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PacificEdge | November 24, 2017

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Not a bad brew

Not a bad brew
Russ Grayson

YOU DON’T hear it so much now, but for awhile there was a conversation about whether it was better to buy certified Fair Trade or Australian coffees.

The argument went that buying fair trade supported a market that delivered higher incomes to coffee growers in lesser developed countries and supported coffee processing businesses there too. The counter-argument revolved around supporting Australian growers and a relatively new coffee farming industry. It was one of those arguments in which both sides are right, and that makes a decision on which to support all the more difficult.

The Tradewinds initiative

I’ve drank numerous brands of fair trade coffee. Doing that started when a friend — the author, permaculture educator and social justice worker, Jill Finnane — introduced me to an initiative she was involved with.

Sydney-based Tradewinds started importing fair trade coffees and teas 40 years ago and distributed them on the then-new Australian fair trade market. Some of the teas came from Sri Lanka, where Jill would sometimes go to teach permaculture to women tea pickers and others. The coffee came from PNG.

A smallholder product

Later, while working with Sydney-based development assistance agency, APACE, I was in Goroka in the PNG highlands, on my way along the Hilans Hiway to Mt Hagen, when the villagers who grow coffee as a cash crop were bringing large bags of the beans to the main street to sell to buyers from the coffee processors. Coffee is grown around PNG’s Central Highlands town of Goroko as an agroforestry crop planted below casuarina trees. Casuarina are leguminous and the leaves carpet the ground to deter weeds. Most of PNG’s coffee is grown by village smallholders, their coffee gardens the agricultural enterprise of subsistence farmers who tend from a few tens up to several hundred coffee shrubs.

The Wahgi Valley in which the town of Mt Hagen is situated is a coffee and tea growing region. Wandering around town and through the local produce market I found Mt Hagen a bit of a wild place quite different to the other Melanesian islands where APACE worked, the Solomon Islands.

The red fruit of the coffee shrub yield the beans and grounds that make the brew we love.

The red fruit of the coffee shrub yield the beans and grounds that make the brew we love.

There, while waiting to meet with villagers from a valley some distance beyond Mt Hagen, who had contacted APACE about acquiring a micro-hydroelectric power system to bring electricity to the village, I was with our project manager, Tom Jumerai, when he suggested we go see a relative who manages the local coffee processing facility. Here I saw how the coffee beans are processed into the makings of the stimulating dark drink most of us enjoy. This gave me a better appreciation of the beverage and even now when I sit down with a cup of steaming cuppuccino at the local cafe the image of those Goroka villagers with their big bags of beans and that processing plant in Hagen occasionally drift into mind.

This PNG experience led me to support the idea of fair trade in coffee, cocoa and tea, but it also left me with a dilemma because I wanted to support Australian coffee growers and processors as well.

The Ewingsdale brew

Lately, we have been buying our coffee online from northern NSW’s Ewingsdale crew in one kilogram bags. This is an economic way to buy (yes, I’m a skinflint, as my partner keeps reminding me) and we order a couple bags at a time. Located near Byron Bay, the company says that it does not spray its plantation with pesticides or herbicides. Their’s is a nutty flavoured coffee.

When working on the Solomon Island projects I was told that developing a coffee industry there had proved unviable. A reason was that the islands lacked the uplands like you get in PNG. Many of the islands are mountainous, what geographers call continental islands, but it seems even higher elevations are either unsuitable or unavailable for coffee production. Yet, here’s Ewingsdale coffee plantation not all that high above sea level at Byron Bay successfully growing coffee.

So, here’s my question to anyone with in-depth knowledge of coffee growing who stumbles across this story: why can coffee be grown at lower altitudes in Australia but not successfully in the Solomons even at higher elevations?

Ewingsdale coffee:

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