Coffee Farmers Need Cooperatives to Go Organic

Article by Daniel Fireside,
Capital Coordinator, Equal Exchange

Daniel Fireside
Equal Exchange

For hundreds of years, Coffee was grown “organically,” without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides, creating a rich and biodiverse ecosystem. A few decades ago, this changed. Synthetic inputs led to booming production, but the cost to the soil, water, and a warming planet have been paid most steeply by the farming communities. A growing number of small-scale farmers are trying to shift production back to its organic roots, but the expenses and barriers can be insurmountable for farmers on their own. In order to put coffee back on the path of sustainability, they need coffee drinkers and businesses in consuming countries not only to pay the costs of going organic but also to support the farmer’s most critical ally, the cooperative. This is the heart of Equal Exchange’s business model, although it’s one that has taken on a growing urgency as our natural environment faces increasing jeopardy.

Coffee, the most widely consumed beverage after water, is a fascinating case study for environmentalists. Most high quality Arabica coffee (the good stuff) thrives under a canopy of fruit trees that create a leafy playground for birds who help keep harmful insects in check. When grown without synthetic fertilizers, as it was for centuries, coffee groves capture carbon and help keep our planet cool. But several decades ago, all this changed. Clever agricultural engineers discovered that by adding synthetic fertilizers and by monocropping the coffee trees in full sun, yields would spike. Without the birds and shade trees though, farmers also needed pesticides and herbicides to keep the bugs and weeds in check.

As an intrepid teenager studying Spanish in Guatemala during the late 1980s, I spent most of my off hours riding the rehabbed U.S. school busses that have a second life in Central America as the lifeblood of the rural transport system. I loved exploring the country villages where the majority of Guatemalans still live, many speaking not just Spanish but also one of two dozen Mayan languages and dialects. Farming isn’t just a job there. Growing corn, beans, and other crops from the fertile volcanic soil is a deeply ingrained part of Mayan culture. Every inch of land, no matter how impossibly remote or inaccessible, seemed to be farmed with one crop or another. Among the patchwork quilt of traditional crops, I quickly learned to spot the dark green leaves of coffee trees, usually laid out in neat rows soaking up the sun. Instead of tractors and mechanical harvesters, I watched the indigenous farmers, often in the traditional Mayan dress of their villages, carefully tending the postage stamp-size plots of land. Quite often I would see them with a strange backpack device, which I learned was used to spray pesticides and herbicides. The winds would carry the distinct chemical smell for long distances, and it is an odor I still associate with that time.

I returned to Guatemala many times over the years, first as a grant officer for a human rights organization working to help refugees who had been displaced by the U.S.-backed army’s scorched-earth tactics during the country’s decades-long civil war, and then again as a graduate student doing field research on the coffee sector. Even today, you will see farmers carrying backpacks full of pesticides, spraying them indiscriminately on their crops. Agricultural extension experts I spoke with explained that the technical warning labels were usually ignored, both because farmers rarely received any formal training and because they lacked the resources to purchase protective gear like masks and gloves and or follow safety practices that are required on U.S. farms.

I now work at Equal Exchange ( ), where I’m responsible for bringing in mission-aligned outside capital via investments and loans. The company is a worker-owned co-operative that first introduced Fair Trade coffee to the United States back in 1986, and now buys its coffee, bananas, chocolate, nuts, and other products from small-farmer co-operatives on Fair Trade terms from over 40 countries around the world. Virtually all of our products are also grown under certified organic conditions. For those Guatemalan farmers with an acre or two of coffee trees, Fair Trade means that they can count on always receiving prices that show respect for their hard work and careful tending of their crops, as well as a strong co-operative that gives them vital technical support and market access. Growing under certified organic conditions means that they can get rid of those backpacks, leading to strong improvements in the health of residents, the quality of groundwater and soil, greater carbon capture, and many other benefits.

Buying Fair Trade and organic might seem to be two separate good things to do, and indeed there is no requirement that the two be practiced together. But there is a deep connection. If you want to support organic farming globally, you need to support small-farmer cooperatives. To understand why, it helps to go to the start of the coffee supply chain.

About three quarters of Equal Exchange’s revenue comes from coffee. Most specialty-grade Arabica coffee is grown by millions of family farmers who own just a few acres or land or less. In normal times, it’s a good cash crop that supplements subsistence farming. Because top-quality coffee needs to be grown at high elevations, usually in mountainous terrain, you won’t find tractors. And because the coffee “beans” (seeds) grow inside cherries that ripen at different times on the same tree, they must be harvested by hand. What this means is that small farmers can be just as efficient, and therefore competitive, with large plantations, at least when it comes to that labor-intensive first step in the process that ends up as your morning brew. As a result, there are an estimated 25 million small family farmers who earn their living by growing coffee around the world. But how environmentally sustainable is it?

During most of coffee’s history farmers grew coffee in what we would today consider “organic” conditions. Coffee grows well in shaded areas, so it was usually grown under a canopy of fruit trees, providing multiple benefits to the farmer like diversifying their crops, keeping down weeds, and bringing in birds and other wildlife that would keep pests in control and help nourish the soil. Farmed this way, coffee trees are a valuable carbon sink helping to keep our planet cool.

