As an artisan speciality coffee roaster, primarily we seek very high-quality coffee from reliable and consistent producers sourced according to our code of conduct for ethical sourcing. This encompasses working conditions that achieve International Labour Organization standards and evidence that environmental pollution on the farm is minimized. In return, the farmers who produce our green coffee need regular and reliable orders and prompt payment for their coffee.

The Fairtrade programme definitely set the tone for socially sustainable coffee. The theory behind Fairtrade is that producers are provided with a safety net, a guaranteed minimum price for their coffee.

The one thing that is never really mentioned by Fairtrade is quality, which is completely at odds with what the discerning coffee drinker wants – a great tasting cup.

At Union Hand-Roasted Coffee we have developed an initiative, which we call ‘Union Direct Trade’ that is based on excellence and ethical trade. Crucially, the model recognizes quality as the key to commercial success and we inspire farmers to focus on increasing quality for a better price, not quantity for a minimum price.

Why does our Union Direct Trade Model matter?

In 2012, 430,000 metric tons of Fairtrade certified coffee was produced, but only 30% was sold under Fairtrade conditions. Despite investment in certification, farmers would only receive the baseline commodity prices for the remaining 70% of their crop.

World markets will always limit positive social impact from a coffee value-chain that is founded on the basis of Fairtrade certification. In 2013 the average world market price for Colombian Mild Arabica was USD$1.48/lb. which is 8cents/lb greater than the Fairtrade minimum price, not including the optional 20c social premium.

Union is a roaster and importer and we paid at least double the Fairtrade base during 2013 as the farm gate price to producers. For some of our coffees we pay prices achieving ten times above the Fairtrade price. If it tastes delicious, we want that coffee.

In consuming countries, Fairtrade justifies a minimum price standard by persuading consumers that they are helping poor producers. This is achieved through marketing campaigns which requires significant investment.

We believe that a more sustainable approach, which benefits both the coffee farmer and coffee drinker, would be to develop a model based on quality, accessible to all farmers and not limited to the Fairtrade model which only operates with Co-operatives. Such an approach would encourage innovation, growth and economic progress by rewarding excellence.

Why is there a need for a focus on quality?

A farmer who produces high quality coffee and has the capacity to evaluate the quality he has produced will know how to assess what a buyer like Union is looking for and that farmer will have a stronger negotiation position compared to a farmer who trades on “ethical value added” alone.

Paying farmers more money for their coffee should not be about charity – it should be a way to reward and ensure the quality of the coffee and the circumstances under which it is produced and processed. Paying for high quality and ethics, instead of ethics alone is a way to ensure sustainable prosperity for farmers.

Union Direct Trade

Graciano-still-300x165Graciano Cruz, explains why he benefits from our Union Direct Trade approach

‘Union Direct Trade’ is based on coffee excellence and ethical trade, allowing farmers to trace their coffee as it moves upstream in the value chain. We encourage farmers to think about, and ask, questions like: ‘Who roasts my coffee? Who drinks my coffee? What price is my coffee sold in the UK?’ Many farmers in the world would not even know what country their coffee is sold to, let alone who roasts and drinks it. Likewise, many roasters in the world do not know where their specialty coffee comes from; which country or region, let alone which farm.

Looking at it from a farmers’ point of view, do you want people to buy your coffee because you are labeled as someone who is poor? Or because they enjoy drinking it and they appreciate the delicious flavours?

Even though the concern for ethical practices is as important as quality, the selling point of coffee should be centered on high quality. Consumers might buy a cause-related product once, but if it doesn’t taste great, in the long run, they will return to what they actually want to drink or eat.

Our Union Direct Trade model, with a focus on traceable and delicious tasting coffees brings responsibility for consumer, roaster and farmer. This approach is certainly not an easy way for us to source our coffee, as it requires our presence in the field almost throughout the year working with farmers. And it also introduces complexities trying to explain our trading approach to consumers.

