Farm-to-coffee cup: Three Americas

A shot of Three Americas and CAN's available brews.
A shot of Three Americas and CAN’s available brews.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Given how ubiquitous coffee is — perhaps you’re drinking a cup as you read this — how often do you consider where it comes from? Three Americas, which operates a stand at the Aptos farmers market, challenges us to ask exactly that.

Farmers Market Fridays

Consider the coffee bean. It’s small, insignificant, one of hundreds sacrificially ground for our morning brew.

But behind it is a complicated web of relationships that spans the globe, bridging tropical farmers with consumers nearly everywhere. And just what this relationship is — who’s involved, how they’re treated and what its effects are on the environment — is the focus of Three Americas, Inc., which, along with its partner organization, the Community Agroecology Network (CAN), operates a coffee stand at the Aptos farmers market on Saturdays.

The idea, said CAN executive director Rose Cohen, is to ensure that the individuals behind every step of the production process are treated equitably. “We want people to start thinking about supply chains as a network, not a means to an end,” Cohen said. “There’s a person behind every step of the process, believe it or not.”

Like the industry itself, the relationship between CAN and Three Americas is relatively complex. Though the Three Americas tent reads just that — Three Americas — it’s currently staffed by several CAN youth volunteers recruited through Growing Justice, a community garden program based in Watsonville. The tent staffers sell Three America’s coffee, brewed (which can also be bought at Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Co.), alongside CAN’s coffees imported from Nicaragua and Mexico.

Julia (HOO-lia) Cortez, one of the volunteers staffing the stand, said Three Americas got its start in 1997, when its founders began importing coffee beans from farms on the Nicaraguan lake island of Ometepe. The revenues from selling the beans go toward development projects throughout North, Central and South America — hence the moniker.

The three-person board that runs Three Americas plans to step back from the coffee import and sale operation within the next year or so, handing off the reins to CAN. That means you’ll still be able to buy Three America’s signature Ometepe roast in the future, just with a different label.

CAN, on the other hand, was started by UC Santa Cruz graduate students in the wake of the Nicaraguan Revolution, which ravaged the South American country from 1961 to 1990. This coincided with a “coffee crisis” in the 1990s spurred by bad weather conditions throughout the continent, which caused coffee prices to plummet. In the wake of this, the founders of CAN realized that small farmers need an insurance policy against the bull and bear of the international coffee market.

“Our relationship is directly with those farmers,” Cortez said. “Throughout the whole supply chain, there are solidarity efforts that support bringing in each of the coffees.”

Mario Manzano and Arnulfo Artiga working at Three Americas at the Aptos farmers market.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

CAN tracks every step of their coffee’s production and import process. Its Light Roast — sourced from the central Nicaraguan town of San Ramón — is shipped directly from Nicaragua to the port of Oakland by Ético, a nonprofit importer, from where it’s then sent to Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting. Its Full City Roast — from Veracruz, Mexico — is shipped first to Washington, D.C., whence it’s distributed to locations throughout the United States.

The revenues from each cup of coffee sold at the stand, Cortez says, are cataloged and allocated per brew bought: 15% of the proceeds from the Three Americas Ometepe coffee, for example, goes directly to the co-op that grows it. Of the proceeds from CAN’s coffees, on the other hand, 5% goes toward a grant fund for sustainable agricultural projects, and another 5% toward a women’s unpaid labor fund — which subsidizes worker child care.

The idea is to provide a financial buoy for small farms in Latin America within a $10.7 billion industry that rewards the large plantations supplying multinational brands like Starbucks and Keurig. Adverse weather conditions around the port of New Orleans can ripple throughout the global coffee market — where, much as with oil, large corporations control prices and supply.

“We make sure that everybody absorbs risk equally,” Cortez said. “It involves everyone in the supply chain — from the farmers to the distributors — so we’re not cutting into each others’ bottom lines.”

So how does the coffee taste? CAN’s Light Roast has a nice zip of acidity, making it difficult to drink in large quantities, but its chocolate notes balance this out fairly well. Its Full City Roast — significantly darker — is still sour but much more forward with the nuttiness. I liked Three Americas’ Ometepe coffee quite a lot; it was much more earthy and vegetal than what I’m used to drinking, and stayed good after cooling.

Small, 8-ounce cups are $3 each, while larger, 12-ounce cups are $3.75.

Three Americas and CAN currently set up at only the Aptos farmers market on Saturdays — but you can find their coffees online on Three Americas’ website or via Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting. CAN’s coffee is also available in person at Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting downtown — and if you’re a UCSC student it’s served at all the campus dining halls. Find more information about CAN here.