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Brewing Hope

By Kevin Foley Article published March 16, 2005

Hector Saez
Hector Saez (left) and two students talk with a farm family in Costa Rica as part of the economist's field research. (Photo courtesy of Hector Saez.)

It isn’t the caffeinated buzz that draws economist and environmentalist Hector Saez to coffee — he usually drinks decaf, though he’d hate for his Costa Rican farmer friends to discover that secret — it’s potential.

“The issue is not coffee. The issue is rural development,” says the assistant professor of environmental studies and community development and applied economics.

Coffee is, in some ways, a magical commodity: It’s relatively well-valued on the world market, but it grows best at a very small scale, often on farms of one acre or less. Unlike many other export crops, it coexists with food plantings, meaning that hard-pressed rural areas don’t necessarily have to have to sacrifice their food security for the world market’s cash. And coffee performs well as an organic crop, saving farmers and their land from the expense and potential danger of agrochemicals.

Chemicals, as it turns out, are what originally drew Saez to study organic coffee. While living and teaching in Costa Rica in 1999, he interviewed about 150 farmers about the way they managed their land, labor and pesticides. He was interested in a central irony of Costa Rica: the country, which is in many ways an environmental model, is the world’s leading per capita and per-acre consumer of agricultural chemicals.

He learned that, in the context of a volatile world market for coffee, Costa Rican farmers were eager to control whatever they could to improve their crop yields, in this case eliminating weeds. As the size of farms increased, farmers were more likely to use chemicals than manual labor to clear their land. As he broke down the data, Saez became convinced that governmental policies could assist small farms and farmers, and in the process reduce pollution. But something else interesting struck him as he continued his research and met more farmers — some didn’t use chemicals at all.

“I got very interested because I saw kind of future there,” Saez says, explaining that the organic coffee farmers seemed to produce high-quality, saleable crops.

Obstacles and opportunity
Saez broadened his project and area of study, returning to the country frequently even after joining UVM in 2000, often in the company of undergraduates funded by university research grants. As he met, studied and interviewed more farmers, he became more convinced that organic coffee was environmentally and socially sustainable, and economically viable. But even in “green,” democratic Costa Rica, farming organically is challenging.

Government programs, Saez says, aren’t tailored to small farmers, especially small organic coffee farmers, so they receive very little help and advice. Opening a small coffee mill, for example, requires a complicated series of permits and actions often beyond the reach of a rural producer. Even if a small farmer can clear local and national obstacles, they are then faced with roadblocks at the international level.

“Only a few people are buying organic coffee, and they are often fulfilling orders from big companies, which have very specific requirements,” he says, noting that those requirements are often arbitrarily limiting and squeeze small farmers and their diverse products out of the market. This is perhaps why only about two percent of Costa Rican coffee is organic, though Saez sees the situation improving as the country’s government begins to shift its regulatory posture.

But here’s where we — those of us who drink more than just a little bit of decaf, anyway — come in. Saez carefully measures the economic effect of coffee trade for small farmers, and while that work leaves him excited about its potential, the reality isn’t always so glowing. Even an organic certification does not guarantee that your chosen grounds are doing good on the, well, ground.

“Buying organic coffee per se turns out not to help the people you want to help on the ground,” he says. “Having said that, if you are careful of what kind of organic coffee you buy you can do lots of good. The way to be certain, or at least have a pretty good clue about what’s happening with the money you’re paying, is to research a little bit the companies you’re interested in.”

Saez realizes that this can seem absurd (“I buy a hundred different commodities, and I don’t go to the Web site for every one,” he says), but he is convinced that making the effort is especially worth it in the context of coffee. “Coffee can do something different,” he says, “it can help.”

As a starting place, Saez ticks off the names of a few local and regional firms that do “good work” on the ground with their farmers: Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the Vermont Coffee Company, Forest Trade of Brattleboro, Equal Exchange, Dean’s Beans and others. He also cautions that while organic and fair trade coffee is currently hip, it represents only a tiny share of the world coffee market, and yet the supply still often exceeds the current demand. He’d like to see that change as more consumers make informed choices with their cups, increasing prices, livelihood and production thousands of miles away.

Assessing the large potential in small acts or experiments animates Saez’s research and personal agendas.

“We can find ways to increase both economic and environmental well-being,” he says. “But it’s going to take a lot of careful and very focused work, by a lot of people… to study each of these opportunities very carefully. It’s going to take a lot of effort to show that we can have an economy that is environmentally and socially sustainable with these little experiments that are happening all over the world.”