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Why Not Always Certified Organic?

Not all of the goods I import are certified organic, but all of the small scale farmers I work with use organic practices; they do not use any chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers; nor do they use any genetically modified (GMO) seeds. Most, however, cannot afford the expensive organic certification needed to promote and sell their foods for a higher price in the international market. An organic certification usually takes around 3 years and often costs thousands of dollars, something clearly out of reach for the small scale rural farmer. The average coffee farm in Peru is about 2.5 - 3 hectares (6-7.5 acres), which makes organic certification difficult, if near impossible. In other coffee producing countries where large scale industrialized agriculture has taken root such as Brazil and Costa Rica, individual farmers may be able to afford an expensive certification, the cost of which may be recouped within one or two harvests. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of the farmers in Peru, the small and sometimes unpredictable harvests prohibit this expensive investment..

In many cases coffee or cacao “cooperatives” have been set up to aggregate the coffee or cacao from farms in the same valley or region. These cooperatives sometimes pay outside organizations to certify the member farm’s coffee or cacao as organic. Organic coffee and cacao receive premiums on the international market as consumers increasingly want products free of chemicals or pesticides that may have adverse effects on their health and that of the environment and the farmers. Unfortunately, the higher prices the cooperative receives for the organic coffee rarely benefits the farmer. From my experience, the price the farmers receive from the cooperative that purchases their coffee is either the same or only marginally higher than that offered by traditional commercial buyers. This may be due to a number of factors such as the cost of organic certification, increased management salaries for the cooperative, or cooperative investment for the future.

It’s important to note that organic certifications for cooperative member farms only extend to their coffee or cacao production, and only applies when the farm sells their coffee or cacao to the cooperative. So while the farm's coffee or cacao has been certified "organic" by a third party, the rest of the foods on their land which grow amongst the coffee have no certification. The true beauty and diversity of the farms I work on can only be understood when one learns about or works directly on the farms. Coffee grows well in the shade and thus is grown under cacao trees which themselves grow under the shade of other fruit trees such as mango, avocado and pacay. Under the coffee trees growing voraciously are the ginger and turmeric tubers among other edible plants such as yuca. This beautiful food forest provides the diversity that is lacking in modern agriculture and creates an economic incentive for landowners to maintain the diversity of their forests. I may import turmeric or ginger which grow under the certified “organic” coffee plants. They will not carry any organic certification. Campesino Mateo will only work with farmers and import products on lands cultivated with traditional practices using organic methods of agriculture.

So how are these lands managed organically? The farmers usually transplant coffee or cacao seedlings (small, young plants) in a semi-shaded opening and tend to them without using any sprays or fertilizer. The farmers cut the herbaceous plant growth around their coffee and cacao plants to provide nutrients and cut out competition. They generally work together and sweep through the land cleaning around every coffee bush. Farmers will often exchange work on each-other’s lands for the weeding and harvest of the coffee crop. Each day the host farmer will cook a large lunch meal and offer chicha, a semi-fermented corn-based drink, to the helpers in exchange for their work. The farmers (also known as “campesinos”) understand the communal help ensures there will always be enough hands for the harvest. Thus, many small farmers will not have to pay laborers to harvest their land, which often benefits a cash-strapped farmer who will only have money once they harvest, peel, ferment, dry, and sell their coffee or cacao beans.

There are also many other certifications with regards to coffee in addition to "Organic". "Rainforest Certified", "Fair Trade", and "Bird Friendly" are just a few which you may find on your bag of coffee. What do these actually mean and are they important? This can be best answered in a future blog post due to the complexity of these issues, however it must be noted that just because a coffee is certified "Organic" or "Bird Friendly", this will never ensure a high quality product. Farmers may still take steps to emphasize efficiency and quantity over quality; such as harvesting unripe or over-ripe beans, not processing beans soon after harvest, not properly fermenting, drying or storing the beans, mixing different quality beans...etc...all of which will reduce the quality and flavor of the coffee. Since the farmers are still selling their beans in a commodity market (in this case, a certified commodity market), regardless of quality they will receive the same price per weight of raw coffee beans. This means there may be no incentive to produce higher quality or recourse for a really low quality output and inattention to detail. Providing feedback to the farmers and paying higher prices for high quality is the best way to increase quality and emphasize the farmer’s impact on their agricultural output.

I only work with and import goods from farms and farmers I know personally. By forming direct relationships, travelling to and living on the farms myself, I’m able to ensure the absolute purity of the lands and foods I import. Forming a direct relationship between small scale farmers practicing traditional agriculture and end consumers or artisanal producers ensures a well compensated farmer and high quality, properly processed foods. For most artisan producers such as coffee roasters, chocolatiers, and chefs, as well as consumers, it is nearly impossible to form personal connections with remote farmers halfway across the globe. Reliable and fully transparent suppliers and importers that form relationships and connections with remote farmers are important ways to ensure equitable relationships and high quality products. The greatest guarantee is always direct links from the farmer to the consumer - trust, honesty, integrity, and transparency are the most important factors in choosing your farmers and your suppliers!

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