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Coffee, Economy, and a Deeper Reciprocity

by Colin Trieber on

Last month in Guatemala, unexpected rains led to an early arrival of the coffee harvest season. Due to the heavy rains, the coffee cherries swelled, ripened, and began falling off the plants before the picking could begin. Many farmers were caught unprepared. Two farmers we work with estimated losing between thirty and forty percent of their crop. Another producer in Guatemala who had 40-60 pickers last year reported having only four to begin with, eventually making it to ten pickers. These reports are just a few of what we heard directly from the farmers we work with in Guatemala.

Shortage of Farm Laborers

This situation of a shortage in farm laborers however, while it was accentuated this year by the early harvest, has been a developing trend for many years. One of our closest contacts in the Guatemalan coffee industry stated that many of the farm workers are no longer needing to return to the same work because they have been receiving money from relatives in the USA. This is the most common story he is hearing on the ground there. Knowing this, however, makes the situation more complex. It reveals that the lost harvest is not only dependent on the early arrival of it, but actually (perhaps) even more so dependent on the disappearance of the work force.

Nonetheless, whatever the reason behind a lost harvest, watching one's livelihood threatened by a significant loss of income must be extremely anguishing. My sympathy is more and more often with all the farmers and farm workers of this world and their struggle to maintain our food security amidst mounting environmental pressures and an economic system which ignores and exasperates them.


On Labor Shortage

At Fika Coffee, we find ourselves in one regard facing an economic situation similar to the farmers in Guatemala. We are short staffed and with a very thin labor pool from which to draw. And yet we are faced with the demands of a growing business. As summer approaches, our harvest arrives, and similar to the Guatemalan farmers we have too few pickers (i.e., baristas). Indeed, it seems that many or most of the businesses along the North Shore are in the same situation.

This is a strange problem, especially considering the current economic reality of a high unemployment rate. The question does not seem to be, where are the workers? Rather it is, why are so many people choosing not to participate in the economic realm?

The Law of Social Life

In order to better understand this conflict in our productive/consumptive paradigm, which is our economy, I believe it is important to ponder how we have perhaps misapplied our social law. Recognize I am not attempting to offer a solution here, merely a new perspective. One which admits that our economy is being guided by erroneous laws. This observation was at the heart of what I called the inversion of fundamentals in my previous blog post.

Benefiting from Social Activities

Gary Lamb in his book titled Associative Economics states the fundamental law of social life this way: "The more that individuals work for the benefit of society or the needs of others, and the more that each person is supported by others to lead a dignified existence, the greater the well-being and overall prosperity of a society will be." I would tend to agree that this is an honest and accurate definition of a fundamental social law. It states most principally that the individual as well as the collective must both benefit through our social activities.

The Struggle

This law, which is one of mutual beneficence, is far more perplexing and paradoxical than we are aware of. Humanity has been largely unable to establish the harmony which it demands since at least the birth of Philosophy and the awakening of human intellect around 600 BCE. The struggle between the collective and the individual is still here, it is the seeming incompatibility of cooperation and freedom in our social realm that we all know so intimately today. 

A Historical Perspective

This struggle is aptly portrayed in the death of Socrates (400 BCE), who willingly accepted death at the verdict of the social ruling class, who convicted him of heresy. Socrates accepted this calmly though due to an unwavering allegiance to his own individuality (or conscience as he stated it). This example is not to demonstrate the irrefutability of the individual though. But it is meant to serve as an early illustration of the often experienced incompatibility of the individual’s wellbeing and the collectives perceived needs.

A Place for This Effort

I offer this historical perspective to give you a sense of the gravity which we are up against here. After more than 2,400 years we have yet been able to reconcile the needs of the individual with the needs of the collective. Perhaps we never will be able to. That is of course no reason not to try. The economic realm is a necessary place for this effort.


Towards A Dignified Existence

Back to the social law now. This law has two parts. First, the work of the individual on behalf of the social collective. And second, the social collective and its ability to ensure that "each person is supported by others to lead a dignified existence". The first part is much easier to fulfill then the second. It requires just the will of a single human being applied into work (motion).

Another Question

The migrant farm worker who spends long days picking ripe coffee cherries and carrying the heavy harvest along steep mountainsides is certainly giving their energy to benefit someone. Ultimately, some distant consumer. Whether or not my consumer decision to purchase a bag of the coffee which was picked by the individual who labored on the steep hillside all day is truly of benefit to that individual - this is another question altogether.

Reshaping the Work Process

Given the exodus we are currently witnessing in the migrant farm workers of the coffee world, we should conclude that our consumer purchase decisions are not ultimately helping them. Or at least, not supporting them in the ways which they would need to be supported to feel a sense of loyalty to that work. The support they need would most likely have to come from a willingness to reshape the work processes themselves, not the compensation methods.  

Work Environments and Human Dignity

It seems almost too obvious to state this, but the work environments and processes of our time are being pushed far beneath the threshold of human dignity. A threshold which is intimately connected to an opportunity for personal growth. In other words, ones work should be meaningful because it facilitates growth, or a process of human becoming which is beautiful. If it doesn't do this, than the collective should seriously question if it is right to further such environments and the expectations for labor they hold. 


A Deeper Reciprocity

Let us now bring back in the concept which I call foundational inversion. This concept declares that we should begin to find our production means more essential than our consumptive ends. We should renew our interest in the quality of our work environments and processes rather than expand our interest in developing new channels of market participation. After all, production is the foundation of our economic realm and our social life. Consumption is the outcome, the reward, or often even the eccentricity. In this same way, coffee is principally a member of the plant kingdom and an agricultural process. Only much later is it a consumptive experience.

Unreasonable Expectations

If our economy continues to be guided primarily by the eccentricities of consumer culture - such as unreasonable expectations in immediacy, quantity, and intensity of consumer experience - then the processes of production will continue to suffer greater indignity. And hence why there may be fewer individuals willing to sacrifice their most precious resource, their time and energy, in order to participate.

Stable Housing

One of the striking similarities in the labor plight facing Guatemalan farmers as well as the North Shore hospitality industry is the vagrancy which the work demands (being seasonally based). Stable housing by this point in our human evolution should be something we find far more essential than we do. A home is immensely more foundational to the wellbeing of any human than mere access to market.  While access to market is all that adjustments to compensation truly consider.

Human Reciprocity

Ultimately, I am not attempting to answer these problems here, but rather beginning to open them up as to invite others to ponder them as well. Our economic realm has grown to be a behemoth. One with incredible influence over the entirety of human social life. And it is growing more and more out of our human control. I believe it is clear what is now needed is a deeper reciprocity than the market affords. A human to human reciprocity. This though is an individual responsibility that asks most basically - am I willing to reorient myself to economic life?


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