Direct Trade vs Coffee Certifications


Mar 03, 2008

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of accompanying my brother (Russ) on a Direct Trade sourcing trip to Nicaragua. Being the espresso machine geek I am – I’m generally in Italy, so this was a treat for me. Something that I wanted was a first had experience of Direct Trace sourcing vs Fair Trade purchases. Was there really a difference and what was it?

The story begins in October when Russ was cupping at the Bolivian CoE. He was introduced to a Nicaraguan farmer who described his coffee and farms back home – but what intrigued Russ most was their commitment to their employees and environmental sustainability. After getting home and cupping his samples we booked our flights to Nicaragua and were anxious to taste all their coffees and check everything out first hand.

nicaragua_february23-08-0121.jpgAfter arriving in Nicaragua, we drove 1.5 hours north to their dry mill in Matagalpa – where the owners, who are heavily involved in the Cup of Excellence program, have set up a coffee lab so they can personally cup their coffee and ensure quality. Now the fun started as we cupped samples of their Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon, Java, Pacamara and Maragogype varietals which were processed as fully washed, naturals as well as honey prep.

red-catuai.jpg  Red & Yellow Catuai  yellow-catuai.jpg

yellow-pacamara.jpg  Yellow Pacamara & Red Java at the wet mill  java.jpg

After this, and over the next 2 ½ days, we visited 5 farms – all geographically unique and beautiful. Every farm was well maintained and lush with large natural tree canopy providing shade to the coffee trees, in addition every farm had its own wet mill. We were witnessing excellence and pride in their farms, but here is a list of how these farmers pulled away from the pack. Because of their commitment to their employees, they:

  • Pay their staff 30% more than whats typical
  • Provide free housing, electricity and running water for 60 families on their farms as well as free food for all workers
  • Provide free health care and day care to the families
  • They build a church and school on their farms. The government provides a teacher and pays their wage, but these farmers double their wage
  • They teach & educate their employees, providing skills such as pottery and weaving with the goal of diversify their skills

Environmental care means:

  • Recycle & burn coffee parchment for cooking rather than cutting down trees. Cherry pulp & cattle manure are used for organic mulch for their crops
  • No mechanical picking – only the ripest cherries are hand picked and they do 5 pickings per harvest season
  • 100% Sun drying of all coffee
  • Recycle all water in the wet mills for 3 days to reduce water consumption. They then transfer the water to bio-digester tanks, removing harmful waste, before letting it back into the streams or using it for irrigation. During this processing, methane is captured and used in some cooking stoves.

picking-caturra.jpg Woman picking Caturra & worker flaring methane methane.jpg

 In choosing to purchase directly from this farm – Fratello will pay a 25 to 35% premium, above Fair Trade prices – but its well worth it. These people love their product, their employees and their environment and we’re proud to support and work with them. Not only this, but we got to choose the specific lots of coffee we wanted and they’ll be processed exactly how we want them done.

Ok, so Fair Trade or other coffee certifications…

While at one farm, they pointed out the stream that was supplying water to them…it was clean – looked normal to me. We then looked at the water leaving their farm…same thing – clean (BTW, this water then feeds into the farm below them). When we left, we drove through the next farm (which happens to be a Rain Forrest Alliance approved) and the water downstream from them smelt of fermenting honey water and it was a cloudy color. This farm clearly wasn’t processing their water and simply dumped it back for the next farmer to deal with. Nice. What was disappointing – is this sort of practice is supposed to be monitored under the RFA’s Standard’s and Policy for certification.

Driving around – we stopped into the local Fair Trade office to talk with the guys Fratello buys their Fair Trade Organic coffee from. While there – some farmers showed up with a couple sacks that were then verified and thrown onto a pile of other Fair Trade coffees.

Russ told me that he has spoken with other origin farmer’s (quality farmers) who really don’t have much good to say about the Fair Trade program. No one, at origin, really wants to go on the record – but they consider it a joke. Fair Trade seems to have some small value for the tiny farmer who produces very small quantities. My concern with Fair Trade is they are not verifying quality and certainly not sustainability or ensuring that this additional money is getting to any of the employees (transparency). Although Fair Trade continues to grow year over year, I don’t understand why. I guess its because no one knows whats really going on (or doesn’t care) and believes that it is really making a difference for the farmers. I like the concept of the Rain Forrest Alliance and what they are proclaiming to stand for, but if they aren’t truly ensuring that the right things are being done then they too will become irrelevant.

So, all in all this was a great trip and an eye opener as well. But its now our job to better understand whats really going on – to hold the Organizations who offer certification accountable and to support the farmers who truly care about the living standards of their workers and their environment. However, in my opinion – Direct Trade with the farmers is the ultimate way to purchase coffee. Relationships are made with like-minded farmers, outstanding coffees are chosen, more than fair prices are paid, workers are compensated and their lives bettered and the environment is taken care of and I applaud roaster’s like Stumptown & Intelligencia as they’ve blazed this new trail.



nicaragua_february23-08-0154-edit.jpg  nicaragua_february24-08-0353.jpg  nicaragua_february24-08-0445.jpg

P.S. Next we need hold ourselves to the same environmental & social standards we ask our coffee producers to uphold…

Direct Trade Links:


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