Beyond Fair Trade: Portland roaster and coffee farmers make a family

Value Chains

Beyond Fair Trade: Portland roaster and coffee farmers make a family

A coffee farm worker picks beans. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps.

As a child, Augusto Carvalho Dias rose early every summer morning to help his grandfather on the family’s coffee farm in Brazil.

He learned the hard work of coffee farming, and how the microclimate at his grandfather’s farm was perfect for growing rich, flavorful beans. And he saw that workers and farmers who received fair pay for their labor produce exceptional crops.

Coffee was in Dias' blood. Years later, he opened Nossa Familia Coffee in Portland’s Pearl District. But at a time when Fair Trade certification was the hallmark of the coffee industry, Dias remembered how his grandfather built his business on lasting relationships.

“My family has been treating farmworkers fairly for generations,” Dias explains. “Our bags of beans don’t say ‘fair trade,’ but we have a deep connection with our partners.”

To learn more about how the small company is fair without ‘fair trade,’ Global Envision visited Nossa Familia Coffee’s roastery.

Bucking the fair trade trend

The rich, acrid aroma of roasting coffee blends with the sweet scents of milk and chocolate, and fills the air at Nossa Familia Coffee. Dias steps behind the espresso bar and pumps steaming coffee into two cups. The coffee, from a farm in Nicaragua, tastes of flowers and cinnamon.

“When we started, we ran into a lot of people asking if we were fair trade certified,” Dias says.

When he went into business in 2006, fair trade certification was the watchword for coffee roasters. For decades, coffee growers had been at the mercy of wildly fluctuating prices that could plunge so low that farmers struggled to survive. Provided that they meet the certification’s criteria, fair trade’s price floor makes sure the farmers get a minimum price for their beans, even when prices drop in the volatile commodities market. Fair trade was supposed to be exactly what it’s name implied: fair.

However, a growing number of businesses and people in the industry do not see fair trade certification as the answer.

“Fair trade represents, at best, a Band-Aid solution to the problems a deficient institutional structure creates in coffee-producing countries,” writes Colleen Berndt, a San Jose State professor who researches fair trade economics.

Fair trade didn’t make sense for Dias. He didn’t believe his grower partners would earn any more if they had certification. They might even get less.

Certification, for Dias, would not replace the authenticity of a personal connection--building bonds with his bean sources. When he visited the farms, he got to know the people, their farming practices, and the beans. He saw an opportunity to bring this idea of quality beans based on deep relationships to Portland’s vibrant, discerning market.

At the roastery, Dias walks between large sacks of green coffee beans stacked on wood pallets. The roaster whirrs as it heats the latest batch.

“With ‘fair trade’ you know the farmer is getting a certain price for the coffee,” he says. “But it doesn’t guarantee many other things and it definitely doesn’t guarantee quality.”

Berndt argues that the current coffee market challenges the relevance of fair trade certification. The high price of premium beans allows farmers to make more money by defaulting on their fair trade contracts in order to sell at a higher price. After the premium beans are gone, Berndt says, fair trade buyers get the lower quality beans left over.

For Dias, the fair trade certification wouldn’t replace what direct relationships give him: a deep understanding of how the coffee is sustainable environmentally, economically and socially.

Forging relationships with his bean sources made more sense for Dias. He had committed time and money to visiting the farms and getting to know the farmers. He knew that he could proactively work out any problems that arose. He also trusted that when the beans showed up in Portland, they were the quality he bought and were produced in a responsible way.

In Dias’ experience, giving farmers a good deal just makes business sense.

“We pay a premium price for the best beans,” he says. “If we didn’t, we wouldn’t get them.”

Making Premium Coffee Work for Farmers

The magic of Nossa Familia happens in view of the coffee bar, in a large room filled with burlap sacks of coffee. Nossa Familia’s roaster Rob Hoos stands by the stainless steel Loring roaster. Colorful numbers and bars flash on his smartphone.

“I can track the temperature of the beans and adjust the roast from my phone,” he says.

The perfect latte begins with coaxing beans to their greatest potential.

Nossa Familia buys from three sources: the Dias family’s Brazilian farms, a small farm in Nicaragua and a cooperative in Guatemala.

The Brazilian coffee is certified by the lesser known Dutch organization, UTZ. The UTZ Certification sets criteria for farming practices and values, but doesn’t establish a price floor like fair trade certification. However, the UTZ certification helps Dias by ensuring that farmers treat workers and the environment well. The farms in Guatemala and Nicaragua aren’t certified, but Dias expects them to meet similar standards.

As Nossa Familia’s network grows, it relies on trust in its brand, instead of certification. Nossa Familia doesn’t stamp bags of coffee with the UTZ logo, but Dias believes the business itself stands for something more important: strong relationships, respect for people and the environment, and quality coffee. To Nossa Familia, those are truly the ingredients for a perfect cup of coffee.

Curated news and insights about innovative, market-driven solutions to poverty explored through news, commentary and discussion.

Learn more »

Global Envision newsletter