The goal of Union Direct Trade is to maintain our engagement in long-term sustainable relationships with producers. Farmers and roasters should be friends and collaborate. And to achieve this we must share goals and visions. If not, the relationship becomes co-ordination, or co-operation which is driven by one party. Driven by one party it will most likely serve the needs of just one party.

Huehuetenango, Guatemala – an example of a successful non-Fairtrade certified Co-operative

Mountain-view-0843Todos Santos mountain view


Iliana Martinez has been the driving force behind many of the positive developments we’ve observed with the coffee producers we source from in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Iliana oversees the production, quality and exportation of the coffee produced by 216 small coffee producers of Esquipulas, located in the highlands of Huehuetenango. We have seen this cooperative strengthen, and increase yields of higher quality coffee over the past few years.

For us, this cooperative is a good example of a non-Fairtrade Co-operative that invests significantly in its community. If we take Coffee Leaf Rust disease as an example; this disease causes coffee trees to lose their leaves, resulting in fewer beans and inferior quality. It is estimated that 70% of the coffee crop in Guatemala has been blighted. However, Esquipulas has been able to reinvest profits in its farmers and in 2013 created a Coffee Rust plan to mitigate from the effects of the disease. The cooperative provided members with agricultural tools such as fertilizer and protective equipment for the farmer. The results are highly noticeable when comparing their healthy farms against their disease stricken neighbours who are not members of the Co-operative.

Besides investing in quality and good agricultural practices, the cooperative has worked on improving the socio-economic circumstances of its family members. When we started working with this cooperative in 2009, they were trying to extricate from an unhealthy trading relationship with other buyers. Today, they can proudly say that export volumes have increased 2.5 times since 2009, and they have established sustainable prices for their coffee – at an average of double the Fairtrade minimum price.

Understanding our trading initiative will require extra effort from consumers compared with buying a pack of coffee with a succinct logo; but we think it’s more effective for the farmer and more pleasurable for the customer.

Pascale Schuit
Union Sustainable Relationship Manager

How did we discover COCASMIL?

It has always been bit of a quest for us to find really tasty organic certified coffees that comply with our strict quality requirements. Finding a coffee with the flavour profile we look for and also certified organic that we can roast for our Organic Natural Spirit Blend has not been easy. Fortunately we were introduced to COCASMIL by Beneficio Santa Rosa in Honduras. We were excited because we weren’t offering any Honduras coffees. For many years, when talking about speciality coffee, Honduras was not an origin that popped to our mind and our concern was that harvesting techniques would not be to the stringent degree we require which would affect the flavour profile.


What impressed us about this coffee?

So when we first cupped COCASMIL, we were very happy. We found the coffee was exceptionally fresh, creamy and sweet with notes of vanilla, peach and fudgy-like finish.This is the first season we have bought from this producer and we are in that process of getting to know them and their coffee.  Pascale Schuit, who manages our farmer relationships, visited them in March to understand how we can developing a long-term Union Direct Trade relationship with them. She is hopeful because she observed how Beneficio Santa Rosa, the dry mill organization through which the coffee is prepared for export, delivers regular training on quality, and also on social aspects such as security and hygiene on the farm. Effective management is the key to success.

About these Producers

COCASMIL is a Co-operative; which means they are a group of 82 organized small-scale farmers, including 6 women, located in a mountain range up to 1700 mASL near San Miguel in the Intibucta department. The cooperative takes its name from this: Cooperativa Cafetera San Miguel Intibuca or “Coffee Cooperative San Miguel Intibuca”.  It started in 1999 and has built cement patios for sun-drying and an office for good administration; and now they work with the local school to provide books and help to support the health centre.

These 82 producers organized themselves to work together as a cooperative entity because they all have small plots of land for their farm. Each individual producer would never have enough coffee to export directly to Union Hand Roasted Coffee. They have different varieties, but mainly Catuai, Caturra and Villa Sarchi. Their coffee is washed and then sundried.


