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Hill of Beans

organic coffee
Made in the Shade: Sustainable Harvest's Stu Jenkins believes a strong ethical stance is good business.

Photo by Chris Gardner



Environmental and ethical concerns brew over organic coffee

By David Templeton

THERE IS A REVOLUTION brewing out on the fringes of America's highly lucrative coffee-peddling industry. It is a revolution of ethics and philosophy--spearheaded mainly by the roasters and promoters of organic coffees--and it could end up reshaping the entire industry's economic and agricultural ideologies.

It could even change the future of the planet.

As is usually the case in such grassroots industrial revolutions, the decision is solely in the hands--and coffee cups--of the consumers. And at the moment, the vast majority of this country's faithful caffeine addicts are unaware of this potentially turning tide. Most consumers are not acquainted with the ethical issues represented in every cup of java that is sipped or gulped in the kitchens, cars, and coffeehouses of this, the largest coffee-consuming nation on the planet.

While the avoidance of chemical and pesticide use is the primary factor that most people associate with organic agriculture, it represents only the tip of the ethical coffee bean. The sustainability revolution that has energized efforts to save the tropical rain forests and educated consumers worldwide is sweeping the coffee industry. It now includes those who are striving to give economic stability to the indigenous farmers and laborers in impoverished, coffee-producing countries. Encompassed in organic ethos are efforts to save these regions' rivers and streams, routinely poisoned by high-yield coffee-processing methods. There are forces working to establish small village banks to assist women in coffee-growing communities to launch their own micro-businesses.

In an eye-opening issue that many insiders believe will finally capture the conscience of the mainstream consumer, there is a growing effort to expose a trend in coffee production that is having a devastating effect on the world's migratory songbirds, a species that is now rapidly disappearing from our own North American backyards.

On tiny Noyo Harbor, near Fort Bragg on Mendocino's windy coastline, Paul Katzeff strides into the bright, aromatic warehouse of the Thanksgiving Coffee Co., the iconoclastic coffee-roasting operation he founded with his wife, Joan, in 1972. Specializing in organic coffees, Thanksgiving annually roasts a million and a half pounds of beans, all from product purchased from native co-ops and small-scale farmers for 40 to 70 percent above market value, with additional profits (15 cents for each package sold) returned to the growers through non-profit village banking programs.

An outspoken political activist (he once sued President Reagan for implementing the trade embargo on Nicaragua, and marketed a coffee from which a percentage of profit was sent to the Sandinistas), Katzeff has firmly established himself as one of the more dedicated, innovative, and aggressive leaders in the coffee industry's ethical revolution.

"Look at this," he exclaims, bending down to scoop up a handful of green coffee beans, spilled from one of the hundreds of exotically labeled burlap sacks piled up all around us, stuffed with coffee from Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Hawaii, and Africa. "I hate to see beans spilled like this. All of this will be swept up, thoroughly cleaned, and reused in one of our blends.

"If something travels 10,000 miles to get to you, you have to respect it."

Respect is a word Katzeff uses often, and is clearly a vital force behind his business ethic: respect for customers who demand a quality cup of coffee and expect it to be free of toxins and chemicals; respect for the coffee itself, much of which is packaged in bags with a valve that allows the beans to breath; respect for the workers who put the beans in these bags, and for the communities in which they live; and respect for the fragile ecosystems in which the coffee plants are nurtured.

In recent months, Thanksgiving has introduced a program called Beyond Organic, a system of choosing and promoting coffees that are produced under a strict set of social, environmental, and fair-trade criteria. Potential coffee growers are rated according to a numerical value chart that gives high marks to coffees that are certified organic, with additional points given when land ownership promotes "strong cultural survival of indigenous peoples," when workers are guaranteed a fair labor wage, and when coffees are shade-grown beneath a natural rain forest canopy. Coffees produced under these conditions are sold in markets with a "Love the Earth" seal.

Katzeff's philosophies and practices are further reflected in his company's slogan, "Not just a cup, but a just cup."

This concept of coffee justice is being championed by a growing number of organic coffee companies around the nation. For them, such ethical and humanitarian ideals are a very short stretch from the health-conscious motives that led to them to organics in the first place. Because of their significant collective buying power, these companies have already begun to demonstrate that they can indeed make an impact on the environment--and the way business is conducted.

All they need now is an infusion of consumer support.

short picture description
Chris Gardner

Hands On: From ground to grind, organic coffee exporters are active in every aspect of their business.

WHEN JOAN and I started this company, I knew that organics was a way to politicize the product," Katzeff says. "We made a stand for what was right. Now, after a lot of work, we've broadened our base. We've found acceptance in the marketplace, and organics is no longer thought of as just a bunch of health nuts afraid of pesticides.

"But organics is limited, narrow," he goes on. "There are bigger issues. Humanitarian issues. Right now, 'shade grown' is the big one. You ask how a coffee company can change the world? I'll tell you: it can support, buy, and get the word out about shade-grown coffee."

This traditional form of coffee growing requires that coffee be planted beneath a canopy of native trees. The coffee develops more slowly, creating a higher sugar content that, when the beans are roasted, gives the coffee a richer, fuller flavor. The trees fix nitrogen into the ground, resulting in fertile soil that requires little or no fertilizer or additional help. Pesticides are unnecessary because of the birds that thrive in the shade giving overstory. Organic coffee, by definition, is almost guaranteed to have been shade-grown.

