By Jenny DeWitt, Grounds for Change.
Our final day in Peru began with a visit to the dry mill to see the steps taken once dried coffee arrives from the farms and before it is exported to roasters around the world. Farmers must get their coffee to the dry mill which was a challenge before fair trade cooperatives formed because rural farmers did not always have access to transportation. Farmers working within a cooperative now have the support of other farmers to solve these issues in their communities and set aside cooperative funds to reach solutions if needed.
I want to note here that direct trade and fair trade are very different. Direct trade is not certified by a third-party certifier which means that buying direct trade is taking the word of the business presenting its product as direct trade. While there are certainly legitimate direct trade deals happening in the coffee world that are sanctioned within the existing safety nets of fair trade cooperatives, there are also buyers that may not be considering the long term effects of direct trade with a single farmer.
For instance, sometimes a farmer will be visited by a direct trade buyer and be wooed away from the cooperative in order to get a better premium for a quality crop. Sounds okay, right? Well, it can be... but if the individual farmer’s crop is not the same quality the following year, there may not be a guarantee with this buyer to support the farmer and if the farmer has left the cooperative, she could be stuck with an unsaleable crop even though the coffee may be suitable for sale within the cooperative.
In addition, direct trade buyers may or may not provide all of the benefits of a cooperative like education, help obtaining organic certification, micro-loans to plant new crops, support in case of natural disasters (like flooding and earthquakes, which are possibilities in many coffee growing countries), and opportunities to apply for grants for community development. To reiterate, direct trade can happen within cooperatives so farmers do not lose benefits by selling through direct trade, but knowing your roaster is key in trusting that the benefits are long term.
The first area we explored at the dry mill was the warehouse that the bags of coffee land when they come from coffee communities. Each bag is labeled with the farmers’ name and cooperative. If coffee arrives that is Cafe Femenino designated, the bags are also sewn with a colored ribbon through the top so it is easily distinguishable in the warehouse. To see stack upon stack of coffee with individual farmers’ names written on each bag is quite something and the warehouse was full at this time of year.
From the warehouse, we moved to another huge area that housed all of the sorting machines for the coffee. It looked like one, massive structure but it was in fact a series of machines connected together to quickly and accurately access the size, density, and color of each coffee bean and to sort out debris like pebbles. To begin the process, the coffee is dumped from the bags into a huge grate in the floor over a large chamber. The coffee is then sucked up a tube that deposits it into a multilevel screening process where the coffee shakes down through the screens to sort the beans into consistent sizes. Once a bean hits a screen that it doesn’t fall through it is separated to a different area for further assessing. Rocks and other debris are also removed during the process. I wish I had counted but there are many different screens and once it goes through the multi-level screens, it then goes through more screens that are at eye level.
After the beans shake through the many screens, they travel into a different machine where each bean’s color is rated with a laser. If the color does not fit into the appropriate spectrum, the bean will be removed from the batch. This is fascinating and the machine is configured multiple times a day to ensure that it is working with absolute accuracy. After the color sorting, the coffee reaches a conveyor belt with a line of 3-5 people looking to make sure nothing has gotten through the machinery that shouldn't be in the final bag. It is quite fascinating to think that before this room of machinery, the entire process was done exclusively by human eyes and hands.
With the sorting complete, the coffee is given a tumble in a huge dryer until the moisture content is at or below 12% to avoid the risk of mold occurring during transport. Mold in a container full of coffee can taint the entire container, so it is taken very seriously. Should mold be discovered in a container, the entire lot of coffee cannot be marketed in the specialty coffee market. At this point, the coffee is ready to be weighed into burlap bags for shipment.
After all of these steps are completed at the mill, the coffee is then roasted in a sample roaster and cupped. We got to experience this first hand and even sampled the newest crop of Cafe Femenino Peru that was getting ready to ship out to coffee importers! I enjoyed seeing the cupping process at origin and hearing the notes from the mill’s quality team as well as the other roasters in attendance. Seeing this process first hand was quite interesting as so much is at stake for these quality assessors and ultimately the farmers.
From the mill we were whisked through Chiclayo to Cafe Femenino’s quarterly meeting. Representatives from all of the coffee growing communities were present and some women had to walk for several hours and then take a bus to make their way to the meeting. The washed out roads didn’t help with their journey making it much harder for those women that lived in the most remote locations. I heard that one woman who lived very far out rode a donkey late into the evening to reach another coffee community where she could catch a ride to the city for the meeting.
The meeting highlighted the work of the Cafe Femenino Foundation by pointing out the successes and challenges. The women were given opportunities to speak about pressing issues and to ask for what they needed. They were respectful and there were many friendly faces in the crowd from our week of visiting the communities. I loved watching the faces in the crowd and hearing the details of grants met and grants needed. The women’s faces shined, but were also weary and showed the strength and fortitude needed for their profession. Above all they were very proud to represent something doing such great work in their communities, helping all that were involved.
After the meeting, we all shared a huge lunch. The buffet included some of the delicious Peruvian dishes I had grown fond of during this adventure: ceviche, lentils, rice, yucca, braised fish, and stewed meats cooked with peppers. We then cleared away the tables and took group photos, our last photo session all together. Saying goodbye was all that was left to the day, and it came with reluctance. Being with the women farmers that we have represented for so many years at Grounds for Change certainly left a mark. Their tenacity, pride and generosity shines through in my memories of my experiences in Peru. It was an honor to see their farms, experience their way of life, and see the good work they are doing for their communities.