About the farmers

All farmers in the co-operative produce organic coffee. Each farm takes special care to weed by hand or using a machete, no herbicides are allowed and they apply microorganisms; coffee pulp compost and bocashi to enrich the soil. Bocashi (from the Japanese bokashi) is a highly effective natural organic fertiliser grown from microbial cultures from locally available organic material resources.


 Jorge Vásques

Jorge Alberto Vásques


Jorge Alberto Vásques is a member of COCASMI and he is committed to producing coffee through sustainable farming.

The technique of land management by terracing


The picture above shows terracing; a method used to transform steep sloping farms that can be unworkable, into areas with level strips of land that are easier to manage. Constructing these terraces is very labour intensive and very few farmers opt to do so.

Terracing manages soil erosion, avoids landslides and prevents fertiliser and mulch from washing away quickly.  They make working in the coffee more comfortable.


Meet Benjamín Mejía Vásquez

When Pascale was in Honduras earlier in the year, Benjamín Mejía Vásquez explained how he prepared cultures of microorganisms to apply on his farm.

Farmer Benjamín Mejía Vásquez


Benjamín collects layers of sand from high up into the mountains, an area untouched by human activity and where there is a vibrant and healthy ecosystem. The microorganisms present in the sand are brought back to his farm and applied to the soil; this can support re-establishing the equilibrium in the farms soil.

This in turn yields a healthier crop, with fewer problems from pests, and is a convenient and cheap way of managing soil fertility. Bejamín has a very small de-pulper and does not work with a washing channel.

The coffee is both washed and fermented in the same tank. On his cement patio it takes around 3-4 days to dry the coffee.

Benjamín’s de-pulper; simple but perfectly functional


Workshops with coffee producers in Tuiboch:  Creating “Liberaćion”

If you’ve followed our series of posts about developing our ethical Union Direct Trade for coffee sourcing you’ll know that Pascale spent 6 months of last year in Central America working with the small scale farmers who produce the coffees we buy. Pascale has a Masters in Development Economics from Wageningen University (The Netherlands). She has returned to Guatemala at the start of the season to continue her work with us at Union on improving standards. With much talk about “Direct Trade” we consider this mechanism has to be more than just coffee provenance and likewise any claims made about profitability have to be verified. Here Pascale explains that most producers don’t have a clue what their production costs are and how we’re tackling this problem.  (Steven)

Location: Tuiboch, Todos Santos Guatemala

Activity: Workshop about costs of production & labour standards

Participants: 22 producers.

Date: 6 February 2012

Monday the 6th of February I visited Tuiboch, Todos Santos. I gave two workshops, those who have followed my earlier blog know that I have spent some time with these producers in March/April 2011 conducting a study on their costs of production. This study helped the cooperative to define a fair price per quintal in pergamino (parchment coffee) which is set at 1250 Quetzales, for this year. One of the most important conclusions of this study was that none of the producers keeps a proper administration of their costs. This is very typical for small scale farmers. So my return to Guatemala was an excellent opportunity to present the results of the study and discuss my findings with the producers. I showed them how they can keep track of production costs and showed them a small booklet I have created for them in a format that will facilitate them to keep track of their costs of production! This way they can account for all their costs and ensure they sell their coffee at a price that allows them to reinvest in their farms.

My second workshop was related to a small-holder booklet developed by the Ethical Trading initiative (ETI), a British organization which aims to raise workplace labour standards among suppliers to into the British market. The standards ETI follows are based on those of the International Labour Organization (ILO). A Spanish version of the booklet has been created but Union Hand-Roasted Coffee have taken a more pro-active approach and discuss these working conditions with coffee producers. Therefore, we are going to the different communities in Guatemala and presenting the Labour Standards workshop and discussing them with the producers. Treating subjects as equal payments, fair payments and clean and secure working conditions are very important. To illustrate, during the workshop none of the producers were aware of the minimum wage in Guatemala. This is important if they hire pickers to help with the harvest on their farms.

