Tip the Farmer?

In much of the world, patrons of restaurants and bars tip their waiters, waitresses, and bartenders, in recognition of a job well-done (and in recognition that, in some jurisdictions at least, such jobs are exempted from minimum wage requirements). More recently, tip jars have shown up at places featuring counter service only, like coffee shops. But if you’re going to tip your barista, why stop there? Why not show your appreciation to, say, the farmer who grew and harvested the coffee?

That’s precisely the idea behind this interesting project: TraceableCoffee.org

“We’re using technology to put a human face on a commodity product that Americans savor every day. Coffee lovers don’t think twice about providing a well-deserved tip to a barista, so why not use your smart phone or computer to tip the actual farmers who grew your coffee,” said Thaleon Tremain, General Manager, Pachamama Coffee Cooperative. “This isn’t charity, but a chance at a more direct and meaningful relationship with your coffee farmer.”

[That’s from this press release.]

Interesting idea. And far be it from me to object to a voluntary transfer of wealth. But I wonder about just why farmers are being chosen as the beneficiaries. The most straightforward answer, of course, is that the project is the brainchild of the coffee growers cooperative. It’s entirely (and not unreasonably) self-serving. But from a consumer’s point of view, why tip farmers, in particular? If you appreciate your coffee, and want to improve the lives of the underprivileged people who made it possible, why single out farmers? Why the farmer, and not the truck driver who brought the coffee beans to the processing plant? Or the longshoreman who loaded the coffee onto or off of the ship that carried it from Guatemala or Ethiopia? Or the shipping clerk who made sure that the paperwork got done? Chances are, none of these people is well paid.

My guess is that our continuing romanticization of farming makes it easier to be sympathetic to the plight of a (poor) farmer than it is to be sympathetic to the plight of a (poor) shipping clerk. But from an ethical point of view, the choice seems entirely arbitrary.

(For a recent blog entry about a project with similar intentions, see “Progressive Garment Factory, or Charity?”).

10 comments so far

  1. R. Schmethical on

    Interesting point. You should also remember that by sticking to fairtrade coffee, the wealth is distributed beyond the single farmer and does benefit entire communities. And if you’ve ever worked as a waiter/barista, you know how precious a tip can be.

  2. arfur on

    I think it depends how “poor” is defined. There’s developing world poverty with no shoes, lack of life basics and income to provide toys/education. Then there’s developed world poor, be it the truck driver (maybe with a Harley) or the shipping clerk (maybe with an ipod). Point is, the latter bunch generally have more options, opportunities and social assistance, so they’re more likely to be relatively better off. Their plights are not equal.

    Driving a truck and unloading boxes is a cakewalk compared to planting coffee beans under sweltering heat. There is no coffee bean without the patience and dedication to see the whole thing through. As is usually in life, you come out on top by taking initiative. That’s for both the farmer (on which everything hinges) and the cooperative that created this program. If truck drivers, longshoremen and shipping clerks all need and deserve bigger/fairer shares of the pie, what are their “cooperatives” doing about it?

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Good point. I should have clarified that the people I had in mind are the truck drivers and file clerks IN the developing world, not in North America. There are surely people in the coffee supply chain who are just as poor as the farmers.


      • arfur on

        That’s true, but then doesn’t the fact that the farmer is working harder earn them (more) sympathy? Give a driver/clerk some land and beans, and whether or not they’re up to the task is to be seen. But give the farmer a truck/some boxes and it’s nearly guaranteed they’ll get the job done. The way things are going, technically all a farmer needs is a smartphone, a bike and some postage stamps to run an entire coffee operation himself. I don’t think the farmers been romanticized, but it’s just that for whatever reason there’s much more exposure to their plight. It’s nevertheless easier to sympathize with farmers bc it’s easier to grasp their importance – it’s not just coffee beans they grow but also rice, potatoes, vegetables, beef, etc. The eat local, farmer’s market movement is basically a low-tech version of the tip the farmer project.

  3. Chris MacDonald on

    I don’t see any reason to assume that the farmer is working harder. I grew up in a (Canadian) farming community, so I know farming is hard work. But most of us have no idea how hard coffee farmers work, relative to how much they’re paid. For all I know, the people working FOR the farmer (or the guys loading the truck at the dock) work harder. It’s impossible for me to know. I just have no reason to think that the farmer deserves a tip more than anyone else.

  4. Thaleon on

    What’s nice about the option to tip a farmer is that it’s an efficient way for the consumer to reward responsible small-scale farmers in areas of great biodiversity. If you don’t want to tip a farmer, then don’t. But some people may want to. Doing so would arguably be a much more efficient way to compensate the farmer for his environmental stewardship and quality coffee (and story). This is good economics and it is voluntary. Seems more efficient than the trickle-down approach that many third-party certifiers currently sell. And, from my perspective, a more authentic source of information directly from the farmer. Making this information available probably helps these farmers add value to their commodity. Good for them.

  5. Chris MacDonald on


    I have no objection to the project. I just want people to recognize that, by tipping the farmer, they’re not tipping someone who is necessarily more deserving than anyone else in the coffee supply chain.


  6. Thaleon on

    I think it’s fine if you conclude that farmers are no more “deserving” than longshoremen. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    My point is the “tipper” determines who deserves the “tip” — if there even is one. It seems there is a consumer segment (small but growing) that values the role of the small-scale farmer more than the role of the transport company. Right or wrong, it is for the consumer to determine what they value.

  7. arfur on

    If we assume that everyone is equally poor, hard working, and important in the chain I say the farmer is most deserving because without them (and their “team”) everybody else is out of a job and there is no coffee supply chain. This isn’t to say others are not deserving…it’s like a podium – farmer finishes at the top because of the fact that everyone depends on his/her success. Perhaps I’m missing something that could “trump” this and make someone MORE deserving.

    Of course, it’s up to each consumer to decide if it’s justifiable. But the problem is we generally have limited cash so what little premium we can afford it seems to be more effective to tip what little we have to the farmer. Would it be as worthwhile if we divided what little we have equally among everybody? Why did the US government bail out GM rather than the workers themselves while letting the company implode? Another problem is that even if you wanted to generously tip somebody else, there are no means to do so. So if coffee farmers are no better than anybody else, what is it that emboldens them to create such a project? I doubt we’ll see a tip the driver/longshoreman project soon because they haven’t even begun to educate consumers about their plight.

    So I googled “developing world truck driver” to try to learn something about the other players in the developing world, and found this article: http://heapro.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/22/1/37
    According to the authors down in the conclusion, truck drivers “are highly mobile and wealthier than average citizens in developing countries”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: