My name is Carly Kadlec and I have been with Equal Exchange for just over two months. I am a Green Coffee Buyer. I just returned from my first big trip to visit coffee farmers in Peru and Bolivia. A big part of my job is this sort of “origin trip” to visit farmers and see how their harvest is going, discuss our quality standards with them, go over the previous year’s contracts with the co-operatives, and discuss the greater world of coffee face-to-face with farmers. When I explain that these trips to faraway places are my job, a lot of folks just say, “That’s your job?! You’re so lucky!”
They are absolutely right. I am lucky. Buying coffee from small farmer co-operatives and working with them directly to import their coffee and then roast and sell it to mindful customers who also want to support small farmers is pretty much wonderful. So, as people continue to ask questions about my job and what it is exactly that I do, they have unconsciously contributed to the development of my own narrative about why I do what I do, and why Equal Exchange does what it does. Bear with me folks, I promise that my point shall be forthcoming, but just so you know, no one has ever accused me of being less than long-winded. Here we go.
In today’s market, there are tons of coffee importers--roasters and specialty coffee industry folks who claim a stake in what has been unofficially dubbed the “direct trade” market. So, I have been trying to define in my own mind what makes us different as authentic Fair Traders. Here is a little anecdote to explain what I have come up with:
There is something quite awe-inspiring and humbling about walking around a coffee farm with the producer and realizing that they can identify every individual tree. Their farms are small enough that they can recognize and remember a coffee plant’s production levels from year-to-year. They know which plants are struggling and which plants they will replace the following year with seedlings.
On my recent trip to Bolivia, we were visiting the farm of Martha Quispe and her husband Max Chávez. They have a really solid operation with a fermentation tank and washing canals located in their farm. The visit was going really well and the farm had a really good balance of shade, the soil’s hummus layer was intact and thick, and the farmers were very good at explaining their farm operation. I asked Martha if I could take a picture of her with her ripe coffee cherries in the background as we walked back up the path to their house. She stopped me and said, “No, let’s wait until farther up the road. Around the corner there are some really nice looking plants with lots of ripe cherries.” As we climbed back up, she stopped and told me to follow her off the path into a stand of coffee shrubs. She pulled back the greenery and said, “This one, this one is good.” So, I took her picture and even caught her with a big smile on her face by cracking a joke as I took the picture. It was a great moment for me--to be able to show respect to the farmers and admire their hard work is something I strive for.
This brief moment speaks to why I think what we do is important. We want to be just like the farmers whom we buy from. We pay attention to all of our partners and we strive to know them as well as Martha knows her coffee shrubs. The farmers and co-operatives produce small amounts in the grand scheme of things, but that does not make them any less important to the whole of what we do. We buy from small farmers because they grow great coffee, they work hard, and they work cooperatively with each other and us to improve livelihoods through trade.
For my first trip, it has been a sort of re-awakening as to why I have always wanted to work for or on behalf of small farmers… quite simply, it’s something wonderful. I’m very grateful to our farmers, my fellow cooperators at Equal Exchange, and the customers and allies that make the Equal Exchange vision a reality.