Texas Coffee Traders supports coffee farmers through fair trade, but trouble is still brewing in the industry.
By Anna Lassmann, Photos by Shea Carley and courtesy of Texas Coffee Traders
Everyone has a vision for their life: goals, hopes and dreams. There is no exception for farmers in Rwanda. Several years ago, Beth Beall took a trip to the African country to visit some farms for her business, Texas Coffee Traders. During this trip, she met with many female farmers, as most current producers in Rwanda are women, a circumstance that arose, in part, because many male heads of household were killed during the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. Despite having experienced such a devastating crisis, these women, Beall says, remain optimistic about what is to come, creating vision charts that detail the current status of their farms, as well as their aspirations for the future.
“These women would have these amazing vision charts, where they would’ve drawn, ‘This is where I am today: I have one cow. I have this many plants,’ ” Beall says. “ ‘And in three years, this is where I’m going to be: I will now have two cows.’ And they were doing it.”
These Rwandan farmers likely felt hopeful about their future because they are part of a global network, a global movement, that emphasizes empowerment and supports the livelihood of farmers, producers and workers: fair trade.
A concept as straightforward as its name denotes, fair trade ensures farmers and workers earn enough income to at least cover the costs associated with producing their product, and leads to safer working conditions, sustainable wages, improved life skills and so much more.
The vision charts Beall saw the Rwandan farmers create were driven by the skills fair trade taught them, she says.
“It’s important to make a living. It’s important if you do work that you get paid the fair value for what you do,” Beall says. “But also, these things that fair trade brings are amazing.”
Texas Coffee Traders co-owner and Beall’s husband, RC Beall, established one of the first fair-trade relationships in the U.S. in the early 1990s after taking a trip to Costa Rica. There, he discovered a coffee cooperative that produced excellent coffee but that was worked by underpaid farmers, many of whom had never even been afforded the opportunity to taste their own coffee. RC Beall offered to buy the co-op’s coffee at a much higher price, also ensuring $1 went back to the co-op community for each pound of coffee sold. Since then, Texas Coffee Traders has grown into a thriving business with hundreds of restaurant and coffeehouse clients.
According to the World Fair Trade Organization, the emergence of fair trade can be traced back to Europe in the 1950s, and though there were some organizations emphasizing fair-trade principles even earlier in the U.S., in the 1940s, the movement didn’t truly gain traction in the United States until about 20 years ago, which explains why Texas Coffee Traders originally became fair-trade certified through Europe, Beth Beall says.
Fair trade was more formally established in the U.S. during a coffee crisis, when prices on the C market, where commodities such as coffee are traded, began tanking, Beth Beall says.
“Where that price is sets the market, so if it has a tank in its pricing, it affects growers globally,” she says. “All the sudden, because it is the starting point where people start negotiating what to pay for this coffee, it can really drop the price down significantly, so then, people walk away from their farms. They cannot afford it. They lose money every time they sell a pound of coffee. They can’t raise their families. It’s not safe.”
Texas Coffee Traders, however, doesn’t buy from the C market. Instead, the Bealls purchase their coffee from the specialty market. And, Beth Beall says, the fair-trade price for coffee is significantly higher than the bottom price on the C market.
She notes it’s important for coffee consumers to be aware of fair trade in order to do no harm when enjoying their favorite cup of joe.
“You want to make sure you’re supporting a producer, [that]you’re not supporting poverty,” Beth Beall says. “Fair trade brings the guarantee that this is actually happening.”
HOW TO START THE CONVO
To support fair trade, every coffee lover can take these steps to ensure they are supporting coffee farmers and producers globally.
- Understand what fair trade really means. Visit fairtradecertified.org to learn more.
- Ask your favorite stores for fair-trade products when shopping.
- If a merchant says he or she doesn’t carry fair-trade products, ask why not and what they do instead. In some cases, businesses may carry direct-trade products that are sourced directly from a farm.