Just Coffee Cooperative
Social Justice in Every Cup
“We came into coffee in a very unorthodox way,” noted Matt Earley, co-founder along with Mike Moon of Just Coffee Cooperative located in Madison, WI. “We were not apprentices or involved in coffee in any way. We came at it from a fair trade/advocacy standpoint. Mike was an organic farmer, who owned Drumlin CSA near Madison and I was recent anthropology graduate from the University of KY. While at the University of KY, I joined a school building project in Chiapas, Mexico. This is where I first met coffee farmers and became interested in getting to know them. I then applied to grad school in Madison with the idea of studying the coffee industry and to help those farmers find better markets.”
The farmers in this area were selling to local buyers for the equivalent of $.25 a pound. The only way the farmers could prepare for the next crop was to take out a loan plus interest from these same buyers. “It was a payday loan scam. The farmers could never pay them back. They were locked into these debt relations and there was no way to get out of it,” lamented Matt.
“After I moved to Wisconsin, I met Mike Moon, who had similar advocacy interests, and we decided to form a sister relationship with the coffee community in Chiapas, but we were unable to find importers/wholesalers that would pay them better. The fall-back plan, reluctantly, was to buy their coffee and roast it. They referred me to Thomás Johnson, who was in a similar situation with another group of Mexican coffee farmers. Thomás had some success in finding markets and had created a brand in St. Paul, MN. We sat down with Thomás and suggested that maybe he could buy their coffee. He said no, but insisted that we could do this. He gave us a pep talk and said that he would put us in touch with other coffee roasters who are fair trade/mission based and willing to share. That network was called Cooperative Coffees. At that time it was ten other roasters, and they welcomed us with open arms and taught us everything from basic roasting skills. helping with imports, and networking with other coffee farmers. As small roasters, the cooperative allowed us to concentrate our money together and then buy directly from farmers,” remembered Matt.
In order to gain the necessary roasting experience, Matt and Mike got in touch with EVP Coffee in Madison. Although EVP was not part of the cooperative, they gave them roasting lessons and sold them their first roaster. “They really helped us get started.”
“We were also working on business plans, which we started showing around to banks. Everybody turned us down. We didn’t have any money to get it started, so we went to the University of WI Business School. They have a service where you can go in with a startup idea and they will help you write a business plan. The guy who looked at our business plan basically showed me the door in a polite way. He felt that by not maximizing our profit and because there were several other coffee roaster in the area that this was a horrible idea. My favorite quote was ‘You can’t make a living by selling coffee to a few East Side hippies,’” laughed Matt.
“Eventually we were lucky enough to run into two organizations from Madison that really helped us get going, one was The Madison Enterprise Center, which is a division of Commonwealth Development. They are a non-profit that is focused on the east side of Madison. They had a business incubator where we could get subsidized rent and access to business equipment and office space. Then we got a small $20,000 start up loan from the Madison Development Corporation. They were the only folks with money that saw our business plan and thought that it might work. With this loan, we were able to get started in 2002.”
“We started in farmers’ markets. We only had a couple of accounts in the beginning. We quickly realized that the best way to get people to carry our coffee was by getting people to come in and ask for our coffee, and the best way to do that was by getting out in the community. We went to every protest, every solidarity meeting- everywhere where people were gathering for a cause that we were supportive of. We would show up and give away coffee on our bicycles. We also started working with local elementary schools on the east side, selling coffee as fundraisers. Everything we did was through grassroots networking. We had no advertising. We support things that are aligned with our mission. This may have alienated some people, but it has also made our customers very loyal to us, because they know exactly where we stand,” emphasized Matt.
“We started the business as a way for two people to have a part-time job while buying from a single coffee coop, but over the years our growth was always one step ahead of us, which was a blessing and a curse. It was challenging for us, with little business acumen, to keep up with explosive growth. Now we employ over 30 people and we buy coffee from 16 different cooperatives worldwide, mostly in Latin America, but also in Africa and Asia. We try to visit as many of them as we can. Part of our model is to really get to know the farmer cooperatives that we buy from. Once we start working with someone, our intention is to keep working with them. We see it as a partnership. We are not just ordering coffees off of a menu.”
Just Coffee is now sold nationwide, with the third highest presence in food cooperatives. They have been told they are sold in 87% of food cooperatives across the country. Their coffee is also sold at a lot of restaurants and cafes in the Midwest. They are also making headway in the conventional grocery market, being sold through the Roundy’s chain. “Even with a national presence, our focus is on the Midwest, from Minneapolis to Chicago,” noted Matt. “In addition to making incredible coffees, we want to have a connection with the communities where we do business. We are building a model that transcends just coffee.”
Just Coffee takes transparency of their business practices very seriously. All of their contracts are available online. They take their coffee buyers to visit the farmers and they bring coffee growers to Madison in hopes of letting people see and build relationships. “In a lot of cases these things are hidden, in the hopes that people won’t see the impact their purchasing decisions have.”
Just Coffee is committed to organic production principles. All of their farmers are either certified or in transition to organic. “Most of the farmers we work with, even those at the very beginning were farming ‘passively’ organic. They weren’t using chemical inputs. They have been growing naturally for generations. They just didn’t have access to that stuff. Over the years what we have seen, especially since coffee growers have been dealing with a devastating disease called coffee rust, is that the farmers that are using ‘deep organic’ practices have fewer problems compared to the farmers that are only doing the baseline practices. We have seen all of these cooperatives rededicate themselves to best organic practices- going above and beyond. They are working with soil micro-organisms, different mineral treatments, soil analysis, and composting. We have seen it go from something that was passive, and often done for a better price, to this agro-ecological idea. We see that philosophy and practice in all aspects of their community; they way they grow their food, and they way they treat their water. Organic, agro-ecological practices are a central part of our business,” said Matt.
The transitional market for coffee is very difficult. The organic consumer expects the organic label, and entire production process must be changed to handle the non-organic product. “It’s a challenge for us, but we think it is important to give support to these farmers that want to do the right thing. They are making that investment to convert over to deep organic practices before they get the increased income. We are committed to helping them, despite the difficulties in selling transitional coffee,” noted Matt.
Just Coffee and Cooperative Coffees are working to share new innovations and developments in agro-ecological and organic coffee products. A major component of their relationships with growers is the sharing of production techniques. They frequently hold workshops where farmers and buyers gather together to learn and share new ideas. “We found that the farmers who adopted deep-organic practices bounced back from the coffee rust disease much more quickly. We were very worried that a lot of heirloom coffee varieties, which are more susceptible to the disease, were simply going to disappear, but now they are recovering. They explain it by saying that by improving the soil, they are improving the immune system of the plant. They are also using some innovative microbial treatments and foliar sprays. It is really quite advanced. These farmers understand that nature holds the answers if you are willing to pay attention.”
“From where I sit, the future of Just Coffee is finding ways to deepen our impact. The increase in sales and income allows us to do that. We have started working with a non-profit called “On The Ground” working on water projects in coffee communities, and also on crop diversification and recovery from the coffee rust fungus. We are also working on women’s empowerment in the Congo, and school building in Ethiopia. We realized, that because of our model, we are not profitable enough to fully engage in community development programs the way we want to be. Working with Cooperative Coffees and On the Ground allows us to have a much greater impact. The more we perfect the coffee piece of our business, the more opportunities we will have to support our mission.”