The Blog

view all

233. 10 million missing farmers

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning development economist, wrote an influential essay more than 20 years ago suggesting that “More than 100 million women are missing” due to systematic neglect and mortality of girls in patriarchal societies. With apologies to the great Dr. Sen for the title of this post, I am writing to gently remind readers and supporters of the growing number of petitions against Fair Trade for All that the estates whose entrance into the U.S. market for Fair Trade Certified coffee has stoked so much controversy are not the only ones who stand to benefit from the initiative.  There are more than 10 million smallholder coffee farmers currently outside the Fair Trade system whose future market opportunities stand to be affected by the way FT4All unfolds.  To date, they have been largely missing in the public discourse around the initiative.

Opponents of FT4All have focused on FTUSA’s decision to permit estates to enter the market for Fair Trade Certified coffee, and the process by which that decision was made.  But there has been no mention in their statements of the smallholder coffee farmers who are not in Fair Trade Certified cooperatives — more than 10 million by most estimates — or the fact that the FT4All strategy proposes to create opportunities in the Fair Trade marketplace for smallholder farmers who are not organized into cooperatives of any kind.

In our coffee projects in Latin America, we have worked closely with cooperatives, which make sourcing smallholder coffee possible by aggregating supply for the market.  Where there is no co-op, there are few other commercially reliable and socially equitable models for performing this function.  In these places, we often find ourselves trying to link large numbers of unorganized farmers to competitive markets outside of cooperative structures.  There has not historically been a lot of interest from other supply chain actors in joining us in these efforts.

All of this makes the FT4All proposal to link unorganized farmers to FT markets look, from the perspective of a development agency, like something that is at least worth understanding better.  Unfortunately, smallholder farmers who have not successfully organized for the market haven’t organized themselves to participate in the current debates about the future of certification and sustainable trade, either.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Fair Trade producer organizations or pioneering coffee roasters who have publicly opposed FT4All should reconsider.  I do regret that the smallholders outside the Fair Trade system — who outnumber farmers in Fair Trade Certified coops by about 10 to 1 — haven’t weighed more heavily in the discussion.


  • Miguel says:

    Hi Michael,

    Happy New Year!

    You bring an interesting point. I think this case is similar to that of farm workers whose voice have not been quite heard either in this debate within the movement (since they face similar limitations in representation in coffee). I have been able to talk with a lot of people 1:1 but since these groups have traditionally not worked in groups in coffee (associated, etc), their point of view has not been represented that often directly by themselves.

    I see this (lack of representation) as an example of why it is important to work more with these groups, for all of us working in sustainability issues in coffee.

  • Hi Michael,

    I wanted to use this blog post as a way to not just comment but to also introduce myself. My name is Courtney Lare, and I’m the new Economic Justice Program Officer for CRS Fair Trade in Baltimore. I’ll be working with Jackie DeCarlo on some of our social media initiatives, as well as on managing our domestic coffee, chocolate and handcraft partnerships.

    I think your blog does bring up an interesting point, and I’m wondering what ways those of us not in the field can engage with these unorganized farmers and learn their stories. Do you have some older blog posts you can direct me to where I can read up? If not, perhaps you can share some of their specific, individual thoughts and stories on your blog in the future?

    This is a complex issue, and I think it’s really important to have a full understanding of all sides of the argument as we consider the implications of FT4All!


    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Hello from Quito. I am not sure whether the nature of this exchange — two colleagues meeting via comments to a blog post — says more about the current state of global connectivity or just how far-flung CRS is as an agency. Either way, nice to “meet” you.

      To your comment, I think the lack of readily available resources is precisely the point — few in the sustainabilty movement have reliable access to individual farmers not organized for the market into cooperatives, associations, etc. And how could they? How could a company sourcing hundreds (or thousands) of containers of coffee each year be expected to even identify individual smallholder farmers, let alone build meaningful relationships with them? The whole reason coops work, when they do, is that they create efficiencies.

      Even in the context of Fair Trade, the coffee companies most committed to fair trading relationships with smallholder farmers don’t deal with farmers as much as they do with cooperatives. (This is what struck me as so revolutionary about research into hunger in the coffeelands that GMCR funded, which took place at the household level, but that is another story altogether.) Again, this is not a criticism, but in my experience it is an accurate observation.

