A new film about two U.S. coffee roasters and the farmers they work with in Central America sheds light on the process that gets fair trade coffee from the farm to caffeine addicts. Connected by Coffee will premiere April 2 at the Athenaeum Theatre in connection with the Fair Trade Federation's national conference.
In January 2013, husband and wife filmmaking team Chelsea Bay Dennis and Aaron Dennis traveled with Chris Treter of Higher Grounds Trading Co. in Traverse City, Mich., and Matt Earley of Just Coffee Cooperative in Madison, Wisc., to witness small-scale farming. Many of the film's subjects are also members of Cooperative Coffees, a green coffee importing cooperative of 23 roasters in the U.S. and Canada.
The film's interviews depict farmers' methods and show how small-scale fair trade farms are generally more environmentally responsible than large-scale operations. Many of the farmers are indigenous, and some have literally fought to keep their land. "Each place had its own culture and voice on the journey," says Chelsea.
She knew about fair trade before the film: Treter first mentioned the concept to her while she was in college and he was just starting his coffee business, and many of her graphic design business clients are fair trade companies. However, she said her work on the film reiterated to her that while fair trade practices "can change lives," because there is "just such a deep history of poverty, we're not going to change things overnight."
But it's a good start: "Fair trade is bringing farmers [to global markets], and giving the farmers dignity and pride by forming long-term, direct relationships with the people who buy and sell their products," she continues. "So when something like this current coffee rust happens" - it's been estimated that more than half of the 2013 coffee crop in Central America was lost to disease - "the long-term relationships will still be there for them to help them replant or raise money to help them replant." Some of these partnerships also include humanitarian aid projects, like enabling access to clean drinking water.
The Dennises have addressed fair trade issues before: Their 2012 documentary, The People and the Olive, follows six Americans on a marathon run across the West Bank in support of Palestinian fair trade olive farmers.
Compared with other industries, coffee companies are among the most likely to follow fair trade principles, according to Madeline Kreider Carlson, membership and program manager of Fair Trade Federation (FTF). That's because coffee farming methods often involve significant manpower, with farmers inspecting and picking the beans by hand.
"A cup of fair trade coffee is more expensive than the cheapest option, but not more than a cup of specialty coffee," says Carlson. "For a lot of fair trade shoppers, and consumers in general, I think the idea of being able to make a difference with a couple dollars can be really powerful. I also think many people can connect to the idea that if things are made by hand, there is a sense of a connection to another human being, which can be really valuable."