How Your Coffee Choice May Save Coffee Growers

Co-op Program Aids Indigenous Farmers Devastated by Leaf Rust Blight

As a seasoned traveler to the mountainous, coffee-growing regions of Chiapas, Mexico, Phyllis Robinson knows first-hand how much potential is packed into your morning coffee. There is power to fuel your daily commute and capacity to help coffee farmers reeling from climate change. Combining those benefits makes for a great cup of coffee any day of the week.

Superior Mexican coffee is grown in Chiapas by the indigenous Tzeltal and Tzotzil farmers of the CIRSA Coffee Cooperative. Their hand-picked harvest is carried across high terrain described as challenging on a good day and merciless during heavy rains. Since founding CIRSA in 1994, its farmer-owners have shown to be sticklers for quality and shown a knack for growing superior Arabica beans.

Nonetheless—and despite 25-years of exhausting labor, sacrifice and eventual business growth—the impacts of climate change have forced these farmers into a dire situation. But where there is hardship, cooperation can be a strong countermeasure.

From her base at Equal Exchange, Phyllis manages special projects for her worker cooperative headquartered in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Equal Exchange is a pioneer in fair trade practices. Phyllis is steadfast in her goal of making cooperation among cooperatives more than just a principle, but an advantage that benefits all parties, including coffee drinkers.

Starting in 2006, and again in 2014, staff from the Co-op Food Stores traveled with Phyllis to meet, work and stay with the farmers of CIRSA. (Working alongside these farmers is not easily done; their daily output is known to stagger most visitors.) “Life changing and inspiring” is how Dan Hazelton, manager of the Co-op’s Lebanon Bulk Department describes his 2006 trip to Chiapas. The resilience, dedication and business savvy of the farmers is a set of assets they need now more than ever.

Early in 2015, news of widespread coffee crop devastation reached New England. The culprit was coffee leaf rust, a blight made worse by increasingly volatile weather.

Leaf rust—also known by its Spanish name, la roya—is a fungus notorious for swift outbreaks across vast regions. It can wipe out farms by overtaking coffee plants and cutting off the tree’s nutrient supply, eventually stripping it of reproductive ability or killing it. During the 2015/16 growing seasons, CIRSA’s farmers were helpless as the fungus increased and spread during periods of unusually heavy rainfall, dry spells and waves of intense heat. CIRSA’s productive trees and farm income plummeted by 80 percent, pushing the coffee cooperative to the brink of collapse.

Yet there may be hope. As importer and roaster of finer coffees, Equal Exchange serves as the primary supplier of beans to the Co-op Food Stores. Beginning in 2014, Co-op staff members teamed up with Equal Exchange to create a sister co-op relationship with the farmers of CIRSA. Using a dozen new roasts of CIRSA coffee sold as Sister Co-op varieties, the Co-ops instituted a funding mechanism to strengthen CIRSA. For each pound of Sister Co-op coffee sold, 40 cents is placed in a fund to benefit the coffee farmers. It’s a cooperative relationship that supports sensible and critical investments. The balance grows every day with the sale of each pound of Co-op label coffee. But is it enough to battle leaf rust?

CIRSA farmers control quality at all stages of their cooperative. It’s no surprise that the Sister Co-op coffee roasts have become top-sellers. From 2012 to 2016, Co-op sales of more than 65,000 pounds of this popular coffee generated over $26,000 for CIRSA initiatives. The inspiring success of this effort proves there is indeed a lot of power in coffee beans.

The coffee bean is actually the seed of the coffee cherry. Once harvested, the pulp of the cherry is removed and the beans are then lain out to dry under the sun. Solar driers are useful for controlling the drying process and protecting the coffee beans from rain and damp conditions. In early 2015, money from the Sister Co-op Fund financed two solar driers to help increase CIRSA’s production yield, save time and offset the impacts of historically dramatic weather swings. But then came the leaf rust outbreak.

That unprecedented decline in production and export caused by la roya resulted in lost farms, money, and hope for the cooperative. Remaining farmers were desperate and demoralized.

Replanting is not a path to rapid recovery because a newly planted coffee tree takes four years to produce its first cherries. The farmers had few options.

Nevertheless, these indigenous people of Chiapas are known for rising up to fight for their future. They’ve stood strong against Conquistadors and the fallout from revolution. They’ve overcome government land theft and the pilfering from “Coyote” middlemen.

In the autumn of 2016, after surveying their losses from leaf rust, and following much deliberation, the farmer-owners of CIRSA voted to struggle onward. They are battling back using a $10,000 grant from the Sister Co-op Fund to plant new varieties of roya-resistant coffee trees. The new plants should produce higher yields, while producing the superior coffee we’ve come to enjoy.

The farmers are also using the time-tested tool of cooperative education. Filiberto Mazariegos, the general coordinator of CIRSA, recently won a highly competitive agriculture award from the Mexican government. The honor included travel to Brazil for technical training in emerging best practices. Filiberto and other CIRSA farmers have since set up field schools to share this newfound knowledge. Field schools are demonstration plots where farmers come to learn, exchange information, work with new plant varieties and gain skills in farm maintenance.

As coffee drinkers, we might not feel the depth and pain that coffee leaf rust has caused growers, but with awareness, we become catalysts for positive change.

Now through June 9, each of the Co-op Food Stores and its Co-op Market feature educational displays highlighting the Sister Co-op project.

The decent people of Chiapas are seeking to earn a living, obtain healthcare and education for their children, and to grow some of the best coffee in the world. In the words of Diego Perez Lopez, coffee farmer and member of the CIRSA coffee co-op, “Consumers and farmers must continue to walk together. We are all in the same struggle for a life of peace.”

The Sister Co-op relationship begins with the coffee farmers of CIRSA, links them together with Equal Exchange and the Co-op, then connects to consumers before circling back to benefit the very farmers who grew the beans. Those indigenous growers are still bearing the brunt of leaf rust devastation. Yet, as coffee drinkers, we may literally be holding in our hands the power to help them.

Now is the time to consider what’s in our cups. There is a lot of clout in the Sister Co-op program and its coffee blends. Each morning we can use it to brew a lifeline for the farmers of Chiapas and a powerfully good cup of coffee for ourselves.

What’s in your cup?


Our Co-op’s vision is a well-nourished community cultivated through cooperation. 

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Allan Reetz is the Co-op's Director of Public and Government Affairs. Contact Allan at areetz at coopfoodstore dot com.