PIONEERS IN FAIR TRADE COFFEE
Karen Montano greets visitors to the coffee shop with a cheery “!Buenos Días!” Her customers don’t miss a beat. “!Buenos Días, Karen!
Guadalajara? Oaxaca? Ixtapa? Nope. Americus, Georgia.
South Georgia may be an unlikely place to find pickup truck drivers in flannel shirts sipping socially-conscious, environmentally-friendly, organic, fair trade coffee, but that’s the morning routine at Café Campesino.
The owners of the coffee shop believe it’s the first organic fair trade coffee roaster in Georgia. The cooperative formed by Café Campesino’s co-founder Bill Harris is thought to be the oldest organic purchasing cooperative for green coffee beans in the nation.
The idea began when Harris visited Guatemala in 1998 on an good-will mission sponsored by Habitat for Humanity, another Americus institution. He learned that Guatemalan coffee farmers were paid a pittance for beans they produced due to prices assigned by the New York Coffee Exchange.
Harris decided to circumvent the coffee exchange. He bought 40,000 pounds of beans and sold them directly to roasters in the eastern United States, paying the farmers a higher price. Later he formed Cooperatives Coffee, a buying group of 23 local roasters in the U.S. and Canada. Cooperatives Coffee procures beans directly from farmers and growing cooperatives in Latin America, Ethiopia and Sumatra.
Fair trade is the golden rule
Harris describes fair trade as “business by the golden rule, treating others as you would hope to be treated.”
There’s more to fair trade than paying the farmer a fair price. The cooperative provides harvest financing by advancing at least 60% of the funds months ahead of export and it treats farmer with respect. For example, farmers are trained how to negotiate prices. “Instead of being a price taker, the farmer becomes a price maker,” Harris says.
Café Campesino is located in World War II quonset hut near the railroad tracks in an warehouse district of Americus. Stepping inside the cafe you feel a sense of purpose and an inviting sense of place that begins with Karen’s pleasant greeting in Spanish.
One day between Christmas and New Year’s I sat alone at a table, trying to be unobtrusive, and observed a group of local men discuss the real estate market, the healthcare exchange and holiday activities. Each time the door opened and a patron entered it was clear that almost everybody knows everyone else at Café Campesino.
When the table of menfolk left a group of women took their place, laughing and sharing family stories and New Year’s plans.
There are tables and chairs in the front room and sofas, lounge chairs and books in the back room — and lamps like those in your grandmother’s parlor.
Sounds are soft inside Café Campesino and the lights are not bright. It is in a few words a warm, welcoming and homey place.
Bill Harris was a pioneer in 1998 but nowadays the major coffee sellers see the marketing advantage of the fair trade label. But only a small fraction of their total beans sold are fair trade. Café Campesino is a 100% fair trade business.
“We’re the real deal,” Harris says.
When he bought that first 40,000 pounds of coffee beans Harris got in his own car and drove up and down the east coast cold calling on roasters, looking for those who were willing to invest in his dream. Capital has often been hard to come by. “It can be lonely at times to have a business committed to more than just making money,” says Harris.
I would add it’s a nice kind of loneliness.