Although it could be argued that coffee (unlike money) actually grows on trees, the truth is that many hands and much hard work is required to produce and sell coffee. Understanding the importance of this work is one of the cornerstones of our relationship-based business model: by respecting the farmer’s craft, offering premium prices for quality, and building long-term commitments to each other, we create a win-win business for ourselves, and for our partners at origin.
Natividad Lopez Garcia, Reina Isabel Quintero, and Flor Rodriguez, founding members of SOPPEXCCA’s women’s cooperative.
One of the hands that touched your coffee this morning belonged to the farmer who planted, pruned, and harvested your coffee. When we picture fair trade, we mostly picture this person—and for good reason. In many respects, our efforts to build a more just and sustainable coffee trade have focused on empowering these farmers. There are, however, other hands that care for your coffee, and for years, these workers have been left on the margins. We’re working to change that, starting with our partners at the SOPPEXCCA Cooperative in Nicaragua. There, on the sunny foothills of Jinotega’s mountains, a cooperative of 42 women has come together in search of a sustainable future.
These women are coffee sorters. During the harvest, they spend 8-10 hours each day drying, sorting, and bagging coffee SOPPEXCCA has bought from its member farmers. Day after day, from October through March, these women ensure that coffee is evenly dried on large cement patios, hand-sorted to select out any imperfections, and stored by lot, farm, and farmer in a complex but completely traceable system. The work of these women is critical—it’s equivalent to the work of a cellar master in a winery, carefully tending to the slowly maturing product and sorting out imperfections.
According to Fatima Ismael, SOPPEXCCA’s General Manager, these women were organized in a cooperative so that they could overcome their history of poverty and marginalization. “The world of coffee, from producer organizations, to industry, to various certifications has analyized from a human perspective the equity and justice of coffee supply chains. There is an ongoing struggle towards conditions that enable sustainability of producers and a chance to overcome poverty and marginalization. One forgotten sector is the workers—predominantly women—who sort farmer’s coffee once it has reached the cooperative’s dry mill. These women have been an invisible part of the chain, in essence, they are harvest the harvest, improving quality through sorting and care, but their work has been marginalized.”
Since 2010, the 42 employees of SOPPEXCCA’s coffee mill have been organized in a cooperative to help overcome his history of poverty and marginalization. This women’s cooperative has created a matched-savings program to help its members begin their own business once the harvest season ends, it has built and supplied a member-owned grocery store that offers basic stables at cost, it has offered cervical cancer screening and treatment to its members, and it has created an initiative to transition cookstoves from wood to clean-burning stoves that can use chaff produced by coffee milling for fuel. Funded by a $10,000 loan comprised of contributions from SOPPEXCCA and Thanksgiving Coffee, this cooperative and its members are pushing our business model forward, improving quality, and ensuring that everyone behind the production of a great cup of coffee benefits from our business.
When asked what the cooperative means to her, Sayda Rios explains the savings she and her fellow members see when they shop at their grocery store. “We buy in quantity at the wholesale market in Matagalpa, direct from the distributors. We go there, with a list of the items members want to buy, and compare prices from the various sellers, then we negotiate, and get the best possible prices. By the time we’ve come home, we’re saving 30-40 percent on groceries, compared to the prices we use to have to pay at the local store.” She concludes by pointing out the change that these women have made in their lives. “By joining together we’ve managed to make our lives better.”
Adolfo Talavera, 2004.
Adolfo Talavera is a tall man with a scraggly beard and a deep, raspy voice. Listening to him talk about his gracefully choreographed organic coffee farm—the way he turns left-over coffee cherry pulp into rich organic fertilizer, sequences the planting of shade and coffee trees, or protects the source of a mountainside spring—you marvel at the joy he takes from his work, and the twinkle that it sparks in his eyes. You might also think that this joy is his dream, or the purpose of his work. But it’s not—in fact it’s just the beginning.
Talavera is the proud father of a new school in Los Alpes, Nicaragua. This school, overlooking a grassy meadow, the town, and ridge after ridge of mountainous coffee farms, is the reason Talavera does what he does. For him, and the other farmers of Cooperativa 16 de Julio, growing organic coffee is a means to an end: the health and happiness of their community.At times the dream of the new school in Los Alpes must have seemed distant, if not almost impossible. The members of 16 de Julio farm land that was redistributed in the Sandanista revolution of 1979. Through their struggle to defend themselves and their land against Contra raids, the community of Los Alpes was able to maintain their new land, and to coalesce as a cooperative.
