By Sam Kjellberg

What is "organic" and why don't we have that label?

This earth week, we've been talking a lot about the environment and the impact coffee production has on our beloved earth. We thought it relevant to discuss the term "organic", particularly as it relates to coffee!

The USDA Organic label is only 10 years old and already 4% of all food sales boast its authority! Where does coffee sit in this cultural revolution?

Before we begin, let's just be clear - we don’t have the answer, nor will we make any broad claims about the merits of the organic food industry. A cursory Google search will show you that the issue is extremely complex. We at SK are committed to doing what is best for ALL aspects of coffee consumption. So, one might ask, “why don’t you offer organic certified coffee?” We humbly believe the methods used by our coffee producing partners are transparent, abundantly “earth friendly,” natural and idiomatic, and as you will read below, are indeed organic.



We see the label everywhere. It guides our purchases (an entire 4% of our food purchases if the USDA’s figures are correct). And it definitely gives us the “feel goods.” But what does it actually mean?

“Organic is a labeling term found on products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. The National Organic Program – part of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service – enforces the organic regulations, ensuring the integrity of the USDA Organic Seal.” (USDA website, "Understanding the USDA Organic Label")


There is a lot of scrutiny about whether or not certified producers are being held accountable to high environmental standards. Is the certification robust enough? Again, it is complex, and folks with many more PHDs than we have are still figuring it out. However, I did find some interesting misconceptions. For example, in order to be organic, only 95% of your food has to be free of synthetic additives, and the other 5% can still have additives. These addititives must be found on the USDA approved list; though, both 95/5% can be sprayed with something.To be “100% Organic” means you only have to be above that 95% mark, but not completely 100%. When certifying foreign producers, the government often uses third-party local firms in order to check certification; several middlepeople from the consumer. And a particularly interesting consideration in relation to coffee, the “earth friendly” nature of organic practices does not take into account the effects on natural habitats when they are converted to farmland; this is significant when thinking of high-producing “full sun” coffee farms.

Within the coffee industry, there is further scrutiny about the burden of cost for organic certification. To my knowledge, the cost of certification falls on the shoulders of the farmers and producers themselves; i.e. a well-funded American importing company cannot certify the coffee they acquire from farmers after the fact. According to the USDA’s website, the average cost for foreign certification is just over $24,000, and that figure doesn’t seem to include any necessary recurring payments. That is half of the annual salary for my day job, and as a small business owner myself, that seems like a lot of money. But, is that just the cost of doing business? I don’t know. Is that cost offset by increased revenue for a premium product? Some studies suggest, no. Certainly, when a certified label is present, it is much easier for a consumer to see the producer’s intent for environmental consciousness.




We are particularly proud of our relationship with our Peruvian importer, Campesino Mateo, and his partnership with farmers from Cusco, Peru. As of 2016-17, Peru only had 90,000 of its 355,000 hectares of coffee farms certified organic. That’s not unsubstantial, but certainly not a majority. Does that mean the rest of those coffee producers are using inorganic practices? Our partner Mateo suggests, no.

None of Mateo’s coffee is certified organic. However, in his own words, “the fully transparent direct trade model I am developing provides a far more integral and equitable relationship connecting producers, roasters, and consumers. This relationship ensures that there are strong incentives for farmers to use organic practices and take the necessary steps to produce high quality coffee. Premiums that may have been paid to certifying organizations instead go directly to the farmers.” None of his farmers use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. When they do weed around their trees, they use machetes and/or mechanical weedwhackers. Most of them fertilize their land with “guano” (poop) from guinea pigs, chickens, and/or livestock, as well as fermented coffee pulp from the coffee cherries they produce (a natural biproduct and largely unused industry-wide). These are traditional farming practices to this region and were being practiced well before the organic food craze.

Admittedly, a relationship like ours with Mateo takes a great deal of trust, and there are some cases where that sort of trust is breached. However, the depth of transparency provided by Mateo’s operation leads us to believe that what they are doing is in the best interest of our planet. They are committed to the environment and our communal economic health, and continue to develop, just as we are and continue to do.


Just for fun, I thought I would share some of the extreme detail provided by Mateo about his farming partners. These are all quotes regarding one of our offerings from the Peruvian farmers Vicente Pedraza and Ilda Gutierrez.

  • Regarding sunshine: Direct sunlight from 5:30AM to 3:00 PM. Vicente and Ilda’s farm receives the very first solar rays in the morning. Perfectly angled to capture the morning sunrays at a perpendicular angle, their farm produces the sweetest fruits and coffees.
  • Regarding soil: High clay content with abundant organic matter
  • Regarding a specific experience: When working on the farm of my other partner farmer, Raul, we often visit farms after the harvest and depulping of the coffee. One night we arrived at about 8:00pm in the pitch black to Vicente and Ilda’s farm only to find Vicente turning the crank on the rotating depulping machine to finish pulping the day’s harvest. By hand- depulping Vicente ensures the delicate bean is not damaged. Both Vicente and Ilda are excited about a more stable future in which we can work together.