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Equal Exchange: helping small farmers bring you the perfect cup.

Every purveyor of specialty coffee likes to think that they are uniquely capable of bringing you the ultimate cup. At Equal Exchange, the perfect cup not only tastes good, it benefits the people who grow the coffee as well as the people who drink it.

Equal Exchange is a specialty coffee company based in Stoughton, Massachusetts. It offers 40 bulk and packaged coffees in a variety of flavors and roasts, with an emphasis on organically grown products. The company trades directly with small-scale farmers' cooperatives in Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru, paying well above the world market price.

"Farmers deserve a price that meets their basic human needs," says Equal Exchange executive director Jonathan Rosenthal. "The world market price is so slow that farmers aren't even making their cost of production." Currently, the company pays the $1.26 a pound for green beans, with additional premiums for organic coffee.

"Our mission is to create long-term, sustainable trade relationships that benefit everyone. If farmers can't make enough money growing coffee to put food on their table, they're tempted to grow more lucrative crops, like coca (from which cocaine is deserved), or they their farms and look for work in the cites or try to emigrate to the U.S.," he adds.

Searching For The Perfect Cup

Product development is a lengthy process for Equal Exchange. The staff make frequent trips all over the world to visit current and potential trading partners. In addition to looking for reliable suppliers of high quality beans, they evaluate producers on the basis of social and environmental criteria.

"We look for small-scale, democratically-run coops that share their profit equitably," Rosenthal says. For example, Equal Exchange trades with UCIRI. a Spanish acronym for the Union of Indigenous Communities of the Isthmus Region. UCIRI is a coop of 2,000 Indian coffee farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Before UCIRI members organized in 1982, they sold their beans to local traders--known as coyotes--at well below the world market price, because they didn't have access to credit or to final processing facilities. They were growing coffee without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, but they didn't know anything about organic agriculture.

UCIRI members are now certified organic producers and have doubled their yearly income. In addition, UCIRI has developed an economic infrastructure, including a school, agriculture agents, health care committees, food shops, a hardware store, and extensive coffee processing equipment.

"Their whole lives, these farmers have been told that they don't know anything, they're Indians, they're ignorant," Rosenthal says. "Now they're running their own multimillion dollar coffee business. They have pride."

Organic agriculture is important to Equal Exchange. Over half of its coffees are organically grown. Marketing director Michael Rozyne is an organic homesteader himself. "Peasant farmers are often the victims of environmental problems," he says.

Extensive deforestation is causing widespread erosion. Many farmers have been poisoned while applying pesticides or by runoff. Coffee processing produces mountains of coffee pulp, which decomposes, leaching harmful chemicals into the water supply.

"Organic farmers compost their coffee pulp and use it as fertilizer, adding valuable organic matter back to the soil," Rozyne explains. Equal Exchange encourages its partners to build programs to protect the environment. It assists them to become certified organic producers and supports their work to reforest tropical areas.

Creating Equal Exchange

Equal Exchange founders Rink Dickinson, Jonathan Rosenthal, and Michael Rozyne worked together at a natural foods warehouse in early 1980's. They discovered that many small-scale and organic farmers knew a lot about farming, but very little about marketing. They started working with farmers to find ways to market their products, and over time, they saw how their work could be applied to third world farmers.

Equal Exchange, founded in 1986, is a workers' cooperative, with a small number of individual and church investors. Investors earn a maximum annaul dividend of 5%. A small percent of the remaining proceeds go to Equal Exchange workers; the balance is invested in the company to further its mission.

Over the past seven years, Equal Exchange has developed a growing market for its products, selling to natural food stores, supermarkets, gourmet shops, and restaurants.

"Because we trade directly and pay a higher price, we're able to get the best beans the farmers grow," Rosenthal says. "Last year, we sold over $1,200,000 of coffee."

Rozyne believes that many consumers are looking for socially and environmentally responsible products. " I think one of the reasons we've been successful is because we're accountable to our customers," he says. Equal Exchange provides as much information as possible about where its products are from, who its trading partners are, where its money goes and how it does business.

Equal Exchange products are priced at or near similar quality beans from other specialty coffee companies. "Our customers are getting a great cup of coffee and supporting fair trade relationships," says Rozyne.

Addressing the Root Causes of Poverty

A growing number of coffee companies donate a percent of their profits to organizations or projets in coffee-growing regions. "Charitable donations provide immediate relief, but they don't address the root causes of third world poverty," Rosenthal comments. "Trade is essential to our economy, but it has to be on a fairer basis. We're trying to create a better quality of life for everyone involved."

He adds, "That includes providing plenty of great coffee."

For more information on Equal Exchange, contact the organization at: 101 Tosca Drive, Stoughton, Mass. 02072. Tel: (617)344-7227; Fax: (617)344-7240.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:specialty coffee company
Author:Greenfield, Myrna
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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