Bellwether Coffee launches Tip the Farmer program

Bellwether Coffee is helping farmers earn a fair wage and invest in their own futures by empowering coffee drinkers to ‘Tip the Farmer’ and support the producers behind their cup.

Environmental sustainability has been front of mind for Bellwether Coffee since the inception of its emissions-free commercial coffee roaster in 2013. But a smaller carbon footprint isn’t the only way the California-based company aims to have a positive impact on the planet. Another, is at the farm level.

The Bellwether Coffee Marketplace curates green coffee for its roasting customers that is high-quality and sustainably sourced, ensuring farmers are paid fairly. Now, Bellwether Coffee is taking this one step further with its Tip the Farmer program.

“The goal of Tip the Farmer is to go beyond sustainability and enable farmers to seek progress,” says Grayson Caldwell, Coffee Program Manager of Tip the Farmer at Bellwether Coffee.

“It puts a person behind the coffee. The average consumer hasn’t travelled to origin or even met a coffee producer. They might not even know that coffee grows on a tree. If you don’t know those things, it can be hard to understand that coffee producers are the most vulnerable in the supply chain.”

Tip the Farmer sees participating cafés add a US five-cent surcharge – or tip – to each cup of coffee sold to its customers.

Bellwether collects this money and distributes it in full to the farmers it buys coffee from.

“Coffee farmers have complete autonomy to choose how they invest the money, and we share how it was distributed with our customers who can share it with theirs’,” Caldwell says.

“We piloted Tip the Farmer at the beginning of the year and were ready to officially launch in March, but took a few steps back when COVID-19 hit. It just went live in June.”

Capitola Coffee in Portland, Oregon, is one of the coffee shops involved in the pilot. It helped raise an initial payment of $3000, which went to the Association of Ecological Producers of Planadas (ASOPEP) cooperative in Tolima, Colombia.

Caldwell visited ASOPEP in January 2020 to discuss how best to implement the program. At the time, the cooperative planned to invest in infrastructure that would help with its harvest. However, when COVID-19 took hold in Colombia, ASOPEP’s priorities shifted.

“ASOPEP immediately launched two campaigns, one was targeted at hiring local labour to help with the harvest, the other was to deliver essential services to producers living outside of town to encourage them to stay on their farms and mitigate the risk of spread,” Caldwell says.

“They also purchased personal protective equipment for their municipality’s healthcare workers and gave them coffee and chocolate to show their support. The program is farmers first and really let them decide for themselves what made the most sense for their community.”

Dax Johnson, Owner of Capitola Coffee, says the beauty of Tip the Farmer is that it allowed ASOPEP to spend the money in ways he or Bellwether might not have thought of.

“When I started Capitola, I had the goal of providing more income to the two ends of the supply chain: the baristas and the coffee producers. Tip the Farmer is a very convenient way for me to achieve that,” Johnson says.

“Any time that we get to talk about the producer, or the customer can think about them, it’s a big plus. Coffee isn’t something that grows on supermarket shelves, it’s a farmed product with a lot of labour and artisan work that goes into it. It helps us fill in the full picture of coffee production.”

Capitola Coffee launched Tip the Farmer in March for a few short weeks before temporarily closing due to COVID-19, and picked up where it left off in May. Johnson says since reopening, customers have been more generous with their tips to baristas, and don’t mind adding another nickel to their coffee budget.

“Coffee’s interesting. Some people really like to talk about what it is, what you’re doing, where it comes from, and who produces it, and some people don’t. The material is on display and we leave the conversation up to the customer. I just make sure my staff is well versed on the program so they’re ready to talk about it,” he says.

“Portland has a thriving coffee community, but that means there is a lot of competition. It’s good to participate in initiatives people might connect with.”

As well as its own coffee shop, Capitola Coffee operates a growing wholesale and custom ordering business, with plans to open more cafés on the horizon.

The business sources most of its coffee through the Bellwether Coffee Marketplace, which Johnson says provides convenience, simplicity, and consistency. He looks forward to seeing more of these producers benefit from Tip the Farmer.

“There’s a lot of farmers and co-ops that want to improve their operations in any way they can, and sometimes, having extra funds is going to be what makes that difference,” Johnson says.

“I see us growing in our wholesale offering and opening a few more retail stores within the next few years. The way we have it set up now, we are contributing per pound of coffee we roast, so our contribution to Tip the Farmer is only going to get bigger in the near future.”

Caldwell says Bellwether plans to make more payments to at least two more of its producing partners in 2020. Her end goal is for Bellwether to provide a Tip the Farmer premium to all the coffees it purchases.

“As we get more people on board, we’ll be able to make more payments to farmers. [We] are excited to see how producers invest this money,” she says.

“ASOPEP is potentially a unique example. In other scenarios, it could look like price premiums paid out to producers, or using the funds to invest in new infrastructure, like raised drying beds. It really depends on the origin and needs of those producers.”

Coffee producer have already had to deal with several years of low C market prices before COVID-19 impacted production, transportation, and demand. Caldwell says programs like Tip the Farmer can provide them with more autonomy and decision-making power, “to figure out how to navigate these unprecedented times”.

“Tip the Farmer is about building connections across the coffee supply chain and bridging the gap between consumers and farmers,” Caldwell says.

“It’s shown the producers that this is more than a business relationship. We really want to do what we can to support them, continue buying coffee from them year after year, to listen to their feedback, and really be a partner to them.”

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