Much of this changed with the Green Revolution of the 1960s [1]. International experts showed farmers the benefits of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, as well as how mono-cropping coffee trees in full sunlight could dramatically boost yields. These techniques spread fast, as any farmer who hesitated to adopt them quickly fell behind his neighbors. Of course, when supply skyrockets while demand stays flat, prices fall. As they earned less per pound produced, farmers raced to increase the productivity of their trees. Prices for the farmers did not collapse entirely thanks to a global agreement between the major coffee exporting and importing countries, enacted in 1961 mainly to keep poor countries from siding with the Soviets. With the Cold War winding down, the United States abandoned the agreement in 1989, and coffee prices quickly sank, rebounded briefly and then crashed a few years later to pennies on the pound when new players like Vietnam flooded the market with cheap beans. The old landed elites in coffee growing countries realized that the big money wasn’t in growing the crop, but in processing and exporting it. Many rural farmworkers began rebuilding their communities in the wake of the civil wars only to find that they were on the losing end of the global supply chains.

In the aftermath of the civil war in Guatemala, returning refugees leapt at the chance to purchase the fertile volcanic coffee lands that the plantation-owners were letting go. Between the 1950s and today, the share of coffee land held by small farmers went from less than 2% to over half. But the processing and export for the most part stayed in the hands of the former oligarchs. Many farmers began forming co-operatives—a move that during the war was considered a subversive act and would have put them in the crosshairs of the military.

Coffee co-operatives offer several well-known benefits to small farmers, including milling and processing, global market access, technical training, affordable loans, and of course much higher prices than a small-scale farmer could get on their own. Equal Exchange partners with the co-operatives, offering them not only above-market prices, but also access to low-interest credit, marketing support, and long-term partnerships through good times and bad. Less appreciated, however, is that without the co-operative, those small-scale farmers could never go organic.

Although organic farming methods are constantly improving, conventional coffee farming yields are about 70% higher, although this output requires an average of 250 pounds of synthetic fertilizers per acre [2]. Farmers need training and support from the cooperative’s experts to keep pace with the latest organic farming methods. For agricultural products sold in the United States as “certified organic,” farmers must navigate the complex rules and regulations of the USDA and pass costly inspections. Even when a farmer follows all the rules, they cannot sell their crops on the organic market for the three years when they are transitioning from conventional to organic production. So yields plummet, certifiers have to be paid, regulations have to be followed carefully, and the farmer can’t even sell their crop as organic for three years. These additional burdens on the farmer and the co-operative are why Equal Exchange and other Fair Trade companies gladly pay an additional premium for organic food. Without the commitment of concerned coffee drinkers and roasters to cooperatives, the farmers would never be able to afford the higher cost of organic farming.

The return to organic and sustainable coffee farming is still making slow progress. Even though coffee drinkers are increasingly looking for organics, most retailers and consumers are still reluctant to pay the farmers for the transition. Although 99% of Equal Exchange’s coffee is organic, Starbucks, the world’s largest coffee chain, reports that only 3% of its coffee is organic.

Farmers in the global South are on the frontlines of global climate change. Our coffee buyers are constantly on the road meeting with farmers and cooperative leaders in coffee regions. They hear a steady stream of reports about changing weather patterns that can wreak havoc on crops. These past two years we’ve seen the devasting impact of the coffee rust fungus, or roya as it’s known in Spanish. Roya has spread rapidly from Central to South America, helped along by unusual weather patterns with too much rain followed by dry spells and heatwaves. Once infected, roya cuts off the tree’s nutrient supply, the tree loses its leaves and ability to reproduce. The bright red coffee cherries turn black, and the tree will usually die.

Although some communities have escaped the disease, many communities in Central America have been devastated, including a cooperative of indigenous farmers in the remote Guatemalan village of Chajul.  The nearly 1,600 members of the Chajul co-op and their families saw their coffee output—and their income—fall by 80% last year. Farmers are using organic-approved methods to save what trees they can, including spraying a liquid from the compost of more resilient trees, putting those backpack sprayers to a more beneficial use. Replacing lost trees is no easy task, as it takes a healthy seedling four years to come into full production. For a site visit report on Chajul by coffee buyer Carly Kadlec visit

Equal Exchange is working closely with our co-operative farmer partners to help them get through the rust crisis, and to become more resilient in the face of a rapidly changing climate. There are few quick fixes, although by supporting farmers who are making the switch to organic, and also supporting the co-operatives that make it possible, we hope to see coffee once again become part of the climate solution.

Article by Daniel Fireside, the Capital Coordinator at Equal Exchange ( ). He has traveled frequently to Guatemala since 1988.

Article Notes:

[1]  Carey Jr., David. “Guatemala’s Green Revolution: Synthetic Fertilizer, Public Health, and Economic Autonomy in the Mayan Highland,” Agricultural History, Summer 2009. Agricultural Historical Society. Link –

[2]  Fieser, Ezra. Dec 29, 2009. “Organic coffee: Why Latin America’s farmers are abandoning it,” Christian Science Monitor. Link –

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