Interview with Higher Grounds Trading Company’s Chris Treter

Editor’s note: This interview with Chris Treter is the first of an ongoing series of interviews with fair trade leaders and thinkers.

1) What is the mission of Higher Grounds Trading Company?

Higher Grounds Trading Co. was founded to provide a direct link to growing cooperatives and the coffee consumers by working directly with small-scale growing cooperatives around the world. We view our work as not only providing some of the highest quality coffees available on the planet but also to work toward creating positive social and environmental change both in growing communities and here at home. We’ve formed a non-profit – On the Ground – which works to support the construction of health care clinics, sustainable water projects and schools in coffee growing countries. By purchasing all of our beans via Cooperative Coffees (the only 100% fair trade coffee importing cooperative in the world) and working to build sustainable communities we pursue a wholistic approach to more fair trading practices and global partnerships. We have a roastery that services wholesale accounts with an attached coffee shop in Traverse City, Michigan. In 2010 we also began a partnership with Canaan Fair Trade and the Palestinian Fair Trade Association to import Fair Trade, Organic Olive Oil.

2) What are the challenges to running a 100% fair trade business?

The biggest challenge is working to differentiate from companies that do not have the same level of commitment to sustainable development, social justice and environmental sustainability but attempt to message their companies in a way that misleads the consumer. Consumer education, sustainable business practices, and time in the field is essential to a business like ours. In addition to the higher prices we typically pay for our beans, this adds to the overall cost of doing business that other companies not committed to sustainability do not have. Thus, with leaner margins we must find ways to be innovative to compete with those companies that are not dedicating a fairly significant cost of doing business to the betterment of their relationships both environmental and social, with their trading partners.

3) Please share a success story from one of your producer partners.

Maya Vinic Cooperative

The first co-op that we started purchasing from was Maya Vinic – a co-op of Mayan people in the Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. They and their neighbors had been victims of a horrific massacre in 1997 of 45 mostly women and children that were praying and fasting for peace. When we formed Higher Grounds our first coffee to purchase was from Maya Vinic. Together with a couple of other coffee companies in Cooperative Coffees we were the first to import fair trade coffee from the Co-op. Back then they had collected their coffee in a wooden, dirt floored shack a stones throw from the massacre site. Today they have an amazing processing center, roasting facility, and office. They sell to the national market, are opening a cafe in San Cristobal, and have improved the lives for their growers through fair trade sales. In addition to purchasing at fair trade prices, Higher Grounds gives .15 cents above the fair trade, organic price back to the co-op in the form of a social premium which is used by the co-op to improve its organization. In the past 4 years of the program they have started a high school class for their farmers, replaced the engine in the truck used to collect coffee from the growers, and purchased land for use as an organic test plot to educate farmers on how to grow better organically. Via the Chiapas Water Project (Now part of a broader organization, On the Ground, an organization we founded to provide potable drinking water to communities in Chiapas, we also funded the construction of a water project for a small village of 100 people in one of the growing communities. While we feel there has been a lot of advances in the communities that make up Maya Vinic, there are many more things that need to be accomplished and we will continue to work with the communities each year to improve the quality of life for the growers and their families.

3) What are some of the current trends in fair trade and organic coffee?

Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union

Current trends of fair trade and organic coffee are two fold – each of which heading in opposite directions. One one hand we see a watering down of the overall concept of fair trade. As large companies see the market value of fair trade they have edged in on the market, utilizing the fair trade niche as a way to improve the perception of their brand in the overall market. This is unfortunate as they have also had the opportunity to influence the meaning and trade practices of fair trade via the strategies employed by certifiers. This approach is based on selling mass amounts of coffee purchased at the lowest fair trade price possible – a minimum price which growers that I have spoken to in a number of countries have unanimously stated is not fair.

At the same time you have a number of 100% fair trade coffee companies bucking this corporate approach to fair trade and instead have banned together to form a more committed, version of fair trade that encompasses being 100% fair trade, transparent, accountable, with direct relationships and communication to the producers who grow their beans. This group of roasters are forming closer relationships to influence the overall meaning of fair trade so that it becomes more fair for growers and less of a marketing advantage for large corporate entities that are not committed to the tenants of fair trade in their overall business practices.

4) Fair trade seems to be at a crossroads. What do you see as the future of fair trade?

In my eyes, the future of a fair trade system that is just and sustainable for the producers will be one which focuses on increasing the fair trade/organic base price set to growers and a more general deepening of international solidarity and direct relationships roasters/ consumers and growing cooperatives/ growers to improve community and cooperative infrastructures. Also, a more transparent and accountable system will hopefully be designed that will differentiate the companies that are 100% fair trade and allow consumers to know what the business practices are for the companies which adhere to fair trade principles. I believe advances in communication technology will also enable those committed companies to have a more direct, real time and long term partnership with growers that is based up fairness and equality in business relations.

