1.41 a pound. We buy it from our co-op (Cooperative Coffees)
for between $1.80 and $2.00 a pound to cover their transportation costs
for getting it to New Orleans and then storing it there. Then we can get
it shipped to us in Madison, ten bags at a time, for between 20 and 30
cents a pound so we’re at about $2.25 a pound there. From there,
we do the roasting and the packaging. The packaging costs about 20 or
30 cents a piece. Labels cost about 20 cents a piece. Production costs,
loans for the machines, utilities, operating expenses, salaries. When
it’s all said and done, we feel like we can break even at about
$6.00 a pound and that’s sometimes a little bit less. We figure,
if we can charge $6.00 or over we can pay all of our expenses and make
a tiny little bit of money.
The world price has hovered between 30 and 50 cents a pound for over ten
years now. That’s what most everybody pays for not-great coffee.
A high-end price would be more like 70 or 80 cents a pound. So, basically,
we’re guaranteeing our farmers $1.41 pound which is normally two
to three times more than the world market price. Also, that price doesn’t
represent what the farmers get in their hands. What are the people actually
getting who grow the coffee? Normally, everybody is getting over a dollar
a pound, a vast improvement. No one is getting rich off of it, from either
Just to add to that, we also feel that if we can get extra money into
the communities and they can invest in their own cooperatives and communities,
there’s a much better chance that they’re going to be able
to diversify in different ways to get away from strictly depending on
coffee. We feel like it’s a little bit of a dead-end street. A lot
of the farmers do, too. So this is a chance for them to be not so dependant
on one thing. Even if they’re going to do other export crops, at
least they can have other things going on other than just coffee. The
co-ops are doing loan funds, collective transportation, community medical,
addressing community needs with the money that’s coming into their
LO: What’s the best way to educate people about Fair
ME: The best education is done over coffee or just having personal conversation
and talking to your neighbor about it. One thing that we try to think
about is that people don’t want to be preached to, or to be made
to feel like they’re doing something [wrong]. I don’t think
there’s any reason for people to feel like that, but on the other
hand, people who are buying specialty coffee, and who can afford to buy
specialty coffee should think about that as one way that they cannot even
really change their habits so much but be changing the model.
We’ve all grown up in this model and we’re purposely made
not to think about where our products are coming from. We think about
the price we’re paying and there’s a huge disconnect. I think
the more that we can get into the habit of thinking about where these
things are coming from, we can start to change some of the systems. And
I think coffee is a good starting point because there is a lot of information
out there and there’re a lot of different groups that are working
LO: Have you seen any first-hand, positive results of your
work in the communities you set out to assist?
ME: The best example that we’ve seen is with Mut Vitz (pronounced
Moot Veets), the co-op we’ve been working with since we started.
The biggest thing that we’ve seen is that when we would go to communities
in that area before we were involved and before they were involved with
Fair Trade, there’s a noticeable difference now in what the people
are building their houses out of, their coffee drying and processing equipment.
There’s been a noticeable shift in their standard of living. The
kids generally have shoes now and this isn’t due to Just Coffee,
but it has to do with 100% Fair Trade coffees that have partnered with
Mut Vitz for several years, which we’re one of. Cooperative Coffees
was the first group of Fair Trade buyers that really took a chance on
Mut Vitz. Mut Vitz went from selling less than one container to 15 containers
of Fair Trade coffee in one year. And Cooperative Coffee is responsible
for buying at least six of those containers. So that’s hundreds
of thousands of pounds of coffee.
We’re starting working with some of the guys in our co-op to help
find markets for some of their other products, like honey, and that’s
starting this year.
LO: Has there been a lot pressure from the big coffee brokers
on the Fair Trade industry?
ME: It’s interesting. The commercial coffee industry reacted at
first by trying to discredit the Fair Trade movement by saying that [Fair
Trade] coffee isn’t as high quality and there was an argument maybe
five years ago that it wasn’t, because the cooperatives that were
forming and trying to get into exports hadn’t had the money or the
expertise to do the kind of quality control that they were doing on plantations.
