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Café Campesino HistoryWe were in Guatemala in 1997 with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program. Someone on our team dumped a load of dirt on a farmer's coffee bush, the farmer got mad and made us quit working on the house. We'd flown from the U.S. to Guatemala to carry out this assignment of building a house - so what were we to do?
While the farmer and the local Habitat coordinator discussed the fate of the coffee plant, the team sat in the shade and talked about coffee, of course. Wonder how much coffee is produced from that little tree? Wonder how much he gets paid for it? How many other families in this region depend on coffee as their main source of income?' After an hour and a half of discussion, a truce was struck, and the farmer let them go back to building—with their assurance that no more dirt would get dumped on his plants.
So explains Bill Harris, co-founder of Café Campesino. Though the house got built and the team came home (no more coffee was harmed in the making of this organization), Bill couldn’t let go of those coffee questions. So he jumped on the internet when he got back home and tried to find some answers. This is what he found: coffee farmers all over the world were exploited. The price that was assigned to coffee by the New York Stock Exchange didn’t take into consideration the economic burden or reality of the individual coffee farmers. Coffee farmers get about a pound of coffee from each bush they have – that means hand picking and selecting roughly 2,000 coffee cherries per bush - which doesn’t amount to much since most farmers have fewer than 10 acres of coffee bushes. At the time, they only got paid an average of 25 cents per pound of coffee that they produce, and millions of families depend on coffee as their main source of income. These things didn’t make for a very appealing big picture.
There was a sliver of hope, though. Far away from the NYSE, A few coffee farmers had decided that they wouldn’t live as slaves to U.S. prices, and had grouped themselves together to form cooperatives that could get fair prices for the coffee they put so much work into. Enter Fair Trade, the alternative growing and selling arrangement that was sprouting up in some areas, such as a coffee growing region of Chajul, which, by chance, Bill had toured on his previous trip to Guatemala.
Bill had an idea. Creating more business and connecting producers directly with the market for their coffee, as well as convincing other farmers to switch over to Fair Trade, would help add faces and names to coffee crops. Café Campesino’s role would be establishing long-term relationships with these farmer cooperatives, buying and importing their green coffee, paying them a fair wage, and selling it to roasters in the U.S. who cared about the people behind the coffee. That’s how, in Americus, Georgia, the United States’ first and only Fair Trade, organic purchasing cooperative for green coffee beans was born.
After doing more research to find out what would be involved in importing Fair Trade green coffee, Bill journeyed back to Guatemala in August of 1997 to shore up relationships with coffee farmers and guarantee sales for them -- at Fair Trade prices.
By January of 1998, with the supply side cemented into place, the focus shifted to setting up an office back in Americus and pitching the idea to specialty coffee roasters who might serve as buyers. Café Campesino (which derives its name from the Spanish translation of 'coffee from a small farmer') saw its first real transaction in March of 1998, when we imported our first 40,000 pound container of green coffee and began selling it to coffee roasters all over the eastern United States.
That was ten years ago and that’s how we entered the intriguing world of specialty coffee. The original idea was simple- assist coffee farmers in creating direct markets for their products here in the U.S. while ensuring that they receive a fair price. The idea hasn’t changed, but Café Campesino sure has!
After about a year of importing coffee one container at a time, we were suffering from lack of additional capital and a gnawing desire to restructure the importing business into a roaster-owned cooperative. We realized that forming a purchasing cooperative with other values-driven coffee companies in the U.S. would make business more practical and more exciting. In November of 1999, seven roasters (including Café Campesino) met in Atlanta and formed Cooperative Coffees. Most of the founders were Café Campesino customers and all embraced the idea of cutting out a middleman in favor of collectively owning an importing company that would only deal directly with small scale farmers.
These like-minded roasters made for an ideal setup. The purchasing cooperative (which now has 24 members!) mirrored the coffee producing cooperatives and offered more buying capability to boot. On a personal level, the roaster members were happy to have company in the brave new world of Fair Trade coffee. As Bill explains, "It can be lonely at times to have a business committed to more than just making money; it reminds me of a fish swimming upstream. By joining into Cooperative Coffees, each of us felt tremendously empowered. We all knew this formation would help us build relationships with the farmers; we were pleasantly surprised with the accompanying camaraderie that sprung up between each other."
So, where did this leave Café Campesino’s roasted coffee efforts? Since most of the company’s sales were associated with green coffee, our sales fell dramatically as this business shifted over to the cooperative. But with help from a series of part-time folks, we rocked along through 2000 and developed our website and wholesale customer base. In late August, we hosted Daniel Pistone for a few days as he passed through town in preparation for a Habitat trip to Sri Lanka and India. Daniel painted our new packing room and, as he headed off for the airport, casually mentioned that he might return in November if we needed help for the holiday season (Careful, Daniel!).
