With the flood of new Fair Trade products entering the US market recently (bananas in 2004, sugar in 2005, vanilla in 2006), it can be easy to forget that Fair Trade coffee has been here since the 1980s.
Tripp Pomeroy and his partners at Café Campesino are about to celebrate ten years in business, and so in honor of Fair Trade Month, we asked him to tell us the story behind Café Campesino, and his business's journey toward sustainability. (Take note: It all began with a pile of dirt!)
Green America: Where are you located, and what does your business do?
Tripp Pomeroy: Café Campesino is a 100 percent Fair Trade, organic coffee company based in Americus, Georgia. Although we’re tucked down here in the southwest corner of the state, people might be surprised to learn that our region is chock full of inspirational neighbors. Our roastery is located across the street from Habitat for Humanity International’s Global Village and just down the road from Habitat’s headquarters. In addition, our neighbors (and good friends) at The Fuller Center for Housing and Koinonia Partners are just around the corner. And nine miles to the West is Plains, birthplace and hometown of former President Jimmy Carter.
Left, Cafe Campesino mug. Right, pound #8,000,001.
Up the road is Cooperative Coffees, of which Café Campesino is a founding member. To the best of our knowledge, Cooperative Coffees is the only Fair Trade, organic green bean purchasing coop of its kind. Through our membership in Coop Coffees, Café Campesino works directly with small producer cooperatives around the world, guided by the tenets of Fair Trade, to purchase and import some of the best organic green coffee beans in the world. We then bring the green beans to Americus, where we roast ‘em to-order and ship ‘em out to coffeehouses, markets, restaurants, fundraising groups, and individuals all over the country. One neat milestone I’d like to mention is that Coop Coffees (22 members including Café Campesino) imported our 8 millionth pound of Fair Trade, organic green coffee beans this past July!
What makes your company green?
Tripp: Well, for starters, I think it's the fact that Café Campesino’s business practices are based on a rock-solid commitment to the Golden Rule and doing the right thing. This, combined with our total commitment to Fair Trade and organics, drives our mindset and decision-making processes. Part of what makes us green is that we embrace the ongoing, daily challenge to match our actions to this mindset. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t.
Examples of Café Campesino getting it right? I think the most illustrative example is our commitment to working only with organic coffee farmers. A lot of folks don’t know this, but chemical fertilizers and pesticides do not better coffee make! But the real green value in our buying only organically grown coffee beans is the impact on our coffee-farming trading partners and their surrounding ecosystem. When small-scale farmers use pesticides and fertilizers, the only place for them to store them is at home in rooms where they eat, drink, sleep, live, and laugh. And, given that our farmer partners all cultivate their coffee at high altitudes — which means steep mountain slopes — organic farming means that chemicals aren’t there to wash down into our friends’ communities and their water supply.
Tripp (far left, in hat)
with partner Bill Harris (also
in hat) and friends at the
cooperative in Peru.
Other areas where we’re getting it right? We’ve replaced the large print runs of our catalogs with printing on an as-needed basis in-house with our own laser printer. Our Xerox meets ENERGY STAR® guidelines for energy efficiency and uses solid ink technology which generates about 90 percent less waste than a typical color laser printer. We compost the chaff from our roaster and offer it to our neighbors for their gardens. Periodically, when we can no longer store the many empty burlap bags in which our green coffee is delivered, we place a huge pallet in front of our roastery with the bags stacked high and a sign on top offering them to passersby. Without exception, the bags have been liquidated within hours. Folks who take them tell us that they have been used for everything from insulation for an attic, to ceiling covers in a mobile home, to sound-proofing for a music studio.
Finally, we’re working on a project to send our empty burlap bags down to our friends at Centro de Mujeres de la Esperanza in El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico so that we can pay women there to transform them into wall hangings for our customers. This means badly needed additional income for them and a way for us to do something meaningful with our neighbors south of the border.
What's the story behind Cafe Campesino's beginnings?
