In times of Fairtrade and countless other campaigns in support of workers at origin, is there still starvation among coffee farmers? Yes, there is – it is in the three or four months of the year known in Central America as ‘los meses flacos’, the ‘thin months’. That is a phrase well-known in the area, but unknown to millions who make a decent living from coffee in better-off countries, and it returns many times during the pages of the new book from Rick Peyser of Green Mountain Coffee.
Brewing Change - A review by Ian Boughton
It is a curious thing, but many reviews of books don’t go anywhere near the reality of the subject. One online review of this book cheerfully describes it as ‘a charming memoir’ – it isn’t, it’s a heartfelt call to arms in support of the world’s coffee farmers. But a half-hearted reviewer could be forgiven for missing that, because the real impact of this book creeps up on you slowly.
For almost a hundred pages, we are taken quite gently on a fairly interesting journey through Rick’s life with Green Mountain Coffee of Vermont, a huge US roasting company and brand. He has been public relations director for Green Mountain, but in the course of that job has managed to find time to be president of the Speciality Coffee Association of America, and play a senior role in the Fairtrade movement.
Along the way, we learn such interesting things as some of the myths of organic coffee, the comparison of open sun and shade-grown coffee, and for the first time, we can find details of the big SCAA fraud scandal of 2005, when a past senior officer was found to have left a vast hole in the accounts – four years later he was jailed for three years and ordered to repay almost half a million dollars.
We also learn some new details of the bizarre case in 2006, when Starbucks attempted to trademark certain names of Ethiopian coffee regions – oddly, some people in the SCAA actually wanted to back the Starbucks case. (In telling the story, Peyser points out something which has often been observed elsewhere – in this case, as in so many others, Starbucks’ PR attitude was quite ham-fisted).
And then we hit the real story – what Rick Peyser refers to as ‘a parallel reality I hadn’t known existed’.
He was in the middle of a programme of interviewing coffee farmers in central America when he first heard the phrase ‘los meses flacos’ – or ‘the thin months’. He came to realise that every single farmer knew this phrase, which referred to the three or four months of the year when they starve.
In one of the best phrases in the entire book, Peyser remembers a conversation with one farmer. He writes: ‘the unspoken need hung in the air throughout the interview…’
As someone who had worked for the Fairtrade organisation, Peyser was at first surprised at what he was finding out, and then thoroughly shaken. “These were Fairtrade farmers who were supposed to be getting a reasonable price for their coffee – and they were struggling to put food on their table for a significant part of every year?
“The family situation hit me – they went hungry for three to four months of every year. I was furious I hadn’t known about this. I felt stupid. How could I be in the industry for so long and not know what the farmers were dealing with? I realised I had never thought to ask… nobody had.”
Thoroughly embarrassed by what he had learned, Peyser went on to reflect that he had been believing that Fairtrade was doing the right thing for growers – “but what good was Fairtrade if the farmer can’t put food on the table for his family?”
He also realised that the commercial coffee industry had simply assumed that its pursuit of high-quality coffee would have a trickle-down financial benefit to the farmers. And he realised that in general, when American buyers made their VIP visits to coffee farms, they did so after the harvests, when the farmers had been paid – so, of course the farmers seemed to be happy, because this was the time when they had food on the table.
This was the awakening which led to the work that Green Mountain was to put in on behalf of farmers. It was further inspired by of the company’s senior managers asking the troubling question: ‘do we want our customers to know that our farmers struggle to put food on their tables?’ A series of practical initiatives followed, based on intense direct work with the farming communities, and projects such as ‘F4F’, the Food for Farmers work, and a film which showed the situation of the growers.
In another telling phrase, Peyser notes that ‘our general ignorance of the farmers’ situation raises the interesting philosophy of what happens when the quality of the bean is put ahead of the quality of life. And, he adds, ‘if our industry continues to concentrate on the quality of coffee over the needs of people in the growing communities, then our business is doomed. All the disease-resistant hybrids in the world will not work if there is nobody alive on the farms to tend the plants’.
Everyone in the industry can help, he argues. He begins the book with the remark that: ‘you do not have to be a CEO to change the course of a company or influence an industry’, and one good lesson of this book is how even ‘just a PR guy’ can set in motion the wheels of great change.
Brewing Change, by Rick Peyser, was published in the US in spring, and in the UK this winter. It is available online from the Book Depository and Amazon at around £10.