On a baking hot summer night a few years ago, some friends and I took a walk through our Somerville neighborhood. The day had been so warm that heat was still rising from the pavement even at 10 pm. A man from Central America was out tending his garden under the pale light of the street lamp. As my friends asked him about his plants, I thought I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a coffee bush. I had never seen one in real life, only in photographs, but I knew right away what it was.

Coffee beans.“Is that coffee?” I asked incredulously. “Yes,” he said with a grin, and then showed me that he grows it in a huge tub. He takes the coffee bush indoors during the winter and devotes an entire room of his house to caring for his tropical plants. He controls the heat and humidity and runs a sun lamp all winter long. He said he picks and roasts all his own coffee, just as he had before coming to the U.S.

For most of us, however, coffee is a tropical product imported from far away — and therein lies a dilemma. Since October was Fair Trade month, I decided to check out some of the local Fair Trade businesses to see what their take is on importing tropical products.

The first thing that I see as I enter the offices of Equal Exchange is a young woman dressed as a French maid running up a flight of steps. Rodney North, Equal Exchange’s “Answer Man,” meets me in the foyer and introduces himself … while a woman dressed as a witch heads up the stairs. “That’s a Hallowe’en costume,” he explains. They don’t call him Answer Man for nothing.

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Off of the foyer is the world’s coolest break room/cafeteria/public space. There’s a full kitchen with a fantastic stove, modern wood cabinetry, small clusters of tables and chairs, and a big window that lets in lots of light. As one might expect from a coffee importing business (it also imports cocoa, tea, and sugar, among other products), there are several pots of coffee ready at all times. I have a cup of their hot chocolate and we sit down at one of the tables.

Rodney explains that because their headquarters is sort of isolated, they have a “co-op within the co-op” they open for an hour every day — employees can buy ingredients for making lunch. He himself had just bought some eggs from a fellow employee who keeps chickens.

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Rodney tells me about Equal Exchange’s history and some of the commodities and products they sell. We discuss the ways Equal Exchange benefits farmers, both economically and environmentally. One hundred percent of Equal Exchange’s tea, cocoa, chocolate, sugar, and rooibos is organic, as well as 80% of their coffee. The remaining twenty percent of their coffee is either uncertified organic, like their Tanzanian coffee, or produced with “low-spray” sustainable methods.

The basic idea behind Equal Exchange is to shorten the distance between farmer and consumer, and by doing so guarantee that farmers receive a greater portion of each dollar consumers spend on coffee or other crops. (Here is an excellent diagram comparing regular commercial trade, with all the middlemen and brokers involved, and Fair Trade.)

In addition to working with small farmer co-ops to guarantee that farmers are paid more for their harvests, Equal Exchange supports organic agriculture for its environmental health and safety benefits. This means that the farming methods are better for the earth (less erosion and better bird habitats if coffee and cocoa beans are shade-grown, for example), less exposure to pesticides for the farmers and their families, both directly and through the water table and other water sources, and less exposure to pesticide residue for the consumer.

Clearly, using Fair Trade products is an appealing option, but what about all the valid counterarguments for maintaining a locavore diet? Rodney remarks, “There really is no conflict between a locavore ethos and consumption of tropical products. Consumers can still make informed, thoughtful, ethical choices. Most people are going to continue to drink coffee and tea, and those will always come from a tropical source. Given that, the best thing consumers can do is to make responsible choices, which organic farming and fair trade help to provide.”

Environmentally speaking, this leaves the thorny issue of “food miles” aside. Rodney explains Equal Exchange’s take on the subject:

We certainly understand and appreciate the food miles issue, and people who object to the long-distance transport of food should, of course, abstain from such food — or at least minimize their consumption of it. By the way, that might include a lot more food than just what comes from tropical countries. Sometimes you’ll have a local alternative — like Vermont apples in place of Dole pineapple. But many foods — like coffee, cocoa, and bananas — only grow in the tropics. For such things, one still can make an environmentally and socially responsible choice by choosing organic and Fair Trade. And if you both need your coffee and feel strongly about this, you might choose coffee “origins” that are closer to your favorite coffee roaster — like maybe opting for Mexican beans, as they’re the closest major source for most U.S. roasters.

Equal Exchange feels that Fair Trade certifiers and importers of Fair Trade products should be focusing more on working with small farmer co-ops, and staying away from plantation systems, which are increasingly being brought into the Fair Trade system so long as certain labor practices are followed.

For example, almost all the Fair Trade Certified tea on the market comes from plantations, whereas all Fair Trade coffee and cocoa comes from small farmers. It’s important to Equal Exchange that Fair Trade work to reform the nature of power in these rural communities, and not merely raise incomes of the poor.

So, whereas currently the Fair Trade system might raise the standard of living of either a plantation laborer or a small farmer in a co-op, only the latter has gained more control over his or her economic fate. Too often the plantation system itself is a part of the problem, and raising wages does not constitute a transformation. Supporting small farmer co-ops can, and does, create a whole new, more democratic and egalitarian rural economy in the communities effected.

To be continued next week