Agua Prieta roaster helps keep farmers from migrating
Sonora, Mexico - When the price for a sack of coffee beans fell 75 percent to 350 pesos (about $32) during the late 1980s, Daniel Cifuentes did what many young men in the coffee-growing communities of Chiapas were forced to do: He migrated in search of a living wage.
And while some Chiapan migrants ended up in Mexico City or the United States, others like Cifuentes found work in the maquiladoras, or assembly plants, that fill the towns and cities along Mexico's northern border.
Cifuentes, now 40, landed a job at a maquiladora in Agua Prieta, where he was fatefully introduced one day to Mark Adams, a pastor with the Presbyterian border ministry, Frontera de Cristo.
"When Mark asked me what we did back in Chiapas, I told him that we cultivated coffee for export," Cifuentes said. "But when I told him how low the price had dropped, he was surprised. He asked, 'Why is the price so low if a cup of coffee in the U.S. costs two, three or even four dollars?' "
Cifuentes explained to Adams that a large part of the problem was the buyers who served as intermediaries between the farmers and multinational coffee exporters. These middlemen, whom Chiapans call coyotes (the same term used in the north for migrant smugglers), often lowballed small farmers in order to keep a larger portion of the sale price for themselves.
The answer to Adams seemed clear: Cut out the middleman and create a cooperative where farmers controlled both the cultivation and the sale of their product. And so in May 2002, Adams, his wife Miriam, Cifuentes and Frontera de Cristo member Tommy Bassett, went to Cifuentes' village of Salvador Urbina, Chiapas, and presented a group of growers with a plan.
The idea went like this: Cifuentes would put together a group in Agua Prieta to roast coffee beans and sell them to customers in the United States. The roasters would purchase the beans directly from the Salvador Urbina farmers and ship them from Chiapas at no cost to the growers. And best of all, they would pay $130 per sack.
"Mark was very confident, but I have to admit, I didn't believe it would really happen," Cifuentes said. "The people in the community believed it even less, but they were so sick of being dependent on the coyotes that they were willing to give it a try."
And thus was born Just Coffee, a coffee-producing collective modeled on the Fair Trade principle that farmers should be paid a just price for their products. It was a fitting solution for Salvador Urbina, a town blessed with rich, volcanic soils that offer prime conditions for organic coffee farming.
"We have great natural resources, that's not the problem," Cifuentes said. "We just need to be able to sell our products for a just price."
When they receive a just price for their coffee, he says, the people of Salvador Urbina no longer have to migrate in search of a living wage.
"That's the idea, and that's our vision - to reduce the amount of migration from the community," he said. "Now, people are staying, and others are returning."
A model of fair trade
The Just Coffee roasting facility sits along an unpaved street in the gritty Colonia Pueblo Nuevo neighborhood of Agua Prieta. With its fresh coat of dark green paint, Spanish-tiled porch roof and brightly colored sign reading: "Just Coffee: Simple, Good and Fair," the building stands out like a beacon among the surrounding clay brick and cinder block homes.
Inside the roasting room, Cifuentes pours a 40-pound bucket of Arabica beans into the top of a shiny new roaster about the size of a small automobile. His assistant and nephew, Hugo Cifuentes-P?rez, 19, waits for a signal and ignites a foot-and-a-half long blue gas flame underneath the roasting chamber that begins to toast the cream-colored beans to a deep shade of brown.
When Just Coffee first started out, co-op members roasted beans over an open fire using a comal, a traditional cast-iron skillet used for cooking tortillas. But while inexpensive, the method also had its problems.
"That was not the correct way to roast coffee, and you could tell by the flavor," Cifuentes said. "We had to improve our quality."
And so with a loan from Fronteras de Cristo, Just Coffee bought its first real coffee roaster for $10,000 in November 2002. The purchase paid immediate dividends, in terms of both quality and production.
"It's amazing what happened," said Adri?n Gonz?lez, director of customer relations. "When we began, we thought that if we sold 1,000 pounds in a year, we could consider it a success. But by the end of that first year with the new roaster, we had sold 13,000 pounds."
The next year was even better, as the fledgling company shipped 27,000 pounds of coffee. When sales went up to 40,000 pounds in 2005, it became clear that the original 12-pound-capacity roaster could not meet the growing demand.
Taking out another loan, Just Coffee bought its new $30,000 machine and inaugurated it in February. By the end of 2006, the company hopes to have roasted and sold 80,000 pounds of organic Salvador Urbina coffee beans.
