Level Ground takes coffee to the next level
by Aidan Morgan
Some people love power. Others love wealth. My tastes are simpler: I love coffee. I probably wouldn't sell my family members for a pound of Brazilian beans, but I might be willing to part with the pets.
In preparation for this article, I tried to imagine a world without coffee, but it was full of sleepy people and economic chaos. Then I passed out.
If you look at the figures, you'll see I'm not the only coffee lover in this country. Canadians drink a lot of the stuff. According to the World Resource Institute, we knock back about 6.5 kilograms each year, which puts us in 11th place for coffee consumption. Finland ranks first at 12 kilos of bean juice per capita, which makes me picture a nation full of jittering cell phone manufacturers. "That explains why Finnish goaltenders are so good," says my editor.
The United States, home of famed coffee drinkers like Tom Waits and David Lynch, comes in at 26th place, at only 4.2 kilograms.
It's not just the ridiculous amounts that mark our coffee consumption. Over the last 10 to 15 years, coffee marketing has changed. Terms like fair trade, sustainable, organic and direct trade have become part of the language of coffee. Cafés routinely offer an organic option for your morning cup, and various brands come with exotic seals (not the animal kind) from important-sounding organizations. A bag of Starbucks beans comes with a pamphlet on the growing region and acidity of the soil.
Don't be shocked if your next pound of Safeway coffee comes with an entire Central American family who will follow you home and explain exactly how they grew the beans.
Yet less than one-tenth of the coffee we buy is certified as sustainable, a term that covers a broad range of practices and standards. After all, what do the words "fair trade" on a bag of coffee mean to you when you're skimming the supermarket shelves in that tiny slice of time between getting off work and getting supper started? How about direct fair trade? Or organic? All these phrases and certifications sound familiar, but few of us know enough to make sensible and ethical choices.
Businesses like Level Ground Trading Company would like to change that.
I met with Level Ground's co-founder Stacey Toews, who travels around the country on speaking engagements to educate people about fair trade coffee. Founded in 1997, Level Ground started with one group of Colombian coffee producers and has now developed relationships with 10 producers from five different countries.
That's right: relationships. Level Ground works directly with coffee growers and establishes trading relationships with them instead of relying on a broker.
Toews, now in his early 40s but somehow looking no older than 30 (Is it all the coffee he drinks? Maybe!), explains that brokers are "not necessarily evil [but] historically Central American growers have referred to brokers as 'coyotes'"
'Coyote' is apparently not a term of endearment.
Direct trade provides definite benefits for the producers. Not only does their arrangement with Level Ground ensure that 65 per cent of the cost of the bean remains with the farmers, it also means that farmers have a relatively predictable income from year to year with a reliable buyer. When nearly all of your income depends on one annual crop, a predictable income means the ability to hold on to your farm, save money, and even plan for the future.
The impulse behind Level Ground came out of the tumult of the mid-'90s and the increasing awareness of globalization's impact on the world.
"A lot of people were getting suspicious and cynical," says Toews."But there was virtually nothing that was available in the mainstream market to consumers that was positive [and] championing producers."
Throughout our conversation, Toews is unfailingly practical and optimistic, acknowledging the difficult economic and political issues at hand but never railing against the system or dipping into anti-globalization rhetoric. So I ask him: What is the greatest current threat to the direct fair trade model?
"Weather and supply," he says without hesitation. "Shortage of supply that's coming largely from unpredictable weather, resulting in prices being driven up. It's havoc for farmers who see weather systems coming along that they've never seen before."
These days, Toews believes, there's increased awareness and much less anger than the heady days of anti-globalization protests. On the other hand, there's more confusion for consumers, because every café and grocery store is offering some version of organic or fair trade.
"The core issue hasn't been addressed: we're overconsuming. It's not sustainable. One of the fairest things we can do is consume less, but that's a hard message to market… It's about creating more jobs, not [just] using more raw materials."
Toews pauses and grins, which briefly makes him look even younger.
"At the end of the day, sustainability isn't about hugging a tree; it's about hugging a farmer."
I didn't end up hugging any farmers that day, but I did end up taking home a pound of Level Ground's Ethiopian coffee from Ten Thousand Villages. After talking with Toews, I know more about my cup of coffee than I do about my next-door neighbours.
And it's delicious.
For more information about Level Ground and direct trade, visit their website at www.levelground.com.