After he returned from his trip, Daniel officially came on board with Café Campesino in November 2000. This new college graduate was the perfect "first hire," offering the wide-eyed captivation and open mindedness necessary to suggest new ideas as well as the willingness to handle any task we threw at him.
For the next two years, Daniel took care of much of Café Campesino's day-to-day needs—fulfilling and packing coffee orders, collecting payments, making deposits, and taking care of outreach at events. His insight in pursuing partnerships with non-profits is an element still in practice today, and he played a vital role in building up our wholesale and retail business. Then, with our customer base at an all time high, Daniel moved on to his next adventure.
Cooperative Coffees, meanwhile, was handling the importing needs quite well and growing at a rate on par with Café Campesino. We at Café Campesino felt the timing was perfect to leap out into becoming a bona fide coffee roaster. And we couldn’t think of anyone better to carry out this gargantuan task than Bill’s brother, Lee, who trained at the New England Culinary School. Lee had been the chef and co-owner of a successful restaurant in Tallahassee, but he was unable to resist this ultimate challenge. He jumped at the invitation, returning as a new partner and master coffee roaster in the business. Lee’s presence allowed Café Campesino to move away from its previous practice of toll roasting, where the process is contracted out to another firm, in favor of keeping the beans in house.
To accommodate the change, the crafty Harris brothers renovated an old World War II Quonset hut (conveniently located down the street from Café Campesino's original office) into a coffee roasting facility. Lee was quickly dispatched to visit the roaster manufacturer, Ambex, in Clearwater, Florida for a crash course on roasting, and to plunk down a chunk of change on a 15 kilo roaster.
Already accustomed to working around heat, ovens, and food-oriented machinery, Lee saw his new job as a not-entirely-new challenge. "In roasting coffee, your 'pan' is now a range that's spinning, and the flame is the heat under the roaster drum," he explains. "Roasting coffee isn't easy; the learning curve is in coming to understand what happens during the process and then manipulating and tasting the final result."
Basically, Lee took to the new roaster like some guys take to a new set of golf clubs. Friends suddenly stopped hearing from him, and his social schedule consisted of nights and weekends running thousands of batches of coffee through the roaster in order to learn how timing, moisture, countries of origin, and freshness played into the range of flavors and nuances.
Lee's constant and meticulous tweaking of the roasting process paid off: the quality of Café Campesino's coffee was recognized by our peers and our customers for its high quality, earning us a solid, loyal customer base- all of whom absolutely loved our brews! The quality of the coffee beans, coupled with Lee's finicky chef demands had clearly put us in a new league. Oh, and we were also the first and only Fair Trade organic coffee roaster in the state of Georgia. We were really making history.
Lee went on to earn his spurs in the upcoming Christmas seasons. With gift orders piling up on top of regular orders, Lee’s new social calendar was overflowing. In the New Year, sales were still at record holiday highs as gift recipients became regular customers.
A longtime friend of Lee’s with substantial experience in international consulting and business management was invited to become part of Café Campesino’s team in mid-2004. Tripp Pomeroy tackled his general management responsibilities- including streamlining sales, marketing, and public relations duties, and effectively handling our continued growth.
By 2005, Café Campesino was able to look beyond its own daily functions and deepen its role in the farming cooperatives. Bill, Lee, and Tripp visited the Santa Anita Cooperative in Guatemala. This was a first for Lee, who notes, "I was struck by the generosity and hospitality of the farmers, and seeing the other part of the operation made me even more proud of what role I have."
Bill and Tripp would later go on to Xela, Guatemala, the site of the annual meeting of Cooperative Coffees and the producer partners. Talking, listening, and learning together, the members reached the Xela Accord- an agreement to raise prices.
2006 heralded significant visits from producers in Peru and Columbia, making the relationship between cooperative and producer more of a two-sided exchange. The producers could see for the first time how Café Campesino processes and markets the coffee once it arrives.
So that’s our story. Lots of things have changed since a wheelbarrow of dirt got dumped on the wrong plant, but a lot of things have stayed the same. As we continue to change, improve, define and redefine this company, we stand by our original mission of helping to create a system of trade that ensures that the farmers receive a fair price for their product. Admittedly, it sometimes feels like we are shoving that wheelbarrow through a ton of bricks. But we often feel that it is barreling down a hill and we are simply along for the ride. Regardless, the work is exciting and meaningful. And we thank you for helping us to keep that wheelbarrow moving.