Over the last two decades, however, this canopy has been torn down as coffee growers convert to a process known as technification. Able to grow coffee three times faster than the traditional method, technification employs a hybrid plant that grows in full sunlight. Valuable to farmers for its profit-producing yield, sun-grown coffee lacks the nitrogen supplied by trees and depends on a steady diet of fertilizers and chemicals. In the absence of a leafy overstory there is consequently an absence of insect-eating birds, thus creating a need for insecticides to protect the ripening crop.

According to a recent report from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, this trend toward technification--17 percent of Mexico's coffee crop is now sun-grown, 40 percent in Costa Rica, 69 percent in Colombia--amounts to a devastating loss of habitat for the birds, which have taken to the coffee plantations in past decades owing to the deforestation of their original rain forest homes. Of the 150 different species of birds that live on shade-grown coffee farms, many are migratory; they winter in southern climates before returning home to North America.

Some of these migrant species are beginning to dwindle in number. According to the U.S. Breeding Bird Survey, over the past 25 years the numbers of golden-winged warblers have dropped 46 percent, wood thrushes 40 percent, and orchard orioles 29 percent. An essay published in Science magazine ("The Case of the Missing Migrants," November 1996) cites similar declines among the Baltimore oriole, the American redstart, and the Tennessee warbler, and concludes that the evidence "seems to implicate the shift to sun farms."

Many coffee roasters, in response to these numbers, have begun marketing "bird-friendly coffees,"organic blends purchased from shade-grown coffee co-ops. Counter Culture, in Durham, N.C., has introduced a brand called Sanctuary. Thanksgiving recently unveiled Song Bird Shadegrown Coffees, sales from which (15 cents per package) are donated to the American Birding Association.

Thanksgiving's Peter Matlin, when introducing the Song Bird coffee at a recent convention of vendors serving the nation's vast birdwatching community, found that vendors were convinced that the coffees would sell, once the buyers understood the bird/coffee connection. "I think people want meaningful consuming," Matlin says. "Who wants something that they know will pollute the watersheds and trash the birds? There is an ethical and moral beauty to shade-grown coffees that people will embrace--once they understand the issues."

"Shade-grown is the hot button," agrees Mark Inman, co-founder, with Chris Martin, of Taylor Maid Coffees, a small organic roaster based in Occidental that buys nothing but shade-grown coffee. "You'll hear a lot about it in the future. Not only is shade-grown good for the birds, it's better for the people. A grower can plant bananas and other fruit crops, and earn extra money while providing a canopy for the coffee."

Inman, a roaster for 10 years with a mainstream coffee company in Oregon, became disgusted by the profit-hungry business practices he observed. With Taylor Maid, he's been able to put his interest in human rights into effect in his dealings with growers, such as the tribal-owned farm in New Guinea with which he trades for an especially rich, shade-grown coffee. He also contributes--as do a growing number of coffee roasters and sellers--to such organizations as Coffee Kids and the Foundation for International Community Assistance, groups dedicated to economic development in impoverished nations.

"What would be a milestone now," Inman says, "is for companies like MJB and Folgers to go shade-grown."

This is unlikely, though not impossible: Procter & Gamble, major detergent manufacturer and owner of Folgers, recently purchased Millstone Coffee, which produces a certified organic coffee. Is this proof that the tide is turning, or merely that a limited market for organic coffees has developed and that some manufacturers are aiming to exploit it?

The answer is probably a little of both.

THE REASON that so many larger companies are coming around to organics is that they see that there is obviously a market for it. People are concerned about the chemicals they are ingesting," says David Griswold, president of the Sustainable Harvest Coffee Co. based in Emeryville. Begun in 1995 as a brokerage operation that provides green beans to organic roasters around the country, Sustainable is the first, and so far the only, coffee brokerage with an exclusive shade-grown-only focus.

"The cup of coffee represents every sort of issue or element in the world," Griswold says. "You'd be hard pressed to find another job where you can do this kind of meaningful work, work that is good for people, for the environment, where you can meet people like the farmers and pickers we work with, where you can feel excited about getting up every day.

"You can probably take any product and use it to live out your own ethics, but with coffee, the issues are limitless." In order to gain the purest, cleanest coffees, Griswold goes the further step of pre-financing many of the Mexican growers, providing in advance the money they need to buy provisions--rice and beans--so that pickers can travel into the hills for the two weeks it takes to pick the coffee. So far, no one has defaulted, and such practices are attracting more and more growers to him.

"Buying organic has always been important to me," says Jeff Sacher, who owns three of the cafes located in Copperfield's bookstores. A burgeoning number of local cafes like Sacher's serve only shade-grown coffees; the Starbucks franchise does not. In addition to the south-of-the-border organizations he supports through his coffee purchasing practices, Sacher--who majored in environmental ethics, writing his thesis on "How to Make a Café Green"--also donates a percentage of his restaurants' profits to community services in Sonoma County.

"With three restaurants, I have a lot of buying power," he says. "I can make a statement. The consumers can make their own statement by demanding an organic coffee--because in that one cup of coffee a lot of good things are done for the world. The customer feels good. This is right environmentally, and it's right emotionally. And it tastes good, too, so what can be better than that?

"It's like in that movie, Field of Dreams," he adds. "'If you build it they will come.' Well, we have the product. Now we're trying to get the word out to the community. When they realize what's at stake, I know that the customers will come."

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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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