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Some Insights Into “Should Unorganized Farmers be Included in Fair Trade?”

On January 31, FTRN produced Webinar 120: “Should Unorganized Farmers Be Included in Fair Trade?”.  The 2 panelists were Rodney North, Equal Exchange, The Answer Man – Information for the Public & Media; and Michael Sheridan, Catholic Relief Services, Director of the Borderlands Coffee Project (based in Ecuador). You can download the 50-min recording of webinar 120, or register for upcoming webinars, at FTRN webinars.

Some of the speakers’ main points from the webinar include comments below.


In most commodities there is sufficient supply from small-farmer co-ops. For example, in coffee, co-ops already produce around 500 million lbs. per year that is not yet sold as Fair Trade, but could be, as they only sell 227 million lbs. as Fair Trade.

Plus, production could grow each year if we support co-ops, to meet future Fair Trade market demands.

Fair Trade does not have to house every laudable initiative, including improving the lives of unorganized farmers and hired labor on plantations. Let other schemes do that valuable work.

Fair Trade should be transformative & capacity building. “Contract production” with unorganized farmers is neither.

Contract production with un-organized farmers often represents a “ceiling” on capacity, not a “floor” to build on.

Contract production sourcing would siphon sales from Fair Trade co-ops, undermining current achievements.


Farmers not organized into co-ops aren’t necessarily unorganized, as there are other forms of organization that can generate value for farmers. However, farmer-led organizations (co-ops) have generated the following benefits that other forms of organization haven’t: efficiency; economic opportunity; empowerment; community development.

Buyer-led organizations (e.g. CAFÉ practices) and intermediary-led organizations (e.g. washing stations) also have generated these benefits for independent (non-co-op) farmers: access to markets; improved sustainability; access to services. Empowerment and community premiums are missing from these organization models.

Fair Trade USA’s draft standards for independent farmers emphasizes the following areas with different levels of importance:  high importance for social empowerment and economic development; medium importance for environmental responsibility and working conditions; low importance for trade.

CRS understands there are around 10 million independent coffee farmers around the world who wouldn’t qualify for Fair Trade now if its limited to co-ops. Most areas of the world, except for a few like Central America, don’t have thriving co-op movements that farmers could take advantage of. So, CRS is very interested to consider the drawbacks and opportunities of models that can benefit such farmers.

I end with a question: it may be good development, but is it Fair Trade?

Personally, I would say that seasonal and landless workers on coffee estates are the most vulnerable actors in the coffee ecosystem.

CRS hasn’t historically worked with contract workers on coffee estates; it is not a constituency of ours; we’re not planning to focus on them in the near future. We will continue to focus on smallholder farmers, and will consider working with ones not organized into co-ops.


Only one third of coffee produced by Fair Trade co-ops are bought on Fair Trade terms because there aren’t enough buyers, or demand, for Fair Trade coffee. Some co-ops do sell 100% as Fair Trade, but others only sell a sliver under Fair Trade terms.


The types of services that benefit farmers from non-coop models include 2 kinds: direct (agronomic support and quality assistance); indirect (agronomic support, quality assistance and marketing).

Some studies years ago by Fair Trade researchers found that the most important benefit of Fair Trade for farmers was not the social premium, but was access to networks (credit from financial orgs, project assistance from NGOs).


Fair Trade shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. If it is spread too thin, its wonderful opportunity is threatened. FT is unique among all sustainability schemes in that it addresses power, and tries to shift control to vulnerable producers. FT is still a small tool in the global economy, so it should be used where it’s most effective, most probable to make an impact, like in the co-op sector.


CRS is open to exploring Fair Trade for independent farmers not in co-ops, but isn’t necessarily for it at this time. FTUSA hasn’t published final standards for independent farmers, so we’ll decide later with better information.


If buyers have a choice to source from non-coop chains, they might choose the model that is less empowering for farmers. Where co-ops are supported, and thrive: Members will sell more of their crop through the co-op; Members can increase their production; More farmers will join co-ops; More communities without co-ops will create their own; Governments & other organizations will re-direct more resources & adjust laws to support co-operatives.


There is a lot of burden now on co-ops to meet FT standards. The draft standards for independent farmers require farmer-support organizations to make significant commitments to helping farmers meet FT standards.

FTUSA needs to soon publicize where their assumed great demand will come from among buyers for increased supply of Fair Trade products, especially from hired labor plantations.


  1. Have much interest in Fair Trade, especially how to build & strengthen capacity of producers and partnership with FT importers.

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