There’s nothing easy about coffee production. The small-scale growers who produce much of the available high-end, specialty coffees do all the work by hand. Coffee plants grow at high altitudes, in tropical regions, where it’s hot and humid, so every step, from planting and weeding to harvest, is often done under a punishing sun.

Even in the age of efficient machines and technological leapfrogging, coffee production is decidedly low tech.

In the coffee-growing regions of Mexico I've visited—including Oaxaca, Chiapas and Puebla—campesinos (rural workers or residents) carry sacks of coffee on their backs from their fields to their homes, where it's washed and then spread out to dry on rooftops. Once it's dried, which takes several days, it's bagged and carried—sometimes just a short distance to the bus, sometimes as long as seven hours through mountains—to warehouses where the coffee is sold. Sacks of dried coffee weigh 70 to 100 pounds.

Many campesinos own a couple of acres of land and belong to what are known as "fair trade" coffee cooperatives. Economically, fair trade benefits growers in two ways: It pays a price that's typically higher than the going rate for non-fair trade coffee, and that price is guaranteed over the course of a growing season. Most fair trade co-ops and organizations, in contrast to large corporations that buy from very large coffee plantations, deal primarily with small-scale growers, so more of the money they pay actually goes to the people doing the work. In addition, much of the fair trade coffee sold is organic and shade-grown and is raised using sustainable methods. Shade-grown coffee means trees aren't cut down, thereby saving habitat for birds and other animals.

Coffee growers in sort beans in the village of  Xiloxochico, in Puebla, Mexico.
Coffee growers in sort beans in the village of  Xiloxochico, in Puebla, Mexico. | Joseph Sorrentino

"We live better because of fair trade," says Martha Hernandez Julián. She owns two acres of coffee plants in Xalcuahtla, a tiny village in Puebla, and belongs to the Fair Trade Cooperative Tosepan Titataniske, which began in 1977. "Our economic situation is better, and fair trade preserves the environment, because we only use organics. It is better for us, our families and our children."

Business models with names that also include "direct trade" and "farm to cup" are all gaining in popularity, because consumers are becoming more educated about the lives of people who provide their food, many of whom live in poverty. It's no surprise that lots of Santa Fe's local coffeehouses are making sure they offer something to meet this market.

From Folgers to Starbucks to Ohori's, coffee is extremely popular. It's the second most heavily traded commodity, behind crude oil, and is drunk worldwide. The United States consumes the most coffee in the world in terms of number of pounds but is 16th in cups consumed per capita. The No. 1 spot is held by the Netherlands, where people consume 2.5 cups a day.

Modern legend says we owe our addiction to coffee to an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi who, sometime in the eighth or ninth century, noticed that his goats didn't sleep nights when they ate the bright red berries that grew on a certain bush. He reported this to the abbot of a nearby monastery, who made a drink from the berries and found he didn't nod off during long nights of prayer.

While it's unclear if there's any truth to the narrative, it's probable that coffee is native to Ethiopia and was being consumed in a variety of forms as early as the eighth century. Its popularity spread rapidly from Ethiopia to the Arabian Peninsula and then, by the early 1600s, to Europe. Coffee plants were smuggled out of the peninsula in 1690 and were eventually cultivated in a number of tropical regions, with the best coffees growing at high altitudes. Because of the remoteness of coffee-growing regions and the altitude at which it grows, coffee production has been difficult to mechanize.

"I tell our baristas that every bean...was hand-picked by a person," says Tai Ayers, who along with her husband, Sam Brinegar, owns Ohori's Coffee Roasters. "It's not mechanized. We value the human element in coffee."

Although small-scale growers are providing very high-quality coffee that sells for $15 to $20 a pound, the majority of them are poor. Ohori's, and other Santa Fe coffee shops, are hoping to change that by offering coffees that insure growers are paid more—even if it's only a small part of the menu.

Ohori's offers about 33 different coffees, of which typically two or three are classified as "fair trade."

"Quality and taste come first," says Ayers, "but when a coffee is organic and/or fair trade, it influences our thought process about buying it." Ohori's also offers coffee from brokers who buy directly from growers, a model called "direct trade." Although Ayers and Brinegar aren't themselves able to meet the growers—the cost to travel to coffee regions is the main stumbling block—they work with brokers who, says Ayers, "are truthful and transparent and do direct trade."

