Un Cafesito: The value of fair trade coffee

By Sheila Lazcano


When I was a small child, mornings were the most exciting and eventful part of my day. I would wake up to the soft clinging of pans and wooden spoons scraping the morning’s breakfast my grandmother prepared. As I stumbled down the four steps to kitchen table, Mami Lupe (my grandmother) would pour cafe con leche back and forth between two cups to cool it down enough for my sensitive tongue.

As I sipped my cafe con leche— which was always mostly leche—I watched as the adults made their way to the kitchen for breakfast and un cafesito before work or school. After a few good sips of cafe the morning came to life with small talk and laughs.

Coffee was introduced to me at a very young age not only as a morning beverage to get each morning started, but as a way to facilitate conversation and make visitors feel welcomed in our home. However, I never questioned where the coffee come from, how the farmers sold their coffee beans, or where did coffee beans come from, until I became a barista. A barista is like a bartender, only with coffee.

It takes 6 to 12 months for the evergreen shrub Coffea to produce the berries that hold coffee beans. Most of the time, the beans are picked by hand—a labor intensive process—but other methods use machines or a combination of the two. After the beans are picked, the beans must be dried. This roasting process vary, and the method for doing this produces different flavors of coffee. The beans are then ground and finally brewed into the cafe my family drinks.

Between drying the coffee beans and roasting, there is another system in which the beans are exported from the farmer to a roasting company. However this process is not as simple as it sounds. Farmers usually lack connections with roasting companies and will end up selling their quality coffee beans to a middleman exporter who has direct contact with roasting companies. The middleman pays cash for the coffee beans from the small-scale farmer at a very low price, somewhere between 30 to 50 cents per pound of green coffee beans, lower than cost of production. The middleman then sells to roasters at double the price. Most small-scale farmers have a yearly income of $500-$1,000.

Think about it. For every 100 pounds picked (the daily quota), the farmer is making $3. Who are these small farmers? One of the largest coffee producing countries in the world is Mexico, with over 100,000 small coffee farmers. Most of the coffee in the U.S. comes from Mexico.

The problem is clear: Small-scale farmers are not only being marginalized, they are also being exploited by being cut short of the profits. To help farmers maximize profit from their work, Fair Trade organizations were created in the 1950’s. Fair Trade coffee creates direct connections between small-scale farmers and roasting companies.

Farmers typically need help from their family to pick beans, so they take their children. When a child has to work to help provide for their family they are not receiving an education, therefore continuing the cycle of poverty for that families. By investing in coffee that is Fair Trade certified, you would be investing in growing communities while also helping farmers ensure their land to produce higher quality coffee.

My family has cafesito all throughout the day. By changing the coffee we drink to Fair Trade certified coffee, each sip would taste better. Simply by knowing that we are acknowledging small-scale farmer’s hard work, we can truly appreciate it. Without coffee, how do we welcome visitors? Without Fair Trade, how do coffee farmers build a strong and stable community?