To get to this point we need to revamp the fair trade certification system to make it more fair for growers and easier for consumers to know which companies are committed to fair trade and not just using it as a marketing advantage.

5) Please share with us your experience in the Run Across Ethiopia project.

We founded and completed the Run Across Ethiopia – a 250 mile run from the capital city of Addis Ababa to the coffee growing region of Yrgacheffe in order to raise mass amounts of funds and education to build schools. I decided to run this distance and enlist other runners, activists, artists, educators, and business people in order to be able to raise the funds and infrastructure to build three schools in a country where less then half the population is literate.

Reflecting back on an effort that had the support of 9 other runners, a board of directors and volunteers at On the Ground, a dozen drivers, translators, organizers in Ethiopia and over 800 individuals, corporations, foundations, organizations, schools, and churches which all worked together to reach all of our fundraising and running goals, I can’t help but be astonished! In addition to funding the construction of three schools, funds were used to support a school lunch program in one of the most impoverished areas of the capital city, Addis Ababa. Street children will also get informal education thanks to the funding of the Gorumsa Project – which is supporting runners from Team Tesfa to educate homeless children in the capital city of Addis Ababa.? Just as important, On the Ground has made long term relationships to continue work in various communities throughout Ethiopia.

It is hard to verbalize my favorite memories. Thanks to the runners, media team (many videos brought to you by Jacob Wheeler and his immersion journalism and James and Jamaica Weston Lynn from Weston Films) and Bill Paladino (OTG ED), many of them are documented in blogs and video! Here are some of those memories with direct links to the experience.

Celebrating Ethiopian Christmas with a concert by Seth and May at Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying and Destitute was the first of many moving moments of the expedition. We wanted to ensure that before the run started that runners, support crew, and media team would be cognizant of the level of poverty and its effects on the population. Like any country, an excellent gauge of the level of poverty and lack of a country’s health care resources is by examining what takes place to the forgotten in the capital city. There is no better place to look to and support then the Missionaries of Charity, Home for the Dying and Destitute, which help those on the street with serious illness.

When the run was set to begin, it felt nothing short of a dream. After a rather tedious process of getting all runners, support team, drivers, and equipment in place and out to the starting point, we were met by a couple dozen of our Ethiopian counterparts, including Olympic gold medal 5000 meter winner, Million Wolde. Seth Bernard got the dozens of people together in a circle to say an opening prayer then Timothy Young set us on our way to Yrgacheffe.

Each mornings began with a simple breakfast at the break of dawn and a word from one of the runners. After a quick word, we started right at dawn to avoid the packs of heinas that roamed in the night and to try to get done running before the midday sun. Throughout the expedition, young Ethiopian children would join us from town to town. Eventually, some of the runners led them in their favorite chants or taught simple school lessons. The end of each days’ run was usually accompanied by dozens of locals bewildered by the spectacle of a bunch of foreigners running through their village. The children would evidently join the high fives that accompanied the end of a run and the runners did their best to entertain the children as they stretched.

After 9 days of running we had entered the coffee growing region of Sidama. The team saw first hand why they had dedicated so much time to training, fundraising and participating in the run when we visited the community of Hase Gola a day later. The coffee growing community greeted us with a huge celebration of song, dance, and speeches to commemorate the run and construction of a secondary school funded by the Run Across Ethiopia. One of my favorite moments of the whole expedition was to watch Bizuayehu dancing with the Hase Gola choir as the crowd quickly joined the dancing and singing.

The final day saw us entering the community of Afursa Waro, a community of a couple thousand and home to the Negele Gorbitu coffee cooperative where we purchase the beans for our Ethiopian Yrgacheffe Light Roast. After our ritual of opening words and music we headed out for our final 6 miles. With four teachers from the school in Afursa Waro, other roasters from Cooperative Coffees, family, friends, and local villagers, we traversed down a dirt road through villages dotted with coffee trees until we reached the school at Afursa Waro.

The community of Afursa Waro and the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union held a ceremony in which they honored runners with the clothing of the regional elders. Local musicians also performed traditional music for everyone.

Without the support of the hundreds who made this possible we would never have been able to reach our goals! The Tesfa Foundation and Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union who helped organize the expedition, all of the volunteers at On the Ground, and the nearly thousand people who donated to the cause (including events at Food for Thought, Pangea’s Pizza, Crema, Little Bo’s, Global Village Collective, and many more organizations!)? showed that international solidarity is not only possible but a viable way to make real social change!

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