Students at the Los Alpes School, 2004.
United by this struggle, the cooperative soon faced new challenges. Formed in the early 90’s HYPROCOOP was a second-level cooperative in the department of Jinotega. HYPROCOOP coordinated the marketing and selling of its members coffee to the Fair Trade market in Europe, guaranteeing stable earnings in a time of widely fluctuating prices. But in 1995, the executive director fled the country with the cooperative’s savings, leaving the individual cooperatives and their members responsible for $720,000 in debt. “We were devastated and shamed.” remembers Talavera.The farmers regrouped and formed SOPPEXXCA in 1997. SOPPEXXCA is a second-level cooperative with over 450 members. It was created to maintain HYPROCOOP’s links to the Fair Trade market, to repay the farmer’s debt, and to facilitate the transition to organic farming. Since then, the 450 families that comprise SOPPEXCA have paid off $400,000 of their debt. But while this has meant foregoing individual earnings for the sake of financing the cooperative, it hasn’t meant foregoing Talavera’s dream of a school in Los Alpes.With SOPPEXXCA’s help, 16 de Julio coordinated grants from international donors, and with this financing, plus contributions from the cooperative, the community built a school.
Back on his farm, Talavera stands proudly in the dirt floored kitchen of his two room house. For eight years, this is where the children came to school. “Now do you want to see my farm?” he asks. Yes. To see Adolfo Talavera’s farm is to see the life’s work of a gifted farmer. It’s a chance to see how organic coffee farmers and their cooperatives are caring for the future health of their land, their communities, and their children. These are the people and places that we – AND YOU – support when we buy and sell Fair Trade and Organic coffee.
Los Alpes is one of six primary communities who together form the SOPPEXCCA Cooperative. You can taste their coffee in our Flor de Jinotega, Nicaragua coffee line.
This story was written in 2004.
Flor de Jinotega, Nicaragua
November 2010-January 2011 Harvest
Guadalupe Jesus Picado, SOPPEXCCA Cooperative, Jinotega Nicaragua. 2010.
Nestled in the mountains above the regional capital Jinotega, the farmers of SOPPEXCCA grow coffee under the protective shade of bananas, mangos, and mahogany, and alongside dense forests providing home to dozens of rare orchids and winter habitat for hundreds of migratory songbirds. Jinotega is the heartland of Nicaragua’s coffee producing zone and many of the country’s finest coffees come from the thousands of small-scale family farms arrayed throughout the department’s lush mountain landscape.
This landscape wasn’t always organized this way. Before the revolution of the 1980s many of these small family farms were actually consolidated in expansive haciendas owned by foreigners and the country’s elite and farmed with the intensive use of agrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. The farmers themselves were hired labor, invariably poorly paid. In fact, the genesis of the revolution itself traces directly to these large farms, and the thousands of farmers without access to land. One of the central demands and outcomes of the revolution was a process of land redistribution whereby farmers gained access to the land they had worked for generations. Cooperatives arose out of the need to organize these small farms in larger economic unions that could market coffee, facilitate much needed financing, and serve the community’s broad social, economic, and environmental needs.
Though relatively small in membership, SOPPEXCCA has emerged as Jinotega’s leading cooperative. The cooperative represents 654 families and is recognized around the world as a leader in the movement to empower small-scale farmers, especially women and youth. SOPPEXCCA has built primary schools in its member communities, alongside pharmacies, cooperative grocery stores, and technical assistance centers. Extensive micro-credit programs offer members access to financing at a discount of 75% compared to locally available commercial finance. Long-term work to develop sustainable coffee production has resulted in a cooperatively-owned organic fertilizer production facility, innovative climate change adaptation efforts, and of course, ongoing coffee quality improvement programs.
During the harvest, coffee is carefully picked, then depulped and fermented overnight before it is washed and sun-dried. Careful attention to the subtleties of processing and the farmer’s pride produce sweetly floral coffee, with notes of brown sugar and cacao, summer stone fruit, and lingering taste of milk chocolate.
Cooperative SOPPEXCCA · Altitude 1,200 meters ·Region Jinotega •Processing wet/washed · Varietals bourbon, typica, caturra · Cooperative membership 654