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Direct trade or Fair Trade?

Often, people ask us if we sell fair trade coffee. The short answer is yes, we do . . . Sometimes. But more often we are buying coffee that gets categorized as “direct-trade,” which is a term that is used pretty loosely to say we can trace a coffee back to a specific farm (or specific community of farmers), and the green coffee was purchased directly from a specific farm or community of farmers.

So, what is the difference between a “fair” trade and a “direct” trade? Basically, with direct-trade, there is not a middle person directly in between the farmer and the purchaser. There will always be middle people who are consulted by sourcers who are trying to find the best coffee for their business. The difference is that the importer is the one paying the people in the middle rather than the compensation coming from the farmer.

Fair trade basically requires importers to pay a price that exceeds the “market value” of the coffee (market value is ironically set by people who know little to nothing about what it actually costs farmers to produce coffee). There are usually still middle people who take a cut from the farmer, but the regulated price for fair trade makes it more equitable for the farmers.

When there is not a middle person taking a cut, however, farmers often receive prices that exceed fair trade standards by 75-100%! In exchange for this price, farmers are willing to part with their best quality coffee beans, and it encourages more attention to overall quality in the hopes of selling more high grade specialty coffee in following years. It is really a win-win for both farmers and importers.

Another benefit to this kind of relationship between farm and importer is that often importers are working directly with specific farmers from year to year, helping them to understand what specialty coffee graders are looking for in cup character and quality. Importers are entering into long-term relationships with farmers in ways that mutually benefit the other.

So, what should you buy? Fair-trade? Direct-trade? The answer to the question might seem obvious, right? The farmers get the best price and consumers get the best quality more often when direct-trade relationships are established. The problem is this: farmers who are producing great quality coffee are also producing lower grade coffee that they still have to sell in order to be a sustainable business. As the specialty coffee industry grows, so will specialty grade coffee production; but in the meantime, if you can’t afford the really good stuff that comes directly from the farmer to the importer (then to us and into your cup) . . . Make sure you at least buy fair trade. We owe it to the people who are providing us with one of the world’s most widely normalized luxuries that is coffee.