Cooperatively Made in Mexico

Solar driers help coffee growers control the drying process and avoid product loss.

Written by Erika Gavin for Co-op Food Stores

Cooperatives are not like other businesses. Worldwide, cooperatives are established based on, and function according to, seven cooperative principles. Principle number six is “cooperation among cooperatives,” and I was able to experience this recently, in a very tangible way. In January of 2014, six of us from the Co-op Food Stores traveled with a small group from Equal Exchange to visit a fair-trade coffee farm and to meet our sister co-op CIRSA in Chiapas, Mexico.

Complete Cooperative Supply Chain

This visit brought together three parts of one complete cooperative supply chain—farmer co-op (CIRSA) to worker-owned co-op (Equal Exchange) to consumer co-op (Co-op Food Stores). And, through the sister co-op program, we are able to create a closed loop. Let me explain. Over two years ago, Equal Exchange came to the Co-op Food Stores with the idea of a "sister co-op" partnership program. For us at the Co-op, it was a no-brainer. It provided another avenue for us to support small farmers, authentic fair trade, and the cooperative model. Here’s how it works. For every pound of Co-op Food Stores branded coffee sold, 40¢ (20¢ from the Co-op Food Stores, 20¢ from Equal Exchange) will be invested in the Sister Co-op Fund. Part of this fund goes directly into community growth projects for CIRSA, thus closing the loop. So far, two solar dryers have been donated, and we were able to see one of them in action during our visit to the coffee farming community.

Building Relationships

Members of CIRSA, Equal Exchange and the Hanover Co-op shared a week together.

A focus of this trip was to create new relationships and to build upon existing ones. For co-ops, working together and supporting one another isn’t a secondary concern, it’s foundational. Through meeting with members of CIRSA, we were able to learn about their past and present struggles and to hear about their successes. Some parents and grandparents of these coffee farmers worked in slave-like conditions on large plantations, their land having been stolen from them. They fought long and hard to regain the rights to their land and to form a cooperative. We also discussed the state of fair trade and the current climate and environmental  problems facing many coffee farmers. Together, we were able to brainstorm on how we could work collaboratively to further support their co-op and promote their coffee. Those of us from the Co-op Food Stores were able to share with them what we’re doing to educate consumers and promote fairly traded coffee.

Visit to Coffee Farming Community

In addition to meeting with the board and management of CIRSA, we were able to visit one of the member-farms and to participate in the coffee-picking process. We met a wonderful community of farmers, living in one of the poorest regions in Mexico. It was an eye-opening visit and an amazing experience that has enabled us to discuss and promote coffee in terms of the people rather than just the product or process. Let me provide a small snapshot of my experience.

It took us over three hours to get to the farming community of San Antonio del Nuevo Leon. Our journey had us traveling along steep, winding roads that were filled with holes, making for an extremely bumpy ride. Along the way, we realized that this is the road and distance that these farmers have to travel in order to sell their coffee. Soon after arriving, we hiked a mile uphill in the rain, continually slipping along the muddy paths. We were wet, covered in mud, and hadn’t even reached the coffee trees yet. While standing on the side of a hill, the farmers explained how to tell which coffee cherries were ripe and how to successfully pick them. Each cherry is picked by hand. At many of these small farms, everything is done manually.

Hanover Co-op’s Tony White tries his back at carrying coffee.

We slowly got the hang of it, and, once the coffee was picked, the farmers showed us how to place a 60-pound bag of coffee onto our backs to be carried the mile back to the farm. Some of us gave it a try, but didn’t last very long. We were already exhausted, and this was only a quick demonstration of one step in the process. Although it was dark when we got back to the farm, we pitched in to help depulp the coffee cherries using a hand-turned depulper. This was necessary because it’s important to get the coffee depulped within 24 hours. Otherwise, the coffee quality can be ruined due to a change in flavor. If interested, Equal Exchange describes the entire coffee process on its website under "From Bean to Cup."

At the end of the depulping, we were ready to fall into bed, which, in this case, meant sleeping on a dirt floor. These small farmers graciously welcomed us into their humble homes. For many of them, this is essentially one room that serves as bedroom and kitchen. We quickly fell asleep and awoke to beans and tortillas being cooked over an open fire, just a few feet away. After breakfast, we were shown the drying process. As we walked through the village, we saw the coffee beans being raked out on any available cement surface. Luckily, that day was a beautiful sunny day. If it had been raining, the outdoor drying process would not have been possible. For coffee beans, it is crucial to get the beans dried to the proper moisture level in a timely fashion. If this doesn’t happen, the beans can overferment, ruining the coffee quality and rendering it unsellable.

This past growing season had been extremely rainy, making the harvesting and drying of coffee difficult. This is why getting solar dryers to these farms is so important. These simple structures could make all the difference. Fortunately, we were able to see the solar dryer being tested in this community and to hear the various ideas for improving it. In this solar dryer, the beans dry on raised screens attached to wooden racks, housed under a large tarp. The farmers currently share the dryer on a rotating basis. So, an additional dryer would be extremely helpful.

As we were getting ready to leave, we witnessed a key difference that marks a cooperative—member participation and control. These farmers had specific questions that they wanted the visiting board members to address. Prior to being part of CIRSA, many of these farmers would have sold their coffee through coyotes. In that relationship, these farmers wouldn’t have any say in the process. However, as part of a cooperative, they have a right to ask questions and raise concerns with management and the board. They have a voice and are entitled to answers.

Being a part of three cooperatives coming together to discuss the ways in which we could work collaboratively was an invaluable experience for me. Each of us who went on this trip was affected in profound and powerful ways.

Republished with permission from Co-op Food Stores (Hanover, Lebanon, White River Junction, Hanover Market).