THE READER
April 2004

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Readers’ Write!

GM Report

Board Report

Deli News

Biological
Farming at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference

Juice Bar News

A Coffee Primer

Book News

JenEhr Family Farm: Oven-Roasted Chickens Hot & Fresh Nightly

Specials Information

Producer Profile: Just Coffee

Ask the Midwife: Healthy Teeth in Pregnancy & Infancy

Recipes & Drink Recommendations

The Earthen Courtyard Community Building Project

Barneveld Gets
a New Food Cooperative

Community Calendar

 

Producer Profile:
Just Coffee

Not Just Another Coffee Company
Lynn Olson
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 going door-to-door.

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 side.

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 communities.


LO: What’s the best way to educate people about Fair Trade coffee?
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 on it.


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 quality perspective.

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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