      In Latin America, we have taken a similar approach in our own coffee value chain work. We had some early and successful experiences working to organize farmers into cooperatives in Nicaragua, but concluded that for a three-year project, it is probably too much to expect that unorganized smallholders can move into stable high-value trading relationships and be competitive. As a result, we now partner almost exclusively with smallholder cooperatives in our coffee work in the Americas.

      Even to address the sources of hunger in the coffeelands, we find ourselves partnering with cooperatives as engines of local development in the communities where their members live.

      I think our contact as an agency with smallholder farmers not organized for the marketplace is more common in our work in basic grains and agricultural commodities than in cash crops like coffee and cacao. And I think that among CRS project participants, lack of organization is more prominent in Africa than in the Americas.

      I have had the privilege of meeting and talking with some smallholder farmers who aren’t effectively organized for the market — some were principally corn farmers, others coffee growers — and there were some things that stood out to me from these conversations.

      The first is that they tended to find the marketplace mystifying. Many members of the cooperatives who operate in the Fair Trade system are conversant in topics like certification, coffee quality, traceability, etc., and actually engage directly in discussions with coffee roasters and importers around these issues. When they don’t understand all the steps in the coffee chain, they at least have at least some sense of how their coffee gets to market. Not so with the unorganized farmers I have met.

      When I asked one corn farmer in Mexico to sketch out the path his corn takes to market, he drew two dots — his farm and the plaza in the village where he lives — and connected them with a line. Whatever happened to his corn after the buyer in the town market hauled it away was a mystery to him. He was expert on issues of production on his farm, but was uncomfortable as the conversation moved downstream toward the market, where his knowledge quickly ended. I have had similar conversations with coffee farmers in Guatemala who are resigned to selling their coffee at the price being offered in the town square, which they don’t connect to any understanding of the coffee market or the intrinsic value of their coffee or even what it costs them to produce.

      The other thing that struck me from these conversations is how these unorganized farmers lacked access to other supply-chain actors that provide the kinds of goods and services that are essential for success in the marketplace.

      The reason I am dwelling here on the unorganized smallholder component of FT4All is that it is proposing a way forward in linking farmers like these more systematically to markets that foster richer relationships along the coffee chain that can demystify the market and fill vital service gaps.

      I eagerly await FTUSA’s release of the draft standards for smallholders.


      • Michael says:

        Michael, it’s difficult for me to reconcile most of your comment with your conclusion.

        You astutely point out the efficiencies gained through some formalized, democratic, small-producer structure (coop or otherwise), as well as some of the challenges unorganized farmers face including poor market information, few options, and little power.

        But then you conclude that FT4A is proposing a way forward for unorganized farmers, even though no standards have been released.

        A case could be made that farmer organization is vital to meet both the objectives and the practical needs associated with fair trade (certification or otherwise). Indeed, your experiences in Nicaragua appears to lend at least some credence to this, and you were specifically trying to organize farmers into coops not bypass them altogether (and let’s not forget that certification standards are no substitute for actual coop development work).

        The question is whether or not certification standards can reach unorganized farmers in a meaningful way and without opening the door to all sorts of abuse. Maybe they can (though I have my doubts), but until there’s some sort of proposal on how to do it, why presuppose FT4A is a way forward?

        • Michael Sheridan says:


          There you go again, making a thoughtful, precise and constructive comment.

          Thanks for keeping me on my toes.

          The truth is that I did wrestle with how to characterize FT4All’s contribution to date in linking unorganized smallholders to markets. I ended up writing that FTUSA is “proposing a way forward” in linking unorganized smallholder farmers to Fair Trade markets. In reality — and until FTUSA publishes draft standards for public comment — it may be more accurate to say that FTUSA is “talking about proposing” a way forward with this marginalized segment of smallholder farmers. We look forward to the publication of those standards and the opportunity to comment.

          You conclude that, “The question is whether or not certification standards can reach unorganized farmers in a meaningful way…”

          In our work in the field — especially where coops do not thrive — “the question” is perhaps a bit different: What is the most effective, efficient, impactful way to link unorganized smallholder farmers to competitive markets?

          We don’t presuppose that FT4All is a way forward. But we are encouraged to see that FTUSA is wrestling with the same challenge we face, and proposing talking about proposing a way forward to address it. The fact that FTUSA is a certifier is incidental.



Leave a Reply to Michael Sheridan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS