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Lee Wallace, director of Peace Coffee, cheered as workers installed the catalytic oxidizer for Peace Coffee’s new roaster last month. The roaster makes 150-pound batches of coffee, supplementing the 50-pounder used 14 hours a day. The oxidizer cleans the exhaust smoke during roasting.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Lee Wallace, director of Peace Coffee, cheered as workers installed the catalytic oxidizer for Peace Coffee’s new roaster last month. The roaster makes 150-pound batches of coffee, supplementing the 50-pounder used 14 hours a day. The oxidizer cleans the exhaust smoke during roasting.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Peace Coffee: Changing the world a cup at a time

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY
  • Star Tribune
  • October 25, 2008 - 4:58 PM

Every morning, Andy Lambert, a local Olympian in the sustainable-development movement, straps on his helmet, mounts his bicycle and begins a 20-mile ride that will take him, bike trailer in tow, to several stores, coffee shops and food cooperatives where he'll deliver about 300 pounds of "Peace Coffee."

"There's something beautiful about physical labor that makes the soul rest easy at the end of a long day," said the well-conditioned Lambert, who traded a desk job to pedal nearly 5,000 miles annually. "We at Peace Coffee hope that our mantra of 'pedal not petrol' inspires other companies to consider adding bicycle delivery to their business model."

Oh, and there's also a biodiesel-fueled Peace Coffee van, in addition to a couple of bike couriers.

Peace Coffee is a profitable, 10-year-old Minneapolis company with $3.1 million in annual sales that's growing 20 percent annually. The company has installed a new $180,000, 2,800-pound Diedrich bean roaster at its expanded Minneapolis operation that will produce 150-pound batches of aromatic beans purchased at premium prices from small farmer cooperatives in developing countries.

The company is owned by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (www.iatp.org), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that researches and advocates globally "to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems."

Peace Coffee is one of several dozen small coffee importers, roasters and distributors around the country that sprang up in protest to large-scale coffee farms owned by huge land owners who supply the world's major coffee companies using open-field, big-agriculture practices.

"We are trying to show that you can buy and sell shade-grown coffee under this successful model of livable wages for small farmers, with no deforestation or pesticides or herbicides," said Lee Wallace, director of Peace Coffee (www.peacecoffee.com). "Only when you put coffee out in sun-soaked fields do you have to add pesticides. We plan for growth, and growth is the way to get more money into the hands of small farmers."

The strategy seems to be working. Peace Coffee sales are growing at traditional venues such as the Wedge, a longtime Minneapolis cooperative, as well as at suburban supermarkets such as Kowalski's, where shoppers pay $8.99 to $10.99 a pound to buy blends of Peace Coffee in Woodbury and Eden Prairie.

Cooperative efforts

Peace Coffee is one of 24 "fair trade" coffee roasters that in 1999 formed Cooperative Coffees, an importing cooperative that was established to meet fair trade international certification and bypass traditional middlemen. To date, Cooperative Coffees has relationships with 20 coffee-growing cooperatives in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru, Ethiopia, Rwanda and elsewhere.

Cooperative Coffees pays about $2 a pound to farmer co-ops, compared with the $1.30 quoted recently on the New York commodities  market. The cooperative also provides pre-financing and technical support and requires that farmers submit to a certification process that tests for sustainability practices and organic methods.

Conventional coffee farmers receive only about 2 cents of the $3 paid at retail for a coffee bistro latte, according to TransFair USA, a fair-trade group.

The fair-trade concept has existed for decades in the United States and Europe, but has begun to get mainstream traction over the past decade thanks to publicity and an international coalition of certifying organizations, such as the Fairtrade Labeling Organization and TransFair USA, the labeling organization for North America. The labeling process vets coffee, tea, chocolate and bananas and provides a fair-trade logo.

Fair trade controversy

The certification process has its critics, such as Lawrence Solomon, director of the Energy Probe Research Foundation of Canada, which analyzes trade and consumer issues. The requirement that the fair-trade moniker goes only to cooperative producers can discriminate against independents and larger companies that increasingly are embracing sustainability standards but don't want to be part of a cooperative.

The fair traders have, at times, warred with Starbucks and other big coffee buyers who may buy a few fair-trade-certified lines, but otherwise say they are fair to growers and responsible environmentalists.

"Peace Coffee is a really solid business strategy and it is really responsible," said Chris Eilers, president of Minneapolis-based Dunn Bros, a retail coffee business that doesn't compete directly with Peace Coffee. "But 'fair-trade certified' is not the be-all end-all in coffee buying. If people jump on the simple philosophy of 'fair trade' it excludes [our] farmers in East Africa or small tribal growers in New Guinea. And for some of them, the concept of cooperatives and fair trade isn't in their vocabulary. They may not be able to afford to be certified yet, but they deserve to be paid well for good coffee and environmental practices. We visit the farms directly or we buy from importers that have been there and can assure that sustainable practices are in place."

Dunn Bros, which requires its franchisees to visit coffee farmers and get to know small growers and their practices, will spend about $3 million this year buying 1.2 million pounds of beans at premium wholesale prices.

"We are big enough and we are able to do this and we think it is the responsible way to behave in a developing country," said Eilers, who began in 1993 as a single-store franchisee. "And it helps more coffee farmers get to economic independence. And consumers are more in tune with sustainability and are asking about it."

Honest people can disagree on the best system to deliver premium coffee in a way that also rewards small growers and enhances the environment. But it's becoming clear that more and more consumers are demanding small growers an ocean away get a fair deal.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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