After the workshop we cupped 9 coffees together along with the producers. The interaction was beneficial because producers could experience by tasting and learning for themselves for example, if coffee needed a couple more hours of drying in the sun. Also showing them the broken beans in the coffee helps them to understand the importance of calibrating their depulper machine with the correct sensitivity. We are going to repeat this exercise with the other communities that produce the coffee we have named “Guatemala Liberacion”, so I will keep you up to date.

It was a very successful day with the help of Cooperativa Esquipulas R.L. and the participation of the producers. See the photos for yourself!



Series about Union Direct Trade

In previous post about Union Direct Trade we’ve talked about how we’re gathering information from smallscale coffee farmers in Huehuetenango in Guatemala. This work has been undertaken by Pascale, a masters graduate in Development Economics from Wageningen University as a research project to define how Union can have a positive impact on the lives of coffee farmers.

Pascale has been in Huehuetenango for five months and now reflects on her experiences as she completes her first period of work there and prepares to move on to Costa Rica.

Emigration was one of the coping mechanisms to deal with the coffee crisis in the late 90s. It has become the major reality of rural economies Central America.

Of the 87 households I’ve interviewed here in Huehuetenango. I discovered that 72% have or had migrant family members. The majority immigrated to the United States
(89%) and 11% to Mexico. In 40% of the cases it was the farmer (head of family) who went to the United States. The reasons for migration are: earn money to pay off debts, buy land to cultivate coffee, buying a car, or construct a house.

Although migration and the money earned from this have positive effects, such as lower poverty rates there are many social costs; broken families, a reduction in labour supply, the risk of death, injury or imprisonment from illegal border crossing, and a reduction in knowledge and skill transfer since producers are not there to teach their children how to cultivate coffee. (Steven has previously talked about the impact on the women who are left behind – Abandoned in Guatemala)

Listening to the women farmers at Todos Santos

Fair and reasonable coffee prices and long-term commitment is therefore very important for coffee producers. As the groups I interviewed indicated, knowing that they have a committed buyer such as Union Hand-Roasted Coffee gives them just and spirit to keep on working to produce high quality coffee. The previous unstable markets impeded producers from investing in their coffee fields because prices hardly covered the cost of production, it also does not make any sense investing in high quality coffee if there was no premium for quality coffee. Quality coffee requires extra labour and money investments. Only ripe cherries must be picked and traditionally pickers get paid by piece (per
quintal (46Kg) of coffee harvested). A disadvantage of paying by quintal is that workers will pick as much as possible, to earn more. To incentivise pickers to only select the ripe coffee cherries, farmers pay day labourers a higher price per day.

Although these producers in Huehuetenango are on the right track, it is important that low interest credits to fund paying for the harvest becomes available to producers.  This will reduce their cost of production increasing the profits.

Guatemala is a beautiful country, colourful, rich in culture and tradition and inhabited by a population which is generous, hospitable and hard-working. Yet, Guatemala faces many difficulties. The country is very unsafe and Huehuetenango bordering Mexico is a collection of drug traffickers. Bad road conditions, landslides and (violent) demonstrations on the roads make it difficult or sometimes impossible to travel from one place to another. Especially during the harvest this is a serious problem for those preparing their coffee for export. Hence, I have the highest respect for those working under these conditions. The farmers of La Libertad and Todos Santos have faced many barriers, but they never gave up. “For every problem there is a solution” is their motto. I believe that the fair and transparent relationship that Union Hand-Roasted Coffee has with the organizations that form these co-operatives will contribute to the development of towns in La Libertad, Chanjon and Tuiboch (Todos Santos).

boarding the bus to agronomy classes

boarding the bus to agronomy classes


Transparency and traceability are two important aspect of a company’s business model. Only by being transparent in the whole coffee chain, can both buyer and producer be sure that the benefits really reach the producers.

Almost Integrated into Guatemala Culture !

Almost Integrated into Guatemala Culture !


My next stop is going to be Costa Rica; there I anticipate the situation with farmers will be completely different. Besides the fact that the country is much more stable and is classified as a middle–development country, Costa Rica has embraced a micro-mill revolution which Union has talked about before and I will describe more in my next post.



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