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Small Farmer Co-operatives: Saving Coffee–and the Earth

By Nicholas Reid, Equal Exchange Natural Foods Sales Representative

Equal Exchange has credited co-ops with building Fair Trade coffee and making the alternative trade system possible, by keeping farmers organized in developing countries, and connecting them to consumers through co-ops like Equal Exchange and their local food co-ops. This October, while we celebrate Co-op and Fair Trade Month, and consider the values and successes of these two movements that are so intrinsically connected, Equal Exchange would like to push ourselves even further. The support and collaboration of co-ops is crucial to the future of organic coffee.

Declining yields due to soil exhaustion and global warming are threatening specialty coffee production, and the livelihoods of thousands of farming communities that rely on it. Once charged with making coffee cultivation economically viable for small-scale producers, Equal Exchange now asks co-ops to support those farmers in their efforts to adapt, innovate and invest in the future of high-quality, organic coffee.

The history of commercial farming in Latin America (and in the United States) is one of extreme short-sightedness, environmental destruction and an ever-increasing reliance on chemical and technological inputs. One need only look at the former sugar plantations of northeast Brazil, now deserts and agricultural wastelands, or the destruction of local communities and ecosystems that banana cultivation led to in Central America, to see that modern agriculture effectively raped the soil of nutrients, destroyed local flora and fauna that sustained the land, and nearly ended the possibility of human existence in those areas.

Specialty coffee grown by small-scale farmers is inherently a more sustainable form of agriculture than large scale plantations, but it, too, has felt the pressure of the corporate race to the scientific bottom. Regardless of our progress in the last 20 years, small farmers are struggling to compete, and scrambling to maintain healthy, productive farms and soil. Without the benefits of the three insidious sisters of modern chemical fertilizers (NPK) and carcinogenic pesticides, organic farmers are experiencing declining output and soil exhaustion. Traditional fertilizer techniques in composting and mulching are falling short.

Global warming, a global problem that disproportionately affects higher altitudes and subtropical regions, exactly where the majority of our coffee and cacao farmers operate, is exacerbating the problem. Changing weather, rainfall and temperature patterns are threatening coffee cultivation (and traditional agriculture, in general) around the world. The future of specialty coffee is perilous at best; organic production is threatened even further.

We, at Equal Exchange, believe it is our responsibility to support our farmer partners as they invest in modern, sustainable agricultural methods and adapt to climate change. We know we cannot rely on Monsanto or Cargill; big business cannot solve these problems. With that in mind, we have partnered with agronomists at the CESMACH co-operative, who approached Equal Exchange with a proposal for a soil fertility project in the communities in which they work.

The first round of the project, funded by Equal Exchange and carried out by CESMACH, concluded in the summer of 2010. It involved taking soil samples in the coffee communities of the co-op, to analyze the nutrient profiles. Armed with an overview of the health and deficiencies of the soil in each community, Equal Exchange and CESMACH are preparing to implement the next round of the project, which will be funded through food co-op sales in October (see below).

The second phase of the project will explore the potential to produce organic fertilizer to meet the specific needs of each community, using locally available, low-cost inputs. The goal is to develop guidelines for composting (and other alternative agricultural techniques) that individual farmers can use. In the long run, the hope is to develop more centralized services for soil improvement and progressive agriculture, such as a facility to manufacture fertilizers for members (and potentially to sell locally). Not only are we excited about the impact on small-scale, organic coffee production in Chiapas, but for the overall agricultural capacity in those communities: the ability to grow more food and more products to sell locally and abroad, and develop scalable models for all our partners around the world.

This October, the Equal Exchange coffee you buy at your local food co-op is funding sustainable advances in agriculture in Mexico, literally making the earth richer and securing organic coffee production for the long term. Examples of visionary collaborations like these are what make cooperative Fair Trade so inspiring. The products we consume have the potential to produce something incredibly powerful: to make farming communities stronger, and to build a healthier planet. We have the ability to buy a pound of excellent coffee and make a direct investment in a brighter future. That is Small Farmers. Big Change.

In honor of the co-ops that make these transactions possible, Equal Exchange is raising money with our co-op partners to invest in this inspiring initiative that epitomizes the value of co-operatives. For each product sold to co-ops in the month of October, Equal Exchange will donate 20 cents (up to $10,000) to the second phase of a soil fertility project in southern Mexico, spearheaded by the CESMACH co-operative. We hope that our efforts will not only result in higher yields and income for the co-op members, but will also create healthier ecosystems in coffee farming communities, and will build a sustainable model for soil rehabilitation for all the co-ops with which we work.

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