Mark Overly, the owner of Kaladi Coffee Roasters, has worked in coffee for over thirty years. With October's designation as National Fair Trade Month, Overly has more than a few words to share about the history of the Fairtrade certification and his choice to source 90 percent of his beans from Fairtrade-certified producers. “It’s our vehicle to quality,” he says. “It’s the way that we establish relationships directly with farmers so that we can produce the coffee we’re looking for.”
Overly says that Fairtrade has always challenged the status quo of the coffee industry because it changed the model of how small farms and buyers interact. Fairtrade gives small farm cooperatives the ability to personally negotiate with buyers instead of going through larger coffee estates. But the co-op model also means that portions of the profit go back into community-chosen improvements rather than directly to individual farmers. This method of compensation is sometimes thought to be unfair, but Overly believes that some of the judgment comes from cultural misunderstanding.
“We Americans have a tendency to think that everyone is like us and values individual achievement over collective empowerment,” he says. “Indeed, we are taught to suspect [that] collective thinking is something negative.” But Fairtrade advocates say that individualistic belief sometimes overlooks the conditions that created the co-ops in the first place, and there are several.
Fair trade as a movement has a history that dates back to World War II, but it became especially relevant to coffee in 1987 — the year the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) collapsed. The ICA regulated international coffee trade so that producing countries only harvested and sold a certain amount of beans to keep the market competitive.
In 1987, the United States and Brazil dropped out of the deal, and Brazil put all of its beans on the market. “The price of coffee dropped in half,” says Overly. “It would cost you more to grow coffee than to actually sell it.”
Meanwhile, in Anchorage, Alaska, Overly was just getting into the coffee business. And as he began to search for the conditions that could create a premium cup of coffee, he came to believe that his prepared drink would only be as good as his source material, and the best product he found came from small coffee co-op farms.
He attributed the co-op’s bean quality to heirloom trees planted in natural conditions. He thought the taste was superior to that of estate-farmed fruit, which often grew in less ideal environments. Still, the co-ops struggled to be competitive because they didn’t have the equipment to process their coffee fruit into beans.
“That’s where the whole co-op movement came about,” he explains. “They banded together and acted as if they were an estate.” Their power in numbers allowed them to purchase the machines they needed, and it allowed them to be competitively sized. But the co-ops continued to have trouble negotiating fair prices, and that’s when Fairtrade International stepped in, to support farmers by creating a minimum price per pound and standards meant to provide worker and environmental protections.
The minimum price per pound allowed farmers the bargaining power to request additional premiums. Overly says that “Fairtrade is a floor that everything gets built on top of. It’s a minimum wage just like anything else. As [they] increase the value, we pay extra on top of that.” And part of that revenue goes back into community-chosen investments ranging from schools to equipment to health services.
Overly has been to some co-op meetings and says the scene can get heated as people argue with each other over price. “Something I learned from participating in cooperative meetings is that decisions are made by unanimous consent, not just majority view. It's felt that if even one person is against a proposition, then there will be lasting resentment. It takes a lot of time and negotiation to make changes,” he reflects.
Still, there is a wide range of co-ops around the world. Overly says that many Central American co-ops formed naturally because of government models and cultural norms. He explains that these co-ops are often “Indigenous groups who have been systematically excluded from the market economies in their ‘own’ countries. Banding together as a group is one of the few ways they can have any political power in their communities.”
But on the other side, he works with a 10,000-member co-op in Ethiopia where he doubts that individual members have much of a say in where the premium money goes. This is the complaint that many in the coffee industry make about Fairtrade. They feel that the money isn’t reaching the people who need it most. Overly thinks this narrative is driven by roasters, importers and traders who want to “glorify the plant rather than the realities” of working and harsh environmental conditions.
Direct trade, which is the current trend in coffee buying, puts roasters in direct contact with individual farmers instead of co-ops. However, “there’s no criteria for direct trade,” Overly says. “There’s no contractual agreement. It doesn’t make them an honorable steward just because they’re buying it directly from the farms.”
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But for Overly, these past thirty years of working with Fairtrade-certified co-ops has created long-lasting relationships with growers and a reputation for selling good beans. To honor that legacy, Kaladi Coffee Roasters was chosen to participate in Fairtrade America's “Choose Fairtrade: Choose the World You Want” mural project.
Earlier this fall, local artist Giovannie AKA Just painted a mural of Natividad Vallejos on the wall of Kaladi's original location, at 1730 East Evans Avenue. Vallejos is a fifteen-year member of an all-female coffee cooperative in Peru, one of the co-ops that provides Kaladi with its popular Andes Gold blend.
Overly reflects on how this co-op has always produced top-quality beans. “Many years ago — eight years, thinking back — it was a horrific year in Peru; bridges were washed out, and they had a hard time getting the coffee down...and yet, they delivered us a container of coffee that was absolutely fantastic.” He later learned that the mill had rejected one-third of the beans that came in because of poor quality, but they’d packaged his container first.
“That tears me up,” he says. “They made sure they took care of us, and that’s that real value of it and the respect. They honor that relationship. And that’s the reason they’re our number-one-selling coffee. They’re just fantastic.”