"What happens when we join together?"
"Could we all do better if we cooperate?"
That's what a small group of family farmers in Northern Peru asked themselves one morning in 1995. By working alone on their small plots of land they could barely get by selling the raw coffee cherries they harvested from their carefully tended trees to middlemen. Each bright red cherry has two seeds or "coffee beans." Farmers could get a lot more money for their harvest if they could sell beans – out of the cherries, washed, dried, sorted, and sold in containers – instead of cherries, and do it directly to coffee roasters abroad instead of the local middlemen that only paid the lowest prices. But for a family farmer with just a small plot of land, selling coffee beans directly to roasters was an impossible dream. But now that dream has become the Norandino Co-operative, sustaining the livelihoods of over 7,000 farmers and their families, and is one of the largest coffee exporters in Peru.
Most Peruvian coffee is grown on fields of just a few acres, often in remote parts of the majestic Andes mountains, conditions that make for world-class coffee. However, the processing of the coffee for export, where most of the money is made, takes high-powered investment and business connections. Arnoldo Neira Camizán was one of those farmers. Besides coffee, he also grows bananas and oranges and raises animals. Like other farmers in his village of Coyona, a four-hour drive on a rocky road from the big town of Piura, Arnoldo struggled to earn enough from coffee to take care of his family.
Gathering other nearby farmers, Arnoldo proposed starting a co-operative of coffee growers that would sell to the Fair Trade market. By sharing resources and connecting with coffee roasters and drinkers committed to trading fairly, Arnoldo and the others had a vision of farmers like themselves from all over Peru could turn coffee farming into a tool to improve their lives instead of trapping them in poverty.
The early days weren't easy. Some farmers were mistrustful of the new way of doing business. Others were skeptical that there were coffee buyers and drinkers concerned about their welfare. But through persistence and hard work, more farmers began to join. Getting loans and finding customers was the next challenge. Equal Exchange played a key role by buying one of the first shipments of coffee from the co-operative, and extended critical low-cost financing, and also guaranteed Fair Trade prices.
Thanks to the higher prices and other support of the co-op, kids are graduating from high school, "something that just didn't happen before the co-op," says Arnoldo.
Early on, Arnoldo and the other Norandino founders realized that their members needed to practice sustainable farming. The co-op provides support at every step of the way for farmers, from growing tree seedlings to teaching how to compost. With Norandino's training and assistance, all of the co-ops coffee is grown organically, helping to keep the soil – and all who live on it – healthy.
Of particular pride, is the co-ops multi-million dollar processing plant. The sacks of dried coffee from the highlands are brought to the central city of Piura to be prepared for export. The beans go through several steps of quality control under the watchful eye of Hugo Reyes Alvarado. Hugo and his father were there with Arnoldo at that founding meeting, and it is now his responsibility to make sure that only the highest quality coffee is exported to customers around the globe. Hugo has gone through extensive training in the art of "cupping" – the exacting method of identifying and grading the hundreds of aromas and subtle flavors present in coffee. A single rotten bean can spoil an entire shipment of coffee, so Hugo inspects samples of each container before it goes out the door. Equal Exchange helped the co-op set up Hugo's quality control lab, and has also brought him to the company headquarters in West Bridgewater, MA for several intensive training sessions.
Hugo is aided by the high-tech light and moisture sensors that detect defective beans, screens and sifters that take out pebbles and other bits that don't belong, and co-op workers moving thousands of pounds of coffee a day from loaders onto pallets filled with burlap sacks of coffee, and finally into containers bound for cargo ships and foreign shores.
Now that Norandino can export top quality coffee directly to foreign buyers, they are able to deliver much higher prices to the farmers, and also create jobs in the mill itself. Farmers receive extensive training in how to grow to the exacting standards of the foreign specialty markets, either in their home village or at workshops at the mill in Piura.
With the proceeds from the coffee trade, Norandino has branched out into other products, helping farmers market organic sugar, fruit preserves, and award-winning cacao for chocolate. By diversifying what they sell, the co-ops' farmers have an additional buffer against unpredictable markets.
Looking out over his highland coffee farm one mighty morning, Arnoldo reflects on everyone who helped make that impossible dream a reality. "Equal Exchange is our most important importer. They don't refer to us as coffee generators, but call us their strategic partners. Through Equal Exchange's help, our members are converting from small-scale farmers to small-scale business people."
Start your morning strong with this tasty blend.
Medium & French Roast