from independent farmers to farmer organizations

Farmer aggregation through effective and efficient farmer organizations could be one of the biggest development opportunities we have in coffee.  In previous posts, I and others have discussed the benefits of independent farmers getting organized : more access to credit and risk management tools, access to cheaper inputs, access to external assistance, stronger political presence, better access to markets, among others.  It also benefits the specialty coffee industry since farmer organizations can manage quality and traceability better.   Two years ago, we began a pilot process to understand if our new set of independent smallholder Fair Trade standards could bring significant benefits to farmers and support farmers to get organized in democratically-run and transparent farmer organizations.

Last week I met in Honduras with farmers from 6 of the 7 pilot projects we have around the world.  These farmers and their ‘market access partners’ (organizations supporting the farmers to get organized, implement the standards and commercialize coffee) provided us with feedback on the Fair Trade pilot process we have been implementing in the last 2 years.

The group was diverse, including:

–        14 smallholder farmers from Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras and Peru

–        3 organizations that have worked in Fair Trade for many years supporting co-ops.  Now these organizations are also supporting independent smallholders to get organized and certified

–        A couple of exporters who have worked in Fair Trade for several years

–        A smallholder farmer organization that is not a co-op but a limited liability company owned by the farmers themselves

These farmers and supporting organizations were also at different phases on our pilot program.  A couple of them have been involved on this program for a couple of years already.  A couple was just audited and is not certified yet.

In an earlier post I reflected on the importance of capturing the opinion and guidance of farmers for this work.  During our meeting, farmers and supporting organizations reflected on what they thought it was the most important thing for them in this 2 year process.  What they thought was the most important ‘impact’ created as result of our project? Here are some of the comments translated:

 “this process allowed us to get organized and strengthen our new farmer organizations.  This is fundamental for us and for our future as farmers”, Jorge, farmer leader from Colombia

 “our attitude has changed: now we want to improve our work at the farm and as a group”, Vilma, Peruvian coffee farmer

 “it allowed us to access international markets and meet the U.S. coffee company who bought our coffee.  That had never happened to us before”.  “Now we have a vision for the future.  Before we only worked because we had to survive.  Now we know where we want to go”.  “We used to be just farmers, independent farmers, now we are working together and we are a farmer organization: a farmer enterprise”, Fabian, young community leader from Nariño, Colombia

 “it has brought transparency among the different actors: buyers, exporters and farmers”. “The participation of women in our group has increased too” Victor, a Peruvian community organizer supporting farmers in Peru

 “by strengthening our organization, we have achieved other benefits: access to governmental funds for projects, better prices on fertilizers.   We are working better now. The benefits go beyond the certification and the Fair Trade premium”. “We have improved the management of our farms and our quality.  We have obtained funds to invest on processing infrastructure that allows us to control quality, pollute less and use less water”, Faustino, a Honduran smallholder farmer

All of these benefits identified by farmers go beyond a Fair Trade premium.  The Fair Trade premium is important (it allows for social projects that improve the lives of the farmers and their families; it allows to make investments in quality and production) but beginning to build an effective and efficient farmer organization with the right characteristics for each case brings a set of additional benefits that farmers can find even more valuable.

Farmers themselves identified this as the biggest benefit they have seen from Fair Trade: the opportunity to create and strengthen farmer organizations. At the end of our meeting, Victor from Peru concluded:

“now the industry can support this work and help us to get to the next level: strengthening these farmer organizations through the purchase of this sustainable coffee”.

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