Local woman travels to Peru to learn about fair trade coffee market
Special to The Union
Hilary Dart recently returned from a 10-day trip to Peru where she visited rural coffee farms and toured city coffee plants to learn what it takes to grow, process and transport the beans many of us take for granted.
Dart is the volunteer coordinator for BriarPatch Co-op, the store that helped finance her trip to Peru. The trip was hosted by Equal Exchange, a 25-year-old, employee-owned U.S. cooperative that buys fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate from farms all over the world.
The label “fair trade” has come into controversy in recent years as corporate giants like Nestle now label some of their products as such.
According to Equal Exchange: “Fair Trade is a way of doing business that ultimately aims to keep small farmers an active part of the world marketplace, and aims to empower consumers to make purchases that support their values.”
The idea is to cut out the middleman and give the consumer a high quality product at a fair price while paying the farmer a descent wage.
Dart joined a group of 10 people, storeowners and managers from all over the U.S. to learn firsthand how the complex fair trade market of coffee works.
“It was an educational work trip that was very interesting,” Dart said.
The group’s first stop was in the city of Piura in Northwestern Peru, where they toured a coffee plant owned by CEPICAFE – an umbrella organization representing 6,600 coffee, sugar and fruit producers from 90 separate organizations in the region.
At the plant, Dart observed the cleaning and separating of green coffee beans. CEPICAFE sells its premium beans to Equal Exchange. They are shipped to the U.S. for roasting.
After two days in the city, Dart and her group traveled along a winding dirt road, through rocky creek beds, to the small mountain village of about 500 people known as Coyona.
There, Dart stayed with a woman farmer and educator on land used to grow coffee and raise cows. Coffee grew on hillsides — rocky, dusty and steep. It was the dry season, winter, with temperatures in the 60s at night and 90s during the day — harvest time for coffee. Bananas, oranges and lime also grew.
“It seemed like they could use more help. I observed that a lot of farmers are elderly,” Dart said.
Economic improvements in the cities were enticing many of the village’s young people away from traditional farming life. Dart said she saw few people aged 16 to 50. The woman farmer she stayed with will be 65 in December.
Dart learned the fundamentals of coffee harvesting.
“I picked coffee beans. I was slow to climb those hills,” she said.
Besides the steep terrain, broken limbs from coffee and banana trees littered the ground, making tripping hazards for the newcomers.
In recent years, farmers are embracing more organic methods to keep coffee plants healthy and fight disease.
“They’re learning now how important it is to really feed the soil,” Dart said.
The coffee beans were placed in burlap bags and sent to town by donkey. Half the town, a cooperative of 250 members, ran the processing plant where grinders took off the outside “cherry” before putting the beans in vats of water where inferior beans floated to the surface.
Dart and her companions were fed three meals a day. They lived on white rice, boiled plantains, starchy vegetables like yucca and very tough meat. They ate fried rabbit for breakfast and were always offered coffee. The small village had electricity and running water, but showers where Dart stayed were primitive things made of black plastic and a garden hose.
Nevertheless, Dart observed a positive outlook among the people she met.
“People seemed to be healthy, happy and kind,” she said.
Dart took the place of Bill Keogh on the trip, BriarPatch’s bulk manager, who was invited for a return anniversary of an excursion he took with Equal Exchange ten years ago.
She first started with BriarPatch back in 1981, in the early days of the co-op. She was the only staff person
in 1982, when the co-op was a small band of mostly volunteers on Washington Street.
For decades, she has valued the health benefits of sustainably grown food without the use of pesticides and herbicides.
“Organic is very important to me, and the world,” she said.
October is Co-op Month and Fair Trade month, and Dart plans to give a presentation about her trip to Peru.
“I’ve been drinking and enjoying organic coffee for many years. I really admire all the work that goes into growing coffee. I always took it for granted,” she said.
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at 913-3067 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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