Coffee Shops and Cash Crops: Gritty Origins of the World's Favorite Beverage.

Author:Wright, Jessica


Jose Perez Vasquez is up at sunrise in Chiapas, Mexico to begin work for the day. He has already traveled several kilometers to get to his field of coffee trees, with no choice but to walk the distance as there is no method of transportation to get him to the fields to work. Jose put years of care and maintenance into his field of coffee trees before his crops reached maturation. It is the season for harvesting coffee beans, so Jose must pick the cherries off the tree to be collected in a large sack. This sack holds up to 60 kilos (over 100 pounds) of cherries to be seeded. Women and children who share the workload to contribute to their family income, all of whom take on specific roles to prepare the coffee beans to be exported for sale, join him. Farmers work until sundown, when they step back onto that several kilometers-long hike to return home to prepare for the next day of work.

Small-scale farmers throughout Central American countries like Colombia, Brazil, and Guatemala wake every morning to tend to acres of coffee beans to be harvested. Because the healthy growth and harvest of coffee requires a tropical climate, the production of coffee is a driving force in the economy of developing countries in Central and South America and parts of Africa. The demand for coffee ranks it as one of the highest-trade commodities in the world, second only to petroleum, and provides opportunities for work for struggling families in tropical climates in which coffee thrives (Global Exchange, 2017)

Despite such demand worldwide for the crop, living conditions for coffee farmers across all coffee-growing countries are inconsistent and often less-than-desirable. It is common during harvest season for a farmer to wake in a large, one-room warehouse-like structure inhabited by upwards of 40 farmers and their families. These buildings offer little access to amenities like mattresses or bathrooms or privacy (Zamora, 2016)

Farm conditions throughout coffee-growing countries reflect living conditions that farmers are subjected to, and farmers do not always have access to the appropriate attire or equipment to work long hours in coffee fields. Farmers are exposed to natural threats like weather, insects, and snakes while they work and may endure unnatural threats like pesticides. The demand for product from a harvest is high sometimes requiring workers to enlist the help of their children just to reach the minimum quota of pounds of coffee harvested to receive wages for that day. Exploitation of child labor aside, it is not common throughout coffee-growing countries to have signed contracts in place to ensure adequate payment for their work, leaving farmers susceptible to wages as low as 2-3 dollars per day as they work with middle-men and companies to sell their product from harvest (Zamora, 2016)

Meanwhile, on the receiving end of the coffee trade, a young woman wakes that same morning and begins her journey to the local coffee shop. She gets into her car to drive the two miles to her destination and steps into line. She orders a 12-ounce coffee, black, and hands over two dollars and some change--what some farmers make in a day--to cover the cost of her morning energy. The entire journey takes but twenty minutes and she carries on with her day.

Men and women file into lines at Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Caribou Coffee, and any other number of coffee shops sprawled throughout the First World. Whether these men and women are en route to work or meeting up with a friend for a social cup of coffee, it is a commodity central to the daily life of millions of consumers across dozens of countries. These coffee drinkers fall into line, ready to hand over an average of three dollars and some change--the equivalent of an entire day of work for farmers in Nicaragua (Zamora, 2016)--to ingest one of 1.6 billion cups of coffee that will be consumed worldwide that day.

The coffee industry has produced two strikingly different paths of life--one of struggle for those that grow and harvest the crop to making a living and one of convenience and socialization for those that consume the product. However, there has been a push in the coffee culture of developed countries to bridge such discrepancies in quality of life between producers and consumer, evident in the dozens of variations of labels like fair trade and ethical sourcing.

It is evident by these labels suggesting fair and ethical trade that consumers' concern for treatment of coffee farmers is one that companies have heard, though reactions to consumer concern has varied. Some companies have adhered to these promises in their trade with strict policies regarding compensation of farmers these companies trade with. Other companies have taken a more relaxed approach to these labels and have adopted policies that are of little benefit to farmers, suggesting that these companies either do not understand the plight of farmers in developing countries or have used such labels as a marketing tool to appeal to the demands of their consumers.

