A fair trade

  • Sarah Koenig<br>Enterprise writer
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 11:42am

These days, a cup of coffee means more to Bob Thompson than it used to.

“Coffee is incredibly labor intensive,” said Thompson, a professor at Shoreline Community College. “Now when I drink a cup of coffee I have respect for how much labor went into it.”

Coffee fields are meticulously maintained. Each bean is picked by hand, then dried, de-hulled, roasted and more. But farmers in developing nations who do this labor usually are paid a pittance for their work.

Thompson is trying to change that in just one corner of the world: the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, where families live in poverty.

Locals can help just by buying a bag of beans.

Thompson discovered the Blue Mountains when he went to Jamaica in the late 1980s to rebuild schools destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert.

As a psychology professor at Rollins College in Florida, he took students there to teach in the schools a few weeks at a time. When he got to Shoreline, Thompson took up the trips again.

In so doing, he made friends with Jamaican coffee farmers there and learned about the business.

Blue Mountain coffee, cherished for its rarity and taste, can sell for $10 a cup in Japan, he said. A pound of beans can sell for $100 a pound there. In the United States, it can fetch $45 a pound.

But the farmers who produce that coffee are paid only $3 or $4 a pound by the Japanese companies who sell it abroad, Thompson said.

The problem is global.

“Most large companies in general, outside Jamaica, buy (coffee) for $1 or $2 a pound and sell it for like $12 a pound,” he said. In most places, the farmers do almost all the real work.

“(The companies) just roast it, then sell it,” Thompson said.

An immense amount of work goes into a single bean. Sitting in his office, Thompson showed pictures of farmers as they picked the raw coffee “cherries” from bushes one by one, roasted them over an open fire, laid them on corrugated tin, dried them in the sun, shelled them, removed the pulp and more.

But while Blue Mountain coffee sells for $10 a cup, the people of that region live in poverty. Families share tin shacks with no electricity. When school starts half the classrooms are empty because children can’t afford the required uniforms. Many can’t even afford pencils.

Thompson knew there must be a way around that.

“How can we get more money to the farmers and help the school house?” he said.

So he hatched a plan.

In June, he went with Shoreline Community College students to Jamaica to tutor and help in the schools, as in years past.

But this year, he asked each of them to bring back raw coffee beans in their suitcases.

In total, the group collected 500 pounds. Several hundred pounds have already been roasted by local volunteers, but there’s more to be done.

This spring, Thompson will sell the coffee in Shoreline and the Puget Sound area for $18 to $22 a pound, less than half of market value. He hasn’t decided where the coffee will be sold and is still working on marketing and branding.

All profits will be used to buy school supplies, uniforms and other needed items for schools in the Blue Mountains.

Thompson hopes to start a non profit to sell the beans and wants to see a steady stream of income for the community over time.

“To (deal with) poverty, you need to create a sustainable economy,” he said.

But there’s even more to be done. Consumers can buy fair trade products and otherwise demand fairness in business practices, he said.

“As consumers, how does our consumption affect the rest of the world?” he said. “We have to, in some way, start saying that.”

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