One phenomenon of working at a grocery co-op is witnessing Co-op children grow from newborns in shopping carts to adults who understand good eating and cooperation. It is with that same awe and admiration that we’ve watched the growth of Just Coffee, our neighborhood,—and now cooperatively owned— Fair Trade coffee roaster. We’ve seen them from their first eager steps in 2002, sampling freshly roasted coffee to market-goers at the Tuesday Eastside Farmers’ Market, to the model of cooperative success they have become today.

In 2004, when we did our first Just Coffee Producer Profile, the initial group of three owners and a small staff had been roasting impressively good coffees for two years and had been piecing together each of their roles to support the growing company. By 2005, the company’s need for a larger facility moved them from their incubator location at the Madison Enterprise Center to a more spacious site a stone’s-throw away at 1129 E. Wilson Street in Madison. Now only four years later, the cooperative is in search of a new home, large enough to accommodate new operations and more personnel with clearly defined and manageable job expectations.
Matt Earley, one of the original three, was clear in his first interview that future plans included an official cooperative identity, though they had not originally incorporated as one. It was March 2006 when Mike Miller, Rob McClure, Susan Bacher and David Miller joined Matt, Mike Moon and Ben Hung, as they re-incorporated Just Coffee as a cooperative in Wisconsin. And, as it was in the beginning, their identity and dedication have only grown stronger as they continue to honor their commitment to create a better system of Fair Trade and cooperation among growers and consumers.

Keys to success

Based on an early suggestion from a parent in the Lapham-Marquette neighborhood, Just Coffee started offering reduced prices on bags of their coffee to schools, churches and peace organizations as a new option for fundraising. Also serving as an alternative to conventional advertising or product promotion, this decision would have far-reaching effects on consumer education and eventually necessitate one full-time position dedicated to this program which makes up ten percent of Just Coffee’s annual sales. Susan Moon, who now manages the group sales program, reports over 200 organizations have developed their own label or utilized one of the cooperative’s other blends, then set their own price per bag for fundraising campaigns. “If they choose to use a custom label,” Susan said in a recent interview, “it gives solidarity to the group and they can put out a message about what they’re raising funds for and to educate about their program. Churches use it as a chance to really explain Fair Trade by [including on the packaging] the amount that the growers are getting also.” Fundraising campaigns selling fresh-roasted, Fair Trade coffee have already yielded over $100,000 in our communities this year.

Among new programs and services offered by Just Coffee, Mike Miller will guide “Mission Control,” a program created solely to develop and promote the cooperative’s mission. He will also oversee the daily management of their expanding Café Services, which the cooperative is working on in order to increase efficiencies for café and restaurant owners who contract with Just Coffee for coffee-making equipment, training, preventative and emergency maintenance. Currently serving 25 to 30 businesses, nearly 75 percent of these are located within 100 miles of Madison.

The “Producer 2 Producer (P2P)” program was also created in the last year to ultimately enable coffee growers to learn from and share information about various aspects of their coffee production with another producer group. The first such visit is being planned for a member of the LaFEM Cooperative to visit another South American producer group. Fundraising events to finance P2P have raised some of the funding needed, but a portion of the sale of Just Coffee’s Solidarity blend coffee will also help fund this program in the future.

Long distance farm tours

Just Coffee Travel Delegations, a quasi-ecotourism initiative has become increasingly popular for area consumers of Fair Trade. Tailored to meet traveler’s individual needs, delegation trips are priced between $700 and $1,300 per person. Just Coffee’s Colleen Coy was hired to organize and accompany tourists to one or more coffee growing communities several times a year. Mike Miller explained one benefit of this unusual program, “Delegations act as an unofficial audit of what we’re saying. This is our chance to put people exactly in the place where we’re buying from, and they can talk to the farmers themselves.” Also very educational and entertaining, the chance to travel with a Delegation is available to anyone interested in Fair Trade, sustainable agriculture and cultural diversity.

What hasn’t changed?

Fresh-roasted coffee is still delivered on the three-wheeled and truly revolutionary bike cart to the Willy Street Co-op and other nearby businesses. As they’ve grown, Just Coffee has also added a bio-diesel vehicle for trips outside the five-mile radius around the Williamson Street neighborhood.

In our initial interview with Matt Earley in 2002, he was already emphasizing Just Coffee’s commitment to total transparency. Mike Miller echoed the sentiment shared by his fellow cooperators as he expressed his passion for this core tenet of cooperatives, “Consumers need to demand transparency.” While emphasizing the lack of, and need for, transparency in all other types of business, he continued, “ The world will never be democratic if [non-cooperative] businesses are allowed to operate in this very undemocratic fashion.”

Printing or disclosing the purchase price to a grower is still status quo at Just Coffee. A breakdown of every dollar per pound of coffee is printed on the side of each coffee bag and on the Just Coffee website (www.justcoffee.coop). Aided in this pursuit of total transparency is Just Coffee’s Fair Trade purchasing partner Cooperative Coffees. By featuring an interactive website—www.coffeepath.org—Cooperative Coffees give consumers access to documentation on each shipment of green coffee beans. In addition to providing the price a grower or grower cooperative was paid for their crop of green coffee beans, consumers can trace each crop from growers to roasters in the United States and Canada.

Fair Trade shortfalls

Somewhat ambiguously, even Fair Trade market prices are set for coffee buyers each year, and growers must wait to learn what the minimum price will be for their crops. Presumably influenced by the largest traders in the Fair Trade coffee-buying market (Starbucks, and other major brands), the current “floor price” (minimum Fair Trade amount growers can expect this year) dropped to $1.61 per pound for growers. “And that set off a lot of red lights for us, and we thought it was a problem,” Mike Moon said. Mike Miller further explained, “Coffee prices are controlled not by the people who produce them. We (Just Coffee) get to set our prices; we get to control our costs. Coffee farmers, they don’t get that. [Prices] are controlled by some weird third-party that’s called the ‘C’ price that doesn’t reflect the true costs of the grower or their needs....so that’s a huge problem. Imagine working for a year with no paychecks, but you’re going to get one at the end of the year, and at that start of the year you don’t know what that paycheck is going to be. That is your life. That is a coffee grower’s financial life. That’s what it looks like,” he described.

Mike Moon continued explaining the Just Coffee cooperative response and how they’ve committed to long-term contracts and rebates to retroactively pay growers closer to $2.00 per pound by saying, “We import coffee through Cooperative Coffee, they do the negotiating and they set the price. And there are [coffee] farmers getting less money per pound this year than they were getting last year, even from Cooperative Coffee. So we at Just Coffee decided, [last year’s price] $1.91 is a pretty decent floor price for now, and we can make sure we’re getting payments (rebates) back to our growers and then talk about this issue. For the most part, the price you pay to the farmer shouldn’t be going down the following year. It should stay the same or go up and that’s a commitment, and that’s how you get a relationship to have real meaning. We want to create stability. We want to have long-term commitments... at least they know that we’ll be back next year. If you don’t know if you can sell your coffee next year, how do you invest in something that will increase the quality of your coffee?”

Fresh is best

Somewhere in the center of this political, social and cooperative experience is an amazing cup of coffee. At Just Coffee, they believe that fresh is best, and of course bean quality is important. Though a grower’s beans are harvested just once per year, each crop is held in climate- and temperature-controlled storage to preserve the beans until they’re needed, then shipped and roasted just before packaging and delivery.

Asked why someone might choose Just Coffee over another roaster, Mike Miller listed the following compelling reasons:

  1. This coffee never leaves the hands of a co-op. It starts by being purchased through a cooperative and in some cases grown by a cooperative.
  2. Just Coffee is locally roasted. Coffee itself can’t be considered local to Wisconsin because it’s grown elsewhere, but from our bags to boxes, we try to purchase our supplies from only Wisconsin companies.
  3. Transparency: you can see exactly where your dollar goes. When you buy a pound of coffee, you can see exactly which coffee-growing community will benefit from the sale of that coffee. All along the chain, we treat people here fairly and we follow that through our whole business.
  4. It’s great coffee. We’ve got great growers who grow great coffee.

For more information about Just Coffee, their website (www.justcoffee.coop) has an enormous amount of information including written and filmed statements from their growers around the world.