Los meses flacos – the scandal of the ‘thin months’ in which coffee farmers still starve

Brewing Change

What is the true situation of coffee farmers, as we enter 2013, a clear twenty years after the establishment of the Fairtrade Foundation? In some places, the truth continues to be very disturbing – the horror of starvation still exists among poor farmers, to a degree which many in the British and American coffee trades just do not realise.

It has now been revealed by Rick Peyser, of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, in his book Brewing Change, which has become available in the UK.

The remarkable thing about this book is that it has been described as ‘a charming memoir’ of the writer’s time in the coffee trade, and at first it certainly seems a gentle and easy story… until, when you least expect it, the author assaults you with the bare truths of what he really found in coffee farming communities.

And that is, indeed, the way it happened to Rick Peyser himself – for him, the truth was a long time coming, and when it came, it hit him hard.

Rick works with Green Mountain Coffee of Vermont, which is just a name to many in the UK, but which is absolutely massive in the US. He has been, among other things, public relations director for Green Mountain, but at the same time has managed to fit in such jobs as president of the Speciality Coffee Association of America and being a senior man in the Fairtrade movement.

And so, in the early part of this book, we learn such interesting things as myths of organic coffee, the comparison of open sun and shade-grown coffee, and for the first time, details of the big SCAA fraud scandal of 2005, when a past senior officer was found to have left a vast hole in the accounts – four years later he was jailed for three years and ordered to repay almost half a million dollars. We also learn some new details of the bizarre case in 2006, when Starbucks attempted to trademark certain names of Ethiopian coffee regions (and we also learn that, amazingly, some people in the SCAA at first wanted to back Starbucks in the case!)

And then we hit the real story – what Rick Peyser refers to as ‘a parallel reality I hadn’t known existed’.

There is one extremely unusual skill which Peyser has, very rarely among coffee people, and it was this which helped him uncover the truth. That skill is that he bothered to take the trouble to learn the language of coffee farmers – indeed, to the astonishment and not entire approval of his family, he left his home to travel for quite a period in coffee-growing areas, to become fluent in their language.

Had he not done so, he would have completely missed the true significance of a phrase which came up in conversation with farmers – ‘los meses flacos’, or ‘the thin months’. He came to realise that this simple phrase did not mean just an inconvenient period at the end of the harvest, when the money had run out – it could mean an annual period of starvation lasting four months, or even longer.

Having worked for the Fairtrade organisation, Peyser was shaken. “These were Fairtrade farmers who were supposed to be getting a reasonable price for their coffee – and they were struggling to put food on their table for a significant part of every year?

“The family situation hit me – they went hungry for three to four months of every year.

“I was furious I hadn’t known about this. I felt stupid. How could I be in the industry for so long and not know what the farmers were dealing with?

“I realised I had never thought to ask… nobody had.”

Thoroughly embarrassed by what he had learned, Peyser went on to consider that he had been promoting and believing Fairtrade – “but what good was Fairtrade if the famer can’t put food on the table for his family?”

He also realised that the commercial coffee industry had simply assumed that its pursuit of high-quality coffee would have a trickle-down financial benefit to the farmers. It did not.

And he realised that in general, when buyers made their VIP visits to coffee farms, they did so after the harvests, when the farmers had been paid – of course the farmers were smiling, because they had food on the table when the industry visitors came.

This was the awakening which led to the work that Green Mountain then put in on behalf of farmers. One of their senior managers asked the troubling question: ‘do we want our customers to know that our farmers struggle to put food on their tables?’ Putting it more bluntly, asks Peyser, what happens when the quality of the bean is put ahead of the quality of life?

The result of this thinking was projects such as ‘F4F’, the Food for Farmers project.

And does this situation really exist, in 2013, and what does the coffee trade think about it?

“I have found surprise to be the general reaction,” Rick Peyser told Coffee House magazine. “At an SCAA Conference, I shared the results of the study that indicated that 67% of those small-scale coffee farmers interviewed in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and southern Mexico had between 3-8 months of extreme scarcity of food every year. A percentage of the industry has now been made aware of the issue, but it is safe to assume that the majority of people in the industry still are unaware of the immense challenge that many coffee farming families face, even with the advance of “sustainable” certifications.

“After serving on the board of directors of Fairtrade for six years, I was personally very surprised by the existence of these ‘thin months’, as I interviewed Fairtrade farmers in Nicaragua as part of the study. Like others, I thought that Fairtrade would raise farmers’ income from coffee sufficiently so that they would be able to put food on the table all year long, send their children to school, etc.

“Those who have not heard it directly from the mouths of farmers, may be even more surprised than I was. Hungry coffee farmers certainly doesn’t seem ‘fair’ trade.”

Furthermore, says Peyser, if the industry continues to concentrate on the quality of coffee above the people of the growing communities, then the industry is doomed. All the disease-resistant hybrids in the world will not work if there is nobody alive on the farms to tend the plants.

And everyone in the industry can make a move towards this. He begins the book with the remark that: ‘you do not have to be a CEO to change the course of a company or influence an industry’, and an equally good lesson of this book is how it shows that even ‘just a PR guy’ can have something to say, and set in motion the wheels of great change.

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Brewing Change was published in the US last spring, and in the UK this February. It is available online from the Book Depository and Amazon at around £10.

This review was first published in Boughton’s Coffee House, the magazine for the UK coffee trade.
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2 Responses to “Los meses flacos – the scandal of the ‘thin months’ in which coffee farmers still starve”

  1. Ian Balmfotth Says:

    This is a heart stopping article. I meet many farmers and I believe that we trade extremely fairly but this makes me very concerned. There are always a number if sides to any story and I have been in the business long enough to react carefully to such articles. My first reaction is ‘what on earth has the Fairtrade Foundation been doing if this us happening?’ My second is ‘surely there is some mustake’. Finally. I will make my own enquiries and satisfy myself that my comany does not buy from farms or cooperatives that allow their workers to go hungry. I will report back.

  2. Beverage Standards (@bevstandards) Says:

    This will come as a surprise to many coffee suppliers throught the World. Have the Fairtrade Association been given the right of reply. What should we all be doing to eradicate this situation?

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