During his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia in the mid to late 1990s, Thaleon Tremain found himself wanting to help farmers, the kind of people who could grow coffee beans that could bring in a good price in an American cafe – but not necessarily bring that profit back to the country of origin.
“Coffee, unlike most commodities, has incredible value for retail customers,” says Tremain. “Coffee has huge value, so it has the potential to have a huge international development impact for the truly poor. But the sad thing is that so little of that money comes back to the farmer.
Tremain is CEO and co-founder of Pachamama Coffee, a cooperative founded in 2006 that is owned by coffee farmers from five countries: Nicaragua, Peru, Guatemala, Mexico and Ethiopia. The co-op now operates three stores in the Sacramento area and a new 4,100 square foot roastery in El Dorado Hills. It’s an unusual business model: the farmers own Pachamama, and Tremain and his coffee and roasting staff are employees paid by the cooperative.
Tremain and some of Pachamama’s coffee growers, including Merling Preza from Nicaragua and Alejandro Gutierrez Zuniga from Mexico, took part in the inauguration of the new roastery on March 17. “I’m really proud and it’s an honor to be here, just to see the work,” Zuniga said through an interpreter. “The scale that Pachamama has developed will directly impact our small producers at the outset.”
“Our business model is so unique,” Preza says, also through an interpreter. She has been doing business with American coffee companies for 30 years, has been president of Pachamama since 2013 and general manager of Prodecoop, a cooperative based in Nicaragua. “He’s the coffee grower who puts the coffee here, and he owns the business.”
Pachamama pays farmers 70 cents per cup of coffee – far more than the 6 cents per cup they would get for conventional coffee or 9 cents for fair trade certified coffee. Still, it’s not necessarily an easy life for small growers like Zuniga, who typically grow 2 hectares at 12 to 15 tonnes of coffee per hectare. “Small growers find it more difficult to have a bigger income,” says Preza.
Many people around the world are referred to as small coffee producers; according to Fairtrade International,
25 million smallholders produce 70-80% of the world’s coffee. In Nicaragua, a country known for its coffee cultivation, there are approximately 44,000 coffee growers, 97% of whom own 14 hectares or less,
according to a 2017 report from the United States Department of Agriculture. Cooperatives like the one Preza leads have introduced more sustainable methods for these farmers to earn a living. She says selling better quality coffee through the fair trade market allows farmers to reinvest in their fields. It’s tricky work growing specialty beans: Farms must be suitable for growing organic plants, and fertilizer must be all-natural.
Nick Brown, the company’s co-founder and advisor who also served in the Peace Corps with Tremain, says he was interested in creating something that helped small farmers make a better living. “It was more about the people and the work than the coffee,” says Brown.
The majority of cafes in the United States are corporate offerings – in 2019 the
market research company Allegra found that 78% are owned by Starbucks, Dunkin’ or JAB Holding Company (which owns Peet’s Coffee, Stumptown Coffee, Krispy Kreme Donuts and Einstein Bagels, among many other brands) – and the Capital Region is no exception . “The real competition here isn’t the little local guys,” Tremain says. “These are publicly traded companies.”
Still, a fairly robust specialty coffee scene has developed in the Capital Region over the past two decades between well-established names like Chocolate Fish, Old Soul and Temple Coffee, as well as up-and-comers like Mast, Scorpio Coffee and Cora Coffee. (The author of this article is a former Temple employee.)
Amid this landscape, Pachamama has at times seemed to fly a little under the radar, its Midtown Sacramento roastery and cafe often less crowded than the rest. “It’s a beautiful coffee town,” says Cruz Conrad, director of coffee operations for Pachamama, noting the wealth of local roasters in the area. “There is a bit of everything for everyone. We focus on farmer ownership and organic farming.
The hope for the new El Dorado Hills roast is that it can help Pachamama continue to grow. Unlike the Midtown Roastery, which only had one 30-kilogram roaster in a tight space and reached capacity for roasting about 2-3 years ago, the El Dorado Hills Roastery has two 35-kilogram drum roasters. kilograms in spacious spaces. , each capable of roasting 40 to 50 pounds of coffee at a time.
The higher volume is a boon for Pachamama, which roasts 800 pounds of raw coffee beans a day for a mix of cafes, wholesalers and internet customers. “I want to grow as much coffee as possible,” says Theo Bernados, head roaster at Pachamama. “The more volume we do, the more profits (farmers) earn.”
The extra profits are good for everyone, from the international farmer to the barista at one of Pachamama’s stores.
“I think having healthy farmers and well-paying farmers and a healthy supply chain is good for everyone, including people who work as baristas and roasters and coffee workers.”
Thaleon Tremain, CEO and Co-Founder, Pachamama Coffee
“I think having healthy farmers and well-paying farmers and a healthy supply chain is good for everyone, including people who work as baristas and roasters and coffee workers,” says Tremain. “What we really need is to make sure our growers are sustainable, but not just in terms of environmental issues, but economically and socially sustainable.”
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