On Wednesday, February 13, a delegation from Equal Exchange and the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ) arrived at Cooperativa Zacarias Padilla in the coffee-growing village of Quibuto in the mountains of northern Nicaragua.The Zacarias Padilla cooperative, founded in 1992, has 61 members: 18 women and 43 men. It's a "primary-level" co-op; members market their coffee through the secondary-level PRODECOOP, which serves as processor and exporter for small-farmer groups.
This year we asked our director of purchasing and production, Todd Caspersen, to conduct a critical analysis of how we think our coffee farmer cooperatives are faring. His assessment is sobering. We have decided to share it in this space, unsparing and unfiltered, believing that this level of analysis will make all of us more informed and enable us to critically assess where in the years to come we can collectively make the most progress in building supply chains that truly work for small scale coffee farmers, Equal Exchange and our customers.
I often tell people that the easiest part of being a green coffee buyer is actually buying the coffee. The much more complicated and interesting part of my job is collaborating with our producer partners to work on the issues and threats that coffee-growing communities face. One of the big contemporary threats to coffee production is the aging of coffee farmers.
Do you remember hearing about coffee leaf rust, or la roya, over the last few years? Coffee leaf rust is a fungus that has greatly impacted coffee production across the producer world in Central and South America during the last few harvest cycles. While it is not a new fungus, this most recent flare up has wreaked havoc on the household level across not only the Equal Exchange supply chain but throughout Latin America. Besides being a top-level crisis in and of itself, it also has helped to more fully reveal long-term challenges and problems in coffee supply chains.
Twelve years ago this week, Equal Exchange began roasting after building the largest worker-owned coffee roasting operation in the U.S. - and maybe the world. We import green (unroasted) coffee from small farmer co-ops and roast it, making it a direct, cooperative supply chain from farmers to Equal Exchange to you. The beans are roasted on two machines: the G120, which was installed in 2005, and the R1000, which came two years later. In July, we roasted an average of about 22,000 pounds of green coffee per day!
In mid-May, Equal Exchange, together with our friends at Root Capital, brought together six coffee farmer cooperatives for two days of self diagnostics and collaborative strategic planning in Jaltenango, Chiapas, Mexico.
Cooperation among cooperatives is the sixth international cooperative principle. Few organizations can lay a stronger claim to putting it into action than Equal Exchange. Since our founding 31 years ago, our very mission, organizational model, and business practices are lived out in adherence to this core value.
At the beginning of April, the world’s largest coffee conglomerate, JAB Holdings, bought Panera Bread and its 2,000 cafés across the U.S. You may not know JAB by name, but the Luxembourg-based holding company has been the biggest player in the industry since 2015. This nesting dolls effect – a brand being swallowed up by bigger and bigger companies, distorting what was once familiar – isn’t just a trend in coffee. It’s happening all over in the food industry.
Torrential rainfall in Peru has triggered landslides and flooding, causing devastation across large parts of the country, including Lima, Piura, Lambayeque, Tumbes, Cajamarca and Ica. Many communities have been cut off by damaged roads, making access to services very difficult. Equal Exchange has had particularly deep relationships with farmer cooperatives in Piura, dating back 20 years with coffee. Our banana affiliate, Oké USA, also began sourcing bananas from co-ops a decade ago, and more recently we have sourced mangos from the region.
Carly Kadlec is the Green Coffee Buyer at Equal Exchange, and one of the women that inspires me in our work toward trade justice. I’ve been fortunate to travel with Carly on visits to coffee farms in Honduras and Guatemala. Since March 8 is International Women’s Day, I wanted to sit down with Carly and talk about her work with coffee producers ... but, she’s on the road, as she often is, so we bring you this Q&A, across 2,500 miles.