As its sales have grown, so too has Just Coffee's impact on its local community. After starting out with 25 member families, the collective has now grown to include 35 families, or about 20 percent of Salvador Urbina's population.
"Our hope is to one day have the entire community involved in this project," Gonz?lez said.
Considering the perks, it should not be difficult to find new members.
In addition to the $130 that Just Coffee pays for each 100-pound sack of beans (a price that exceeds the $1.26 per pound standard for Fair Trade certification), the cooperative also provides health benefits for all member families. Furthermore, the collective has a profit-sharing program and donates to community projects such as the construction of new schools.
Just Coffee's fair trade practices also seem to be having a ripple effect in the area. News media in the nearby city of Tapachula have begun to spread the word about this progressive new business model, and Cifuentes reports that local buyers recently upped their purchase price to 800 pesos (about $75) per 100-pound sack.
"Many people say that Just Coffee is helping to drive prices up," he said. "If that is true, we won't let our guard down. We will make our prices go up to keep the coyotes from dropping theirs."
Back in the roasting room, the temperature inside the toaster creeps up past 300 and then 400 degrees and a delicious coffee aroma fills the air. Finally, after 12 minutes of roasting, the temperature reaches 464 degrees and Cifuentes shuts off the burner.
He pours the tawny beans into a cooling tray, and a few minutes later dispenses them in one-pound increments into green-and-gold bags bearing the Just Coffee logo. Next he seals each bag with a sticker bearing the name of a farmer back in Chiapas who helped cultivate the beans. "Provided by Luis Manuel Diaz," reads one sticker. Another bears the name Emilio Navarro, while another reads Manuel Cifuentes, Daniel's brother.
A growing network
Each Saturday morning finds Bisbee resident Roy Goodman at his local farmer's market, seated behind a table stocked with the green-and-gold bags of Just Coffee.
His sales pitch is simple: "Buy shade-grown organic coffee, support 35 families in Chiapas!"
It's a message that resonates with socially conscious and health-minded shoppers like Diana Jones and her husband, Jim, of Sierra Vista, who say they have been buying Just Coffee for a couple of years now.
"We feel it's important to support Fair Trade, living-wage types of businesses," Diana Jones said. "But another plus is that it's grown using organic methods. Coffee grown on large plantations is laden with pesticides, so it's important for us to know who is growing it and where it's coming from."
And just as important, the Joneses say, Just Coffee is good coffee.
"It's of very good quality and flavor," Diana Jones said. "And it's always fresh."
The Joneses are part of a rapidly growing market for Fair Trade-certified coffee in the United States. According to Transfair, the entity that certifies Fair Trade products in the U.S., American retailers sold 44 million pounds or $500 million of Fair Trade coffee in 2005, a figure that represents an average year-over-year growth of nearly 90 percent since 1998.
A good portion of those sales are now being made at large-scale retail outlets such as Costco, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, who have been quick to capitalize on the growing consumer trend. But those stores buy primarily from large-scale suppliers like Starbucks, which purchased 11.5 million pounds of Fair Trade-certified coffee beans in 2005. However, small roasters like Just Coffee must rely on independent, grassroots distribution networks to sell their product.
Much of Just Coffee's sales is done by church groups, but they also do consumer-direct mailorder through their website. Thanks to those types of sales, Just Coffee now has a rapidly expanding customer base that covers 49 states (North Dakota is the one holdout, Gonz?lez says).
In Arizona, food co-ops, farmer's markets and independent cafes and restaurants add to the distribution chain to help make this state the largest market for Just Coffee. In terms of Arizona micro-markets, Gonz?lez says Tucson is the largest, followed by Green Valley, Phoenix and then Sierra Vista-Bisbee.
Roy Goodman has been a vital cog in the local distribution network practically since Just Coffee began doing business in 2002. But now after having successfully introduced the product to a number of local outlets, he is content to drive to Douglas every couple of weeks and pick up 20 pounds of Just Coffee for sale at his table at the Bisbee Farmer's Market.
Goodman touts Just Coffee as a great fund-raising opportunity for community organizations and clubs. Buy enough to get the wholesale price, tack on a dollar or two to each bag, and you're raising money while supporting Fair Trade, he says.
As for his own involvement, Goodman says the concept behind Fair Trade and Just Coffee is his prime motivator.
"I want to promote a more decent situation for people, and I want to help people become self-sufficient and not have to migrate," he said.
"I think a lot of other people like that idea as well. They don't mind spending a dollar or two more to know that people can live in good conditions and not have to die crossing the desert."