Growing Coffee with a Conscience

Organically grown coffee costs a little more. What you're paying for is your health and the health of the environment. Many think its well worth the price.

by Lorin Hallinan
hat cup of coffee you raise to your lips every morning has a story to tell. And it's one that more people are waking up to every day.
Coffee is without a doubt one of the world's most valuable agricultural commodities. Next to oil, it's the most traded product. Unfortunately, coffee also is one of the most chemically treated food crops on Earth. And that's wreaking havoc on the planet.

Clean coffee

Organically grown coffee - farmed without the use of chemicals - is the alternative choice for consumers who can't stand the thought of desecrating the environment just for a cup of coffee. It's not that organic coffee tastes noticeably better; it's hard to tell the difference. This is about protecting the planet.
Coffee drinkers seeking organic blends don't mind paying more for the product, either. Organic coffee could run anywhere from $2 to $7 and up per pound, compared to non-organic beans. These are the consumers who are driving the specialty coffee market forward. "Organic coffee fills a niche within a niche," said Phyllis Shroyer, sales representative for Daymar Corp. in El Cajon. Daymar is a certified organic coffee roaster located in San Diego County. "People who are environmentally concerned and like coffee will buy organic coffee. It's a very particular group."

Going organic

Organic anything is hardly a rare commodity in San Diego County. Just go to any one of the area's health food stores, like Ocean Beach People's Natural Foods, Greentree Grocers in Clairemont and San Carlos, Casady's in Encinitas, and others, to find "green" products, including organic. Ocean Beach People's sells 21 different kinds of organic coffee beans. Obviously, conscientious coffee drinkers want the stuff, and the market is responding.
But does it really taste better than non-organic brew? "I think it's great, but I can't tell too much of a difference," said Adam Jester, owner of Vinaka Life's Just Desserts coffee pub in Carlsbad. "Some of my customers say they notice they don't get the coffee jitters as much."
Obviously, it's not a pursuit for better taste or just self-interest that's driving the market. It's much bigger than that. "The product in the coffee industry that most symbolizes social and environmental issues is organic coffee," said Paul Katzeff, chief executive officer and co-owner of Thanksgiving Coffee Co., the 25-year-old "granddaddy" of specialty coffee roasters, located in Fort Brag, Calif.
Five years ago, the company roasted only 5,000 pounds of organic coffee every year, compared to millions of pounds of non-organic coffee. But that's changing. Katzeff said he now roasts 30,000 pounds of organic coffee every year. "Our goal is to be 100 percent organic by 1997," he states. "That's hard to do when you're roasting millions of pounds of coffee. But it's not a market plan, it's ethical. It has to do with business ethics and social and environmental responsibility. We want to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem."

From tree to cup

All organics are not alike. Really. Some products that claim to be organic may be telling a little coffee-colored lie. In order to be labeled "certified organically grown" officially, the entire coffee production process has to meet stringent criteria.
There's no slacking on this. Certified means that an independent certifying organization determines that the coffee was grown and processed without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides or other harmful chemicals.
Still, how can you be sure you're buying authentic organic coffee? When you shop for organic coffee, ask your grocer if the coffee he or she buys is certified as organic by a recognized organization. Or look for a round label picturing a sun, bird and tiny tree root that says "OCIA Certified Organic."
The Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) International, based in Bellefontaine, Ohio, is an internationally recognized farmer-owned and operated professional group of organic farmers and processors. Every year, the grass roots organization performs inspections at each state of coffee production. "There's literally an audit trail from tree to cup," said Mark Perkins, co-owner of The Earth's Choice Organic Coffee Co. in downtown San Diego, a wholesaler that deals with certified organic farm cooperatives in Guatemala and other Third World countries.
Becoming certified means everyone involved in the coffee producing process has to do their share. There's little margin for cheating. Farms are inspected closely by OCIA staff, who also inspect processing plants, inspectors and distributors to make sure organic coffee beans aren't sprayed with chemicals or mixed up with non-organic coffee.

Chemical chaos

Tons of dangerous pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides we would shudder to think of using in America (and are forbidden to, anyway) are sprayed routinely on crops in developing countries, in Central and South America, for instance, where much of the coffee crops are grown. The long-term effects of these synthetic chemicals are jeopardizing the environment, taking its toll on ground soil and drinking water, and posing health risks to the village farmers and their families. "I've seen kids playing with pesticide canisters strapped to their backs," said Perkins, of The Earth's Choice Organic Coffee Co. "The farmers are using primarily small hand-held pump-action sprayers, because they can't afford high technology, so the chemicals are being sprayed over wide parcels of land, and runoff from water and rain goes into the village water supply."
Encouraging more farmers to become organic is part of the solution. But there's a problem with that. Because organic farming is more labor intensive than non-organic farming, the yield is less. "All of coffee growing is pretty labor intensive," said David Griswold, general manager of Aztec Harvest, a specialty coffee broker that sells mainly to roasters in California and consumers via mail order. "But in organic farming, instead of carrying a bag of chemicals on your back, you have to carry a lot of mulch or beneficial insects."
Aztec Harvest deals with small-scale, certifiable organic and non-organic farmers in the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Veracruz and Chiapas. Each farmer works a two-acre plot, and belongs to a democratically run cooperative. Aztec works only with shade grown crops, which are said to yield better tasting coffee beans.
Considering that it takes five years for a coffee tree to bear its first crop, and the annual yield is only about one pound of roasted coffee for each tree, farmers need incentives to switch to organic production.

