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Coffee crusaders

From skeptical business advisors to staring down the barrel of a gun, it’s been an interesting road from the highlands of Mexico to Madison for Just Coffee Cooperative.

A group of friends and Just Coffee Cooperative customers, along with co-founder Matt Earley, center, listen to a farmer from Las Diosas, an all women's farmer cooperative in Nicaragua.

A group of friends and Just Coffee Cooperative customers, along with co-founder Matt Earley, center, listen to a farmer from Las Diosas, an all women's farmer cooperative in Nicaragua.

Photos courtesy of Just Coffee Cooperative

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Not a lot of businesses start at gunpoint, but the seeds — or beans, if you will — of Just Coffee Cooperative were planted while co-founder Matt Earley stared down the barrel of Mexican paramilitary rifles.

While Earley and co-founder Mike Moon began Madison-based Just Coffee 15 years ago, it was earlier experiences in the rural Mexican highlands like the one above that helped plot their course as “reluctant entrepreneurs.”

Earley says his interest in Latin American politics and culture began early, when he was in elementary school. He remembers watching movies about the Mexican Revolution and thinking how cool it was that this seemingly completely different land lay across an imaginary line in the southwest.

“I went to a Catholic grade school in downtown Lexington, Ky., and when I was in fifth or sixth grade the school hosted a priest and two nuns who were working in El Salvador,” Earley says. “Instead of the droning lecture on saving souls I was expecting, they gave an impassioned talk about how the Reagan administration was supporting death squads and an anti-democratic government there. The teachers were scandalized by the criticism of our government, but I was drawn to that and thought the people speaking seemed really courageous.”

When Earley was finishing up his undergraduate degree at the University of Kentucky in his hometown of Lexington, he took a course on social movements in which the class discussed the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. One of the professor’s hopes was to get students involved with progressive action, notes Earley, and at the end of the chapter he gave the students the email address for a group in San Diego that was hosting volunteers and taking them to Chiapas to help build schools for Zapatista kids. Even before the Zapatista rebellion the indigenous children had little access to schools, explains Earley. Since the uprising, the Zapatista communities purposely cut themselves off from the government and formed their own autonomous Mayan government.

“I wrote to the NGO building schools and then went to Mexico to meet up with the volunteers,” Earley says. “They sent us to the highlands where I met coffee farmers for the first time. Working with and getting to know the people there, I came to hear about how farmers were routinely paid less than the cost of production for their coffee.”

It was there that Earley also got a taste of the upheaval that marks the lives of the indigenous peoples he encountered.

An old photo of Just Coffee folks with farmers from Yachil Cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico. This was the first group of farmers Just Coffee's founders met and who they formed to support.

“Believe it or not, traveling around Latin America and other coffee regions has been super smooth in general,” Earley is quick to qualify, “with only a couple of exceptions. During my first trip to Chiapas the school construction teams arrived just after a massacre in a small nearby town called Acteal. Forty-five people — mostly women and children — were gunned down in cold blood by paramilitaries while they prayed in their town church. We were told that the army had surrounded​ the survivors in the nearby town of Polho, so we went to see if we could help.

“It was extremely tense and very moving,” Earley continues. “We were the first outsiders to speak to the survivors and we felt we needed to help. Our combo of radical Mexico City college students and gringo activists confronted the army detachment who were menacing them and told them that they were not wanted there. After a lot of tough posturing with their guns drawn they left. Unfortunately, they immediately returned when we left the area.

“Two nights later paramilitaries moved on our camp and we had to leave in the middle of the night with armed Zapatista rebel fighters and climb up the slippery muddy paths that led into the mountains in the pouring rain. After walking for several hours, we made it to a little mountain village and slept under the trees thinking that we would need to pick up and run again at any moment. We waited until morning and then returned to the road, loaded into our busses, and got out of there as fast as we could. I swore that I would never return — and then I was back again six months later. Completely randomly there was a group of high school students from the Waldorf-inspired Youth Initiative High School in Viroqua, Wis. on an ‘alternative spring break’ — quite an alternative, I’d say.”

During his subsequent visits to the Chiapas region, Earley and the local coffee farmers talked a lot about the idea of accessing better markets and he came back to the states with the idea of going to graduate school to study the coffee industry.

Earley attended UW–Madison in pursuit of a master’s degree and wrote his thesis on barriers to small coffee farmers. In his final semester he notes he “reluctantly” started Just Coffee with his friend, Mike Moon.

“We had been trying for a year to appeal to Madison and Milwaukee coffee roasters to buy the coffee of our Zapatista friends in Chiapas; however, no one here wanted to pay the premium they needed or to enter into a direct relationship with farmers who had never exported,” Earley explains. “After we told the coffee growers in Chiapas this, they convinced us to buy their coffee beans and roast them ourselves.”


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