A 2005 study of coffee growers in Oaxaca, by Muriel Calo and Timothy Wise, showed that fair trade can double a grower's income. And because coffee is grown in remote regions that are indigenous, many cooperatives, like Tosepan, are working to preserve indigenous languages and cultures.

Todd Spitzer celebrates a pour-over at Iconik.
Todd Spitzer celebrates a pour-over at Iconik. | Joseph Sorrentino

Those values are important to the likes of Todd Spitzer and the other two owners of Iconik Coffee Roasters, which opened a couple of years ago in the Lena Street Lofts off Second Street.

"We work directly with farmers," says Spitzer. "We know them, and if we don't, we have coffee buyers who do. We pay a living wage plus extra because of the coffee's exceptionality."

Iconik's coffees are organic but aren't certified because of the cost of certification. In addition to getting paid more, "farmers are investing in their communities," he continues. "In Uganda, they paid for schools. In Ethiopia, a prenatal clinic. In Oaxaca, it's going for electricity for villages. We're charging an extra dollar per cup, but [growers] get a better quality of life."

At Dulce Bakery, in El Mercado Place on Cordova Road, co-owners Kirk Barnett and Dennis Adkins offer all fair trade coffees in addition to their baked goods. "We wanted fair trade and organic because it was the right thing to do," says Barnett. "It's like going to the farmers market. You're not buying from a corporation but from someone whose life is growing coffee. He feeds his family and contributes to his community."

The bakery sells Agapao coffee ("agapao" is Greek for love), which is roasted in Colorado and is owned by Santa Fean David Black. Black takes helping small growers a step further.

"We have 24 coffees that are fair trade," he says. "And seven that are farm to cup." That distinction, explains Tim Thwaites, who is the buyer and roaster for Agapao coffee, means "we go down and meet the farmers." He says he samples the coffees, paying a premium for coffee that's exceptional.

Plus, he adds, "We spend time teaching people to grow better coffee. Dave and I have worked very closely developing his custom blends...that support these communities."

Their work has had an impact in a number of coffee-growing communities, and they're particularly proud of their effect in Monserrate, Colombia. The community approached a coffee importer who was a friend of Thwaites, informing him they wanted to sell coffee. At the time, the community grew some coffee, but their main cash crop was coca, the raw material for cocaine.

Wake up and Smell the Coffee

A sample of coffee shops selling fair trade in Santa Fe:

  • Ohori’s Coffee Roasters St. Francis at Pen Road and 505 Cerrillos Road
  • Dulce Bakery 1100 Don Diego Ave.
  • Iconik Coffee Roasters 1600 Lena St.
  • Java Joe’s 2801 Rodeo Road and 1248 Siler Road
  • Ecco Espresso and Gelato 105 E Marcy St.
  • Las Chivas Coffeehouse 7 Avenida Vista Grande

Before you freak out because your joint isn’t on this list, we know we didn’t include every single possibility. (We’re looking at you, Chuck Higgins, and the amazing story about meeting a grower family from South America and making a deal.) If knowing where your beans come from and how the growers are compensated is important to you, seize your power, ask the barrista, do a little research.

"The community was willing to do what it takes to grow good coffee," says Thwaites. Its main crop, he says, is now exceptional coffee.

Ohori's and Iconik both sell coffee by the pound, and they typically cost more than other high-quality specialty coffees, ranging from $14 to $20 a pound. Agapao and other fair trade coffees are found in a number of stores, including Natural Grocers, Whole Foods and La Montañita Co-op. Michele Franklin, co-op distribution director, says sales are steadily increasing despite the coffee's price.

The week of May 24-31 is designated as "World Fair Trade Week," aimed at raising awareness about the products. If you're hesitant about buying a pound of coffee for $20, sip it by the cup. A medium cup ranges from $1.65 at Ohori's to $3.50 at Iconik, where all coffee is pour-over.

If you have a few minutes, ask Spitzer why they do pour-overs. He'll wax poetically about how the temperature stays even and how the filter's designed a certain way so that the coffee's in contact with the water longer, but if he's honest, he'll add, "Plus it's a little bit of a show."