It is no longer enough for a consumer to seek out phrases such as "ethical" and "fair," for each variation of phrase is indicative of variation in treatment of the farmers these labels have vowed to protect. A new problem has risen in ethical consumerism of coffee as a result of such varieties of labels. Consumers cannot be assured that words like fair or ethical trade can guarantee either, but because there is relatively limited education of the implications of variety in a label, consumers fall prey to deceitful labels even when the consumer makes purchases wisely by trying to avoid support of companies that promote poor treatment of workers.

With this new wave of ethical consumerism in the coffee industry, there is new need for education of the industry. This includes investigation of living conditions of workers in the production of unroasted coffee beans; investigation of what workers endure to sell their product from harvest to middle-men and companies; evaluation of buying and selling policies that major coffee companies promote; and evaluation of how we as consumers can promote change in favor of just treatment in the production of a highly traded commodity. Education of the processes that make each cup of coffee possible is essential to affect progress in ethical sourcing of every bean.


Legend surrounds the origins of coffee, the most popular of which involves a herd of dancing goats. Abyssinia, known now as Ethiopia, was home to a goatherd named Kaldi. Kaldi followed his goats through the brush and trees of Abyssinia before calling them home every day with a high-pitched whistle (Pendergast, 2010).

One afternoon, the goats did not answer his call. After a second whistle, Kaldi went searching for his herd. He found his goats seemingly bewitched at an unfamiliar bush, dancing and bleating excitedly. Confusion turned to terror when Kaldi saw his goats feeding of the berries and leaves of this bush. His herd must have been poisoned.

His goats did not return for several hours. In their next venture, Kaldi's goats returned to this unfamiliar bush and began feeding off it again. Thinking it must be safe, Kaldi tried a leaf off the shrub. Tingling sensations spread through his body. He tried a berry. An energy overwhelmed Kaldi; one that he'd not experienced before. Excited, Kaldi returned home to tell his father of this magical shrub and word spread throughout their village, establishing coffee as a staple integral to the culture of Ethiopia.

Coffee has evolved since Kaldi and his goats. Likely, the leaves and berries--later named bunn in Ethiopia--were chewed by consumers to receive the burst of energy offered before people began brewing the leaves to make a tea. Bunn was also mixed with animal fats to be eaten and the pulp of the berries would be fermented to make wine. It wasn't until the sixteenth century that the seeds of the berries, what we know as coffee beans, were roasted, ground and infused in hot water as some semblance of what we know of as coffee today (Avey, 2013).

In the centuries since discovery, coffee has been used for a number of ailments, including its prescriptions as an aphrodisiac, enema, nerve tonic, and a life extender. Consumers have been drawn to it for its bitter flavors, for what it offers in energy, and as an opportunity to socialize over a cup or two. Likewise, the trade of coffee has experienced several evolutions, from its globalization in the 1800s to the introduction of specialty coffee and finally the education of inequalities in the production of coffee. While the consumption of coffee has evolved since Kaldi and his goats, the production of coffee falls short in progress regarding the livelihood of coffee farmers worldwide.


The demand for coffee has since extended beyond the forested mountainsides of Ethiopia, reaching worldwide popularity in the 1800s when demands extended across several continents for the commodity. With these demands, a new community of entrepreneurs formed to profit off of coffee's popularity, developing methods to bag roasted coffees to sell from cowboys of the West to California's gold miners. This wave of coffee distribution gave way for companies like Maxwell House and Folger Coffee to gain footing in the industry (Avey, 2013)

Worldwide distribution has effectively established coffee as one of the most valuable legal exports in the world, second only to oil (Avey.) Despite demands for the commodity, the market for coffee has experienced tumultuous growths and falls since exportation began out of the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, complicated by nature' s playful disposition. Frosted-over crops have led to a shortage of beans and inspired skyrocketing prices some years; other years have led...

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