But now we’ve come full circle where the coffee market has taken
such a toll on many of the plantations that they’re either going
out of business or they’re having to really cut back on their quality
control. Whereas, we’re pumping so much more money into their production
system that I would challenge any commercial coffee importer and put our
beans right up against it and our beans stand on their own now from a
The industry can’t really do that anymore since fair trade has merged
with organic to become the fastest growing segment in the specialty coffee
industry, now the big players are trying to jump on board. And what they’re
doing is getting maybe one of their coffees certified Fair Trade by TransFair
and with that they’re able to enjoy all of the benefits of being
a TransFair licensee, which is having access to their marketing, being
able to put the same sticker on their coffee that all of the other fair
trade coffees put on and it’s actually become a big problem for
a lot of us who are 100% fair trade companies because we feel like, on
any given grocery store you can go in and find, hypothetically, Green
Mountain or Millstone on the shelf, next to our coffee, and have potentially
the same sticker on them.
There’s no real language on there to separate them, but their prices
are up to $1.50 to $2.00 cheaper because they’re doing much bigger
volume, because they can actually sell their Fair Trade coffee at a loss.
They actually subsidize it with 99% of their sweatshop coffees. So that’s
been a real problem.
We’ve been talking to TransFair for about the past year to try to
come up with a way that we can differentiate ourselves. They feel like
that’s not really their job. They certify coffee and it’s
not their job to differentiate our companies and our models. So what we’ve
realized is that TransFair can no longer represent what we’re doing.
TransFair represents a market and trying to expand the Fair Trade market,
but they don’t represent 100% Fair Trade movement anymore, which
is trying to change the whole logic of the coffee industry. Many of us
in the cooperative have actually put the wheels in motion to leave TransFair
and we’re no longer going to work with them as a certification agency
and what we’re going to do instead is to have our books audited
by a social justice and organic, third-party auditor and we’re going
to put all of our books online and they’re going to be available.
So, instead of taking our word for it or TransFair’s word for what
we’re doing correct, [you will be able to go] onto our website,
click onto coffee contracts and read exactly how much we’re paying,
who we’re getting it from and how to contact the people who we’re
buying our coffee from.
We’re going to continue to work with TransFair, and I appreciate
the work that they do there and we have lots of friends there, but their
role has turned into being stewards to bring in mainstream companies in
and get minimal commitments from them. Which needs to happen, but what
we realized was that it was structured in such a way that we weren’t
allowed to criticize Procter & Gamble anymore because they were a
licensee, using them as an example. A lot of the multinationals and big
companies that are joining, we didn’t have the legal right within
our TransFair contract to talk about them anymore, which was the reason
all of us got into this was to change the model so we realized we could
do better raising the bar and pushing the envelope outside of TransFair
and working with TransFair on other things. So there’s absolutely
no animosity there, but we realized after a couple of years, TransFair
hadn’t done any auditing with us and we thought, people look at
this label and we want it to represent that a third-party is really checking
us out and vouching for us and now we feel like it’s turning into
more of a marketing tool. We want to be totally transparent, that is our
mandate. That’s why we went to, instead of totally depending on
some third-party vouching for us, and the consumer not being able to see
any information, we want to put it all up online and have it be totally
transparent. And it’s the same with our prices, we're totally open
with that and we’re comfortable with that because we don’t
have anything to hide.
Pick up a Pound or Two
at the Willy Street Co-op
Willy Street Co-op currently carries six blends of Just Coffee 100% Fair
Trade coffees including Maya Vinic, Revolution Roast, Full City Roast,
Ethiopian, Ya Basta and SWP Peruvian Decaf. For more information on Just
Coffee, they can be reached at 204-9011 or online at www.justcoffee.net.
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