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Buying Direct Trade Coffee Is About Relationship

When I was first getting into coffee the Fair Trade movement as it pertains to coffee was just getting underway. Flag & Wire is, in fact, a Fair Trade certified roaster. Which, incidentally, and importantly, does not mean we only buy and roast Fair Trade coffees.

Takengon, Indonesia - roasting coffee beans


There are dozens of organizations in the word today that certify products “fair trade”. It’s not one organization or governing body, its many. Among the paraphrased goals of them all is a desire to see the lives of farmers and producers increased in quality. It’s about seeing that more of the money that you pay for your Americano or your chocolate bar or your sugar cane makes it to the pockets and communities of the farmers and producers where the product starts.

At Flag & Wire, we can definitely identify with that sentiment. To me, it draws a connection to the local-food movement.

In my mind I think of a tomato grown well in soil that someone cares for, left to ripen on the vine and then plucked and brought to me… That’s a tomato I want to eat. I don’t know of anyone who really loves hothouse tomatoes. They’re all mealy and bland. Weird. They’re weird.

What I love is the love. What I love is the care and attention. Not that there’s some farmer who’s been staring at my tomato for the last three months waiting for it to be just right. It’s about practice and policy. The farmer does good things with the expectation of good produce.


coffee plant in Takengon, Indonesia

Where I live “buy local” is heard more often than the Pledge of Allegiance. Everyone wants to buy local. Including me. 

But I roast coffee for a living and the most local coffee is… not local. We of course grow coffee in the great state of Hawaii. There are some limited and experimental coffees being grown in states like California and Texas. But those aren’t commercial operations and certainly they’re not producing at commercial quantities.

raw coffee beans to roast

I had to dig down and suss out the spirit of “buy local”. It’s what made me start thinking about that tomato. It’s not that I need it grown close to me, it’s that I want to know that it’s fresh and that it’s healthy. I want a reasonable ability, (that I may never exercise), to double-check the standards by which my food is grown. Though it doesn’t occur to me to think in these terms, I want to know that the people growing my food are healthy people whose families are well taken care of and that they’re experiencing the freedom to choose what they do with their lives.

When I think of “buy local” in those terms--in terms of contributing to the dignity of producers in a local community--and not limited to buying only from people within 10 miles of my home, pursuing direct trade relationships seems like the best, and maybe the only way forward for us.

Because in the end, I’d rather buy a tomato grown with care by a farmer in Mexico or California, than a factory tomato from across town.

People behind the coffee

To us, the operative term is almost always “relationship.” So direct trade coffee buying means developing relationships with our growers and figuring out--by multiple means--who they are and what they do, and then buying their coffees.


Pursuing those relationships is the same thing my friend and wholesale customer Jesse, at Valley Commissary, does when he makes a deal with a local farmer to buy a whole pig. It’s uncomfortable for some people, (not Jesse… but some people), to put a whole animal on the table, blood and guts, head and tail and all, and figure out what to do with it.

When you buy the tomato from the farmer at the farmer’s market you’re cutting out potential middle-people. Distributors and transporters and warehouses. The tomato costs about the same, maybe a little more or a little less, but about the same. Which means that instead of a distributor or a warehouser taking a slice out of that dollar, the whole dollar ends up in the producer’s hand.

We’ve felt this way for a long time, but it’s a hard game to get into! And, in all honesty, it’s an easy thing to cheat on. Buying coffee directly from the producer is appealing! As a business owner, I want to be able to tell great stories to my customers about their coffee and my friend Jack who grew it. The temptation to exaggerate is ever present.

But we resist the temptation! At Flag & Wire, we operate with integrity when we communicate with you, our customer, about our sourcing. So we don’t throw the term “direct trade” around very often. We have set a high bar for ourselves with regard to talking about our sourcing. But my desire is to be able to tell true stories about direct trade coffees! It’s important.


Photos courtesy of Evan Finley