Support system

Coffee Kids, an independent non-profit organization in Providence, Rhode Island, works to improve the quality of life for children and families living in coffee-growing communities around the world. The organization raises funds from individuals and businesses from the coffee industry to help support these communities. Money goes back to the villages in the form of community development projects and low-income loans to families so they can supplement their income by creating other small businesses.
"All the farmers are very, very low income people, and they've been very dependent on coffee for their sole source of income," said Susan Wood, executive director of Coffee Kids. "Most are not landowners, or they own a small piece of land. Fluctuation of coffee prices makes an enormous difference in their lives. Where gourmet coffee can be sold for $8 to $9 a pound in the United States, the farmers are getting as little as 11 to 12 cents a pound for it."
During the past five years, Coffee Kids has worked with local people to set up village banks in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. The banks, in part, help low-income women apply for and establish credit. In the Atitlan region of Guatemala, where Coffee Kids has been working the longest, 15 village banks have been set up.
In the coffee producing communities of Simalungun and Sidikalang, Sumatra, Indonesia farmers have been trained in methods of sustainable agriculture, and in systems to improve coffee propagation and yield, among other things. Also, construction of a clean water system begun in 1993 is expected to save farmers money and time, plus reduce intestinal and other water-born health problems. Revenues from the water system are then used to create a micro lending fund for families to start small businesses to earn extra income. Coffee Kids also works to provide villages with preventive health care programs, nutritional education and programs that support diversified agriculture.

Working together

Roasters and brokers in the coffee industry have contributed money to help support programs established by Coffee Kids. Thanksgiving Coffee Co. contributes 15 cents of every pound of coffee it buys. The money goes to support Coffee Kids programs located in Aztec Harvest communities. According to Griswold, the money was used to buy corn milling machines, saving the women three hours of labor.

The coffee generation

Is it realistic to think that organic coffee will become increasingly mainstream? Perhaps it already has. "I don't see more people in the coffee industry letting their conscience get to them," noted Thanksgiving Coffee's Katzeff. "I see a coffee industry filled with young people whose conscience is already there. These are the people in their teens and 20s working in espresso bars. What we have is an industry with 90 percent of the workers from a generation whose charge is to save the planet from environmental degradation. This generation's responsibility is to save it from industrial pollution, yet the coffee industry leaders at the top level don't see that as a mandate. It presents a challenge."
It's not that the top execs are anti-environmental, he said. "The reality is they should wise up," added Katzeff, "because 100,000 young people working in espresso bars want meaningful work and they want their work to be related to their charge as a generation. This is going to be known as the coffee generation, not the 'me' generation."
Such a collective conscience can help make the coffee industry a positive part of the environment. "Organic represents a way," said Katzeff. "It's not the only direction, but it points the direction. Eventually all things on this planet will be grown organically."
Until then, buying organic coffee is one place to start.

Brewing the perfect cup

hat's the secret to brewing a great cup of organic coffee? Here are a few tips from the experts:
Like non-organic coffee, buy the coffee beans whole and grind them at home as you need them, says Don Stanfill, grocery buyer for Ocean Beach People's Natural Foods. The beans will stay fresher that way. For a richer taste, grind the beans fine.
People's (4765 Voltaire Street in Ocean Beach) sells 21 different kinds of organic coffee, from $7 to $8.50 per pound.
Instead of a regular drip coffee pot, try a French Press, suggests Kim Hayes of Greentree Grocer in San Diego. With this simple gadget, you simply stir the ground coffee in with the hot water. To serve, you press down a form-fitting screen that pushes the grounds to the bottom. "The grounds get to steep more that way," says Hayes. "And there's no paper filter, so it allows the coffee's natural oils to come through. It makes a better cup of coffee."
Greentree Grocer (3560 Mt. Acadia Blvd. in Clairemont) sells organic coffee, including organic French roast and espresso, for $7.99 per pound.
"It's best to grind organic coffee separate from flavored coffees, because flavoring oils might get mixed in and taint the organic a bit," recommends Adam Jester, owner of Vinaka Life's Just Desserts (300 Carlsbad Village Drive in Carlsbad). Vinaka, a coffee pub and eatery, sells coffee by the pound or by the cup.

Lorin Hallinan, a regular contributor to Earth Times, is a freelance author and former editor for the Coast Dispatch and Carlsbad Journal community newspapers. A 13-year San Diego resident, she lives in Carlsbad.