Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Level Ground, Fair Trade

So I got the opportunity this week to do one of my favourite things: getting behind the “Employees Only” door. On June 12th, I was with a group of about a dozen and a half other members of the UVic University 101 program got the opportunity to meet one of the founders of Level Ground TradingCompany. Stacey Toews helped found Level Ground back in 1997 in order to provide Fair Trade coffee to lower Vancouver Island. In the beginning, they didn't even have a building to work from, instead borrowing space from another company after their workday was over, in order to roast and pack the coffee they were bringing in from Columbia. Now in their third building and fifteenth year, Level Ground has a compact, efficient space and about 25 employees.
Level Ground facilities

Level Ground is now bringing in coffee from about 5000 farms and 12 different producer groups in 8 different countries, supplying a number of local retailers with both beans and ground coffee. Stacey is clearly still passionate about the work he's doing. I inferred that a lot of what he does is explain just what he does: talking about the business, he had a casual command of both facts and concepts that he wanted to communicate, and his delivery was both polished and personal. We started the tour with, of course, coffee. Level Ground buys top-end, shade-grown beans, roasts and packages them on-site, and apparently have figured out a good grounds-to-water ratio, because I thoroughly enjoyed my cup. Which, of course, was the point. Stacey started our tour with a history of the fair trade movement, the modern version of which is said to have started about 65 years ago with Edna Ruth Byler, a Mennonite missionary. While on mission work, she found herself in a village where the women were producing high quality linen needlework. Six years later, she and a colleague, Ruth Lederach, took some of the items to a Mennonite conference in Switzerland and sold them, and by 1958 had opened a small shop. These shops have become the Ten Thousand Villages stores found across North America. In Victoria, Level Ground imports, roasts, grinds, and bags coffee for the Ten Thousand Villages shop.
 In Europe, Oxfam picked up the ball in the mid-sixties and ran with it, becoming the force behind the European fair trade movement. Both the Mennonites and Oxfam were drawing on a much deeper and older tradition. Gavin Fridell writes [pdf] that
 “it is difficult for anyone in our present age to imagine that at an earlier point in world history it appeared “unnatural” that one person should profit by denying others the basic right to subsistence. Yet this conviction was common amongst local communities in pre-capitalist societies before the imperatives of the capitalist market and the new ideology of political economy replaced the “old moral economy of provision.” ”
Fridell links this pre-capitalist moral economy with the modern fair trade movement:
 “The greatest virtue of fair trade lies in its attempt to take advantage of its market niche to construct a new moral economy, one which crosses national boundaries and re-asserts the notion of people’s right to live taking precedence over the flows of supply and demand. Whereas the old moral economy described by Thompson asserted the rights of poor consumers to gain access to the means of life, the new moral economy of fair trade asserts the right of poor producers to get a fair price for what they sell on the market.”
It is this “new moral economy of fair trade” that Level Ground works in and that Stacey Toews is so passionate about. The front of every package of Level ground coffee has the face of a producer emblazoned on it—a producer who grew some of the beans in the roast, GPS coordinates to the community nearest their farm on the package, and who relieved a fee for the use of his or her face. The goal is to produce a perceived relationship between the producer and consumer, to make you think about where your food came from. And it wasn't until food became part of the fair trade movement that it really became visible to the public. Because of the central place food holds in all human cultures. Level Ground is branching out into non-coffee items as well, distributing dried fruit, chocolate, cane sugar (an excellent sugar, primarily a dehydrated sugar can juice that leaves a great deal of flavour with the sweet), and most recently, vanilla beans. The “A” quality vanilla beans are being sold as beans, and the “B” grade are being used to make extract. Level Ground is partnering with a local vodka maker to create an authentic vanilla extract, and early experiments seem quite promising, according to Stacey. Coffee also needs special handling when being picked. 

As coffee is a berry when it is picked, beans must be de-pulped and washed within hours of being picked or it ferments, rots and is valueless. Farmers must have access to a buying station or buying post or their crop is worth nothing. Level Ground is pursuing a project in Columbia with an organic grower to purchase his sun-dried pulp (the remains of the cherry) and make a tea from it. Apparently it is naturally quite sweet tasting.
The roasting room

 But, according to Stacey, fair trade remains an imperfect solution to the problems of ensuring producers a fair price for their goods. While the fair trade standards set by a German NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) provide for a minimum price for various goods from different places, there is no guarantee that the price flows all the way back to the original farmer rather than a larger producer group. “So without a dialogue and relationship with the producer group you can actually completely dehumanize trade and call it fair at the same time by current global standards,” Toews says. And points out that NestlĂ© in the UK now produces a two-finger Kit Kat bar that is fair trade certified.He sees the prices established by Fair Trade certification to be akin to a minimum wage: The goal is not to pay the minimum wage, but to pay more than that. When Level Ground started trading, world coffee prices were $2 US / pound. Since then, prices have fluctuated between a low of $0.45/lb and as high as $3.10/lb.
Grinding and bagging station

Currently at ~$1.75/lb, on the international market, Level Ground is paying its suppliers for top quality export beans (green) between $3 and $4 /lb depending on the country and producer group. Keeping in mind that roasting reduces the weight of beans (it takes, on average, 1.3 pounds of green beans to get a finished pound of roast beans), there's a lot of product moving through level Ground.
Distribution area--for ground and whole bean coffee

From their first container load of green beans, Level Ground is now working with 5000 farms, 12 different producer groups, 8 different countries, 25 staff, and goes through about 4 million pounds of beans a year.
Stacey Toews in front of green beans
 They store very little coffee on site. Warehouse costs are so much lower in Vancouver that they store their coffee there, only bringing it over a container at a time to roast and distribute.
Stacey with a handful of "coffee paper"

Level Ground is also paying attention to their waste stream as well. The bags the green beans come in are a natural burlap that decomposes, making them a great mulch in local gardens.  The "paper" that covers the bean and comes off during roasting is also recycled. With an aggressive recycling program, Level Ground generates very little actual "waste.
Level Ground also offers their employees a subsidy program, helping pay for the workers to commute by bus or by bike. And provide coffee to a number of non-profit organizations (including both Uni101 and The Rainbow Kitchen). Sustainability and responsibility take  pride of place in the corporate vision, making Level Ground a most unusual business. Is it obvious I had a good time?

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