Do you ever think about the process of coffee being grown? Do you ever think about the people who grow the coffee and harvest it? Do you? I haven’t for most of coffee drinking life. For anyone who knows me, knows they cannot help but associate me with coffee. As I learned more about the importance of ethical products and being mindful of my purchases, coffee was one of the things I made sure I bought ethically. I was always looking for the Fair Trade logo on the coffee bag and would ask coffee shops if they had Fair Trade coffee. One coffee company I discovered that stood out to me was Farmers First.
One thing to notice is that Farmers First doesn’t have a Fair Trade label. Not every ethically sourced coffee has the Fair Trade label; the label just means the company chose to go through the requirements to receive the label. Farmers First Coffee is a company that highlights and exposes the individual people who grow the coffee and harvest them. I was interested to learn more about their mission and I asked to do a phone interview with one of the founders Matt Hohler.
“So I asked Matt “How is your coffee different than other Fair Trade coffee?” “Good question,” Matt responded. “The biggest difference is that Fair Trade coffee is not good enough. Most companies buy fair-trade products which get certified by a third party and groups will certify the farmers and cooperatives, allowing them to sell their coffee under the fair-trade label. The money does not end up back into the hands of the farmers. We pay our farmers a direct bonus, which is about four times higher than the fair-trade bonus.”
I was surprised and saddened to hear that the Fair Trade label was not living up to its name. Matt reminded me that a company’s original intent was always in the right place. “Starbucks, for example, has done good but when a company becomes bigger, things do slip through the cracks. I and my business partner own our roaster. We also do not have specific names for the roast but instead, we recognize the farmers by roast (there are three farmers: Daniel, Rosa, and Emiliano). We listen to the families and pay them well. We are really interested in putting our farmers first.” If you haven’t gotten it by this point, that was the inspiration for naming the company’s name.
Regarding the problems producing coffee can have on the environment Matt, said that was a difficult issue. He pointed out that the first thing that someone needs to think about is “what would you do to support a family?” Farmers First are organic farmers. They are not USDA certified yet but the farmers are respecting the environment the best they can.”
My last question for Matt was if he had any coffee experience and to my surprise, he said, “No. I’ve done non-profit work for over 10 years. My business partner moved to Honduras in 2009 to work for students helping Honduras. He later bought an eco-lodge and has been running that and I was volunteering and teaching English in 2012. We both did some research and discovered we wanted to see coffee farmers succeed.”
I decided to do some further research and discovered that Fair Trade label coffee is not what we think. Like Matt said, farmers do not get paid more for selling their coffee under fair trade. It does cost 20-30 cents more per pound to sell coffee under a Fair Trade logo and companies do have to pay extra for the label as well. The Fair Trade label does guarantee workers are making minimum wage and there is no child labor behind the coffee, but minimum wage is not enough to for small farmers and most of the farmers are immigrants who do not have access to the land they are growing coffee on.
Does that mean that coffee is not an ethically sourced product? No.
The mission of Fair Trade organization to help end poverty and to empower small family farmers. The thing Matt and his business partner question is not “Is their coffee is Fair Trade?” but, “Who are the farmers? How much are they getting paid?” All three farmers are from Peru and after the coffee is harvested, Matt roasts the coffee in North Carolina. When you order from Farmers First, you get to pick the roast and if you want the beans whole or grounded (and how finely ground you want it).
When I ordered my Farmers First Coffee, I ordered the Rosa bag of dark roast. Rosa is a 42-year-old mother of 3 children (two sons and one daughter). Some of the issues she faces as a coffee farmer are weather, labor and some the things she struggles with daily are health care a lack of childhood nutrition and poverty in her community. Her hope as a worker is to provide for her family and she is encouraged by her children because they believe the world can become a better place.
I wanted to support Rosa and know that my purchase is going to support her and her family. Farmers First is a company worth looking into and I highly recommend buying some of their coffee not only for the taste but for their mission. Matt and Robert both had the vision to help small-scale farmers and so far they have done their part. Now we as consumers should do ours to support this mission of putting farmers first.