Tripp: The story behind Café Campesino demonstrates the power of collaboration and the importance of reaching out to connect with other people. Here is how Bill Harris, the founder and co-owner of Café Campesino describes Café Campesino’s origins:
We’d flown from the U.S. to Guatemala with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program to build houses. Someone on our team dumped a load of dirt on a farmer’s coffee bush, and the farmer got mad and made us quit working on the house.
What should we do now? While the farmer and local Habitat coordinator discussed the fate of the coffee tree, our team sat in the shade and talked about coffee. Wonder how much coffee he gets from that little tree? Wonder how much he gets paid for it? Wonder how many other families depend on coffee as their main source income? After an hour and a half of discussions, the farmer let us go back to work with promises that we wouldn’t cover another coffee bush. We were working again—but those lingering coffee questions remained unanswered.
In 1998, after learning that the answers to the questions posed above are about a pound (from one coffee bush), about 25 cents (what the farmer gets paid for a pound of coffee) and millions (how many families depend on coffee as their main source of income), we imported our first 40,000-lb. container of green coffee and began selling it to coffee roasters all over the eastern United States.
That was 10 years ago and that’s how we entered the intriguing and exciting world of Fair Trade, organic specialty coffee!
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Tripp: We believe that being green starts with our own personal behavior. So I would say changing old habits and developing new, greener habits are our main challenges. Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity International, was known for picking up trash whenever he was out walking around town. I consider this to be a fundamental form of “being green.” Other forms include recycling, not using bottled water, turning off the lights and air conditioning, etc. When all of us at Café Campesino are doing these things routinely, out of habit, I will consider ourselves as having overcome one of the biggest challenges facing the green movement as a whole.
There are two other “walls” that we have encountered in our journey to be green. One is that the City of Americus quit recycling several years ago. The other is what I have to believe many other dedicated small business owners are dealing with: making the time to deliberately plan and implement a “green policy.” There is always so much to do when running a business and unless we as business owners proactively make the time to make a plan and work it, we inevitably fall short of our green aspirations.
Regarding the City of Americus: great news, the recycling program is in the process of resuming, so kudos to our neighbors and officials for making that happen. In terms of “making the time” to make a plan and implement it, we have simply added environmental stewardship to our strategic planning process and are in the process of auditing our green practices… for better or worse. Measuring and then setting benchmarks and implementing a reasonable plan; it’s not rocket science but being green requires intention.
What’s been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Cafe Campesino staff with coopertive members at
Cafetalera Pangoa in Peru .
Tripp: Without a doubt, it is when our coffee-producing partners visit us here at the roastery in Americus. Over the past few years we’ve been lucky enough to host our trading partners from Colombia, Guatemala, and Peru. There is nothing like walking into our roastery with one of our producer partners and standing with them as they spot a burlap bag of their coffee, bearing their coop’s logo and name, stacked neatly, waiting to be roasted. Add to that the thrill of introducing them to our staff, all of whom are scurrying around, busy at work roasting their coffee, and to customers who have walked in to pick up a pound of their coffee, and there it is, the whole Fair Trade equation… all in one room!
What is the most hopeful sign you have seen recently from the green economy?
Tripp: Two things: 1) the fact that so many people, representing the full diversity of this country, are talking about and respecting the concept of good environmental stewardship, and 2) learning from our coffee-farmer trading partners about the organic techniques and innovations they are using to produce truly extraordinary coffee—and hearing at first hand how important organics is to them, their families, and their communities.
What’s the next green step you’re working on right now?
Tripp: To build a system that harnesses the steady output of heat that our roaster produces and use that to heat our facility, and to find funding to build a solar collector for our southern-facing Quonset hut (long-term).
What advice would you give to green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Tripp: It’s a marathon, not a sprint—a journey, not a destination. And, it’s not a matter of “who’s the greenest of them all”. The key is to get informed and start somewhere. My next personal goals are to stop drinking bottled water and pick up trash whenever I’m out walking. I’m certain the many other areas will reveal themselves to me as I journey on!
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