This guest blog post comes to us from Jim Pellegrini, Founder, CEO & Director of Coffee at Muddy Dog Roasting Company. Jim travelled to Chiapas, Mexico on a trip with Fair Trade USA staff to visit Fair Trade coffee farmers last December. Read on to learn about his experience and why Fair Trade is important to his company's mission.
We hear it everywhere in the US now, even if the slogans are slightly different. “Buy local”, “Know your farmer, know your food”, and “No farms, no food” are just a few of the catch-phrases of a generation seeking authenticity and integrity with their grocery dollars. As coffee people, we think it’s important to help deliver on that worthy goal.
The best cafe mocha I've ever had, at a cafe in San Cristobal
The coffee industry today has many claims of “Direct Trade”. They create a bucolic image of roasters and farmers across the table from each other, making deals sealed with a handshake, sending bags of lovely, socially responsible coffee into the hands of consumers who gladly pay a premium knowing the benefit of such an ideal model.
The devil, as they say, is in the details.
Fresh coffee cherry ready for processing
Mexico, here we come
In December, I had the fantastic opportunity to visit the mountainous coffee region of Chiapas, Mexico  with Fair Trade USA . Chiapas may be best-known as the home of Palenque , the famous Mayan ruins just outside the Tabasco region. It’s also the home of some of the finest coffee Mexico – and Central America, more broadly – has to offer.
From a roaster’s perspective, the trip shed some light on a few aspects of Mexican coffee I hadn’t previously considered.
The Chiapas landscape at the edge of the Triunfo Biosphere
The first revelation was the incredible biodiversity of the region, and the environmental stewardship these farmers provide. One of the central features of the region is the El Triunfo Biosphere , established in 1990 as sort of a Mexican equivalent of a US National Park. In 1993, El Triunfo was included in the MAB-UNESCO Programme  for Biosphere Reserves. The Biosphere is an ecologically sensitive area, and it’s brilliantly managed to provide a livelihood to organic coffee farmers, while being preserved for the world.
Coffee is processed on the family farms
The second revelation had a little more to do with the coffee, specifically. This region of the country is characterized by on-farm fruit processing, almost exclusively. In many coffee-producing locales, farmers’ involvement with coffee ends with growing fruit, which is then transferred to central washing stations responsible for removing the seed from the fruit and the subsequent drying operations. The fact that farmers here wash and dry their own coffee is partly the reason that these coffees have a wide range of cup characters. This sort of diversity is a mixed blessing – there’s potentially a flavor for every palette, but the consistency desired by the trade is a challenge.
The role of Fair Trade
In the ideal world described by the most favorable interpretation of “Direct Trade”, Fair Trade would be an antiquated construct, since farmers would be paid a super-premium for the fruits of their labors by roasters who nurture long-term relationships with them. And in some instances, this actually happens. The reality, however, is that very few roasters are in a position to effect these true Direct Trade models, where individual roasters and farmers forge long-term alliances that eliminate the need for middlemen. Instead, it is a practical necessity that farmers form co-operatives, that the co-operatives deal with international brokers, and that the brokers make those coffees available on the open market. As Hilliary Clinton famously said, it takes a village.
Seeing the benefits that democratically-organized cooperatives confer to their members reinforced to us the importance of Fair Trade, not at a philosophical level (who could argue that, after all?), but importantly at a boots-on-the-ground level. The Fair Trade premiums paid for the coffees are used for all kinds of projects, from short-term pre-harvest financing, to long-term infrastructure elements like schools.
The author, cupping at FIECH
Over the course of a week, we tasted many fine coffees from many wonderful farmers. But a small roastery like ours can only stock a limited number of coffees. And the one we found most impressive was FEDERACIÓN INDÍGENA ECOLÓGICA DE CHIAPAS , or FIECH for short. FIECH is made up of 15 cooperatives, representing 21 different municipalities in Chiapas, and has over 2,800 members consisting primarily of indigenous famers and their families.
FIECH sells most or all of its coffee each year as Fair Trade Certified coffee. The premiums are used for many benefits to the members. Pre-harvest financing, schools, coffee nurseries, and farm renovations.
Our group, cupping with the staff at FIECH. The man in the blue shirt is Josh Burdett. His company, InterAmerican, imported the FIECH coffee we now offer.
A taste of Chiapas
Hopefully this post has given you a little insight into the Chiapas region, and the importance of Fair Trade Certified coffee to its people. If you would like to take the experience one step further, we suggest a taste of Chiapas with some excellent FIECH  coffee that’s enjoyable by any preparation. And you can do so knowing it’s great coffee that doing great things for the people who grew it.