The Green Scene: Know your beans

Every morning, an estimated 112 million to 115 million people in America consume at least one cup of coffee. Trailing only oil, coffee is the second-most-traded commodity in the world. With terms such as "fair trade," "shade-grown," "direct trade" and "organic," it's a wonder how a consumer chooses what kind of bean to brew in the morning.

Coffee bean gal: Counter Culture's Kim Elena Bullock will be speaking at Warren Wilson College on Thursday, March 4. Photo courtesy Counter Culture

Of course, it's also possible to simply bypass all the labels and just brew a cup of cheap, readily available, standard coffee. Such a cup usually doesn't take the coffee grower into account, or the environment where it is grown. The large coffee roasters and distributors generally pay low prices for their beans. Farmers who work for these companies often work for less than fair living wages and grow coffee in unsustainable ways. If buying coffee that is supportive of farmers, grown sustainably, and good-tasting is important to you, or if you just want to learn more about your cup of Joe, there are alternatives available.

North Carolina's very own Counter Culture Coffee is helping set a new standard in sustainability and social justice for coffee roasters. I recently interviewed the company's Sustainability and Producer Relations Manager Kim Elena Bullock, who'll present the hard facts about java in a talk at Warren Wilson College on Thursday, March 4.

Founded in Durham in 1995, Counter Culture Coffee quickly made it apparent that they not only cared about the taste of their coffee but also the cost. To Counter Culture folks, that doesn't solely mean how much a pound of their coffee costs, but also the tax on the environment where the beans are grown and the impact they have on the community where the farmers live.

Since 1972, more than 6 million acres of land have been completely stripped of vegetation for the production of coffee. This is equivalent to one-fifth of North Carolina being completely deforested. Shade-grown coffee, on the other hand, keeps the local environment intact while also benefiting the coffee. CCC also pays more than fair-trade prices for their beans, helping farmers live above poverty. On top of all this, the company has a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2015. Here's what Bullock has to say about being a responsible coffee company, the advantages of Counter Culture Coffee's practices and why people choose to pay more for their coffee.

Xpress: I noted that you pay fair living wages to farmers, and thus the material costs are greater for you than they are for other coffee companies. Is this a fiscally sustainable practice?
Yes! Or rather, I hope so! The prices we pay for coffee are crucial to creating trusting, long-term relationships with growers, and those supplier relationships are the foundation of our coffee-roasting business. When we know where we will buy coffee from year to year, we can focus our attention on constant improvement as opposed to focusing on finding new coffee suppliers.

What motivates Counter Culture to sell coffee that is shade-grown and certified direct trade/organic?
Our company's vision includes a "dedication to real social, environmental and fiscal sustainability," and the labels that you mention are ways for us to both measure our performance in that pursuit, as well as to communicate our work to coffee lovers.

What are the advantages of shade-grown coffee?
The most obvious advantage of growing coffee under a canopy of diverse shade is the health of the natural environment: Shade trees provide habitat for birds and other fauna, prevent soil erosion and sequester carbon dioxide, thereby mitigating the effects of climate change. In addition to the environmental-sustainability component, coffee also grows more slowly in the shade and develops more complexity of flavor, meaning that another advantage of shade-grown coffee is better-tasting coffee.

In these hard economic times, have you found it more difficult to find new businesses to buy a coffee that has a higher price point?
Interestingly, we have found that our customers have not given up on having great coffee since the beginning of the economic downturn. We have noticed a shift toward brewing at home as opposed to buying cups of coffee at a shop, but coffee lovers are holding onto their habits.

To learn more about sustainable coffee growing and Counter Culture Coffee, visit Warren Wilson College's Gladfelter Building on Thursday, March 4, from 3 to 5 p.m. Bullock will address the effects of coffee growing on the communities where it is produced and what Counter Culture Coffee is doing to be a positive force. More information can be found at (click on "Trainings"), or by calling 771-3781.

[Trey Jones is a freshman of Warren Wilson College majoring in psychology. He also writes for WWC's Environmental Leadership Center radio program The Swannanoa Journal, which airs on MAIN-FM and WNCW.]


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3 thoughts on “The Green Scene: Know your beans

  1. Phillip Gibson

    MARCH 4 @ 3 p.m. is when Kim will be speaking at Warren Wilson College. NOT March 5.

    MARCH 4…. MARCH 4….

    Free Counter Culture Coffee!!

  2. Erika Schneider

    It was a very thought-provoking, yet inspirational presentation.

    Thanks for creating the space for these discussions to happen.

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