Christmas Eve morning millions in the United States started their days thinking about last minute shopping or travel plans over cups of coffee. Segundo Membreño, a fair trade-certified farmer in Los Piños, Nicaragua, also had coffee on his mind. He was to begin harvesting his coffee that day. His extended family would be arriving at any moment to help him.

For the next few days, Mr. Membreño and his family would work in the shaded fields, moving from one coffee plant to the next, handpicking ripe, red coffee cherries and placing them in woven baskets. Once all the ripe cherries were collected, the family would put them through a small machine in the backyard to remove the outer skin and the flesh of the fruit to reveal the coffee beans. The beans would then be washed and laid out on cement platforms to dry in the sun.

Later they would be taken to the local dry mill for more drying, the removal of another skin and hand sorting to remove imperfect beans. The coffee would then be ready to sell on the international market.

Mr. Membreño is a small-scale coffee producer who has much more control over his life than day laborers who pick coffee on a plantation just down the road. He owns his own land, grows his coffee his way and has been able to slowly improve his economic situation by becoming fair-trade and organic certified. Although his house is small and has dirt floors, in a few months, it will have electric lights for the first time.

Mr. Membreño’s daughters go to school and his son to preschool. His wife, Sonia, has eggs, milk, and meat from chickens, cows, and pigs they own to supplement the rice and beans, tortillas and vegetables she feeds her family.

The family has pride and dignity because it lives on its own lands, on its own terms. Membership in a cooperative and fair-trade certification has brought the Membreños other benefits:

  • They are paid a stable price for their coffee regardless of fluctuations of the international market.
  • They have access to credit.
  • The children are eligible for scholarship to trade schools, prep schools, and universities.
  • They receive technical assistance and training from cooperative, Cecocafen, which is based in the nearby city of Matagalpa.
  • Cecocafen markets members’ coffee to European and U.S. coffee companies and coordinates interactions with the international market.
  • Cecocafen built a mill called Solcafe to serve small-scale farmers, reducing their costs and improving the quality of their coffee.

Weathering market fluctuations

Mr. Membreño is a member of Cecocafen’s Board of Directors, which consists entirely of member-producers and determines the priorities of the cooperative. In addition to access to education, health care is another issue the cooperative plans to work on, he said.

The cooperative also provides farmers intangible benefits. Fair trade farmers gain dignity because they don’t hand off their coffee beans to nameless, faceless middle people. They know where their coffee is going and what companies are purchasing it. Mr. Membreño has met and been host to the owner of a U.S.-based coffee company that purchases his beans.

His situation is different from that of coffee farmers and workers who participate in the conventional coffee market. For farmers who farm their own land, the price they are paid for their beans fluctuates widely, depending on the Coffee, Sugar, and Cocoa Exchange in New York City. If the exchange price for coffee is $1.06 per pound, as it was in December 2005, the coffee farmer will cover production costs—about 80 cents per pound—and earn a bit. If prices drop—they dropped during the last 10 years to a low of 42 cents per pound in 2001—the farmer will find herself or himself in dire circumstances. The international price of coffee may not cover production costs. And there is little possibility the farmer can get a loan to hold her or him over until prices increase the next year.

During the world coffee crisis of the 1990’s, tens of thousands of farmers lost their land and livelihood because of the drop in coffee prices. Fair-trade farmers are protected from market fluctuations. They get $1.26 per pound, or $1.41 per pound for organic coffee regardless of what’s happening on the futures market in New York City.

The small-scale conventional coffee farmer has other problems. The farmer usually sells her or his coffee to a middle-person, who takes a cut of the profits and may take advantage of farmers who are desperate for funds to support their families.

Other conventional coffee workers are day laborers, who work on large farms, called haciendas in Nicaragua. These workers are paid low wages and often depend on hacienda owners for housing. Many of them can find work only during the harvest season.

In some cases, they are exposed to pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides. They likely don’t work in shady fields like Mr. Membreño’s since large-scale conventional coffee farming can involve clearing forests because coffee cherries mature more rapidly in direct sunlight. These workers toil in conditions some have called “sweatshops in the fields.” They rarely can escape a life of extreme poverty.

Buying fair-trade coffee

U.S. coffee drinkers can use their power as consumers to improve the lives of coffee farmers like Mr. Membreño and their families by buying fair-trade coffee. Or they can buy conventional coffee for a bit less and allow transnational corporations, hacienda owners, and the futures market to determine the fate of hundreds of thousands of coffee farmers.

Although the demand for fair-trade products is growing, it is not high enough to support even those farmers who are already fair-trade certified. For example, the Cecocafen cooperative, which has more than 2,000 member farmers, sells only 40 percent of its coffee fair trade and has to sell the other 60 percent for conventional prices.

The farmers are already doing their part. Consumers can create the demand for their products and support a system that prioritizes justice over profits.