The main thrust of Colorado Springs' Craft Week may be connecting locals to other locals. But if Exodus Road founder and CEO Matt Parker has his way, he'll be taking it a step further — linking locals here to villagers in Thailand, via direct-trade coffee.
It's his Springs-based nonprofit coalition's work, finding and freeing human-trafficking slaves in the United States, India and Southeast Asia, that brought him in contact with an American farmer in the hills of Northern Thailand. And it's collaboration and conversation happening as a result of Craft Week that put him in touch with Eric Harry Nicol of the Principal's Office at Ivywild School (who buys coffee from local roasters) and Sarah Ray of Yobel International (who has experience selling direct-trade green beans to local roasters).
Parker's got big ambitions for the organically grown green beans of Thailand's Karen people. If they come to fruition, it could not only mean sustainability for a village, but renown for the Springs in featuring a basically new-to-the-U.S. product.
"I've had coffee from all over the world," Parker explains, "and I've never had coffee that tastes like Thailand coffee. ... It's about to be the next big thing."
To market, to market
Parker lived in Northern Thailand for 2½ years before moving back to Colorado Springs in 2012 to formalize The Exodus Road. The American he met, Sean Abbott, is married to a Karen woman and runs a program called True Vine in the mountains of the northwest Chiang Mai region.
Abbott's work focuses on organic, fair-trade farming, and bringing innovative solutions to crop deficiency in the area. With changes in irrigation, he's helped triple the villagers' growing season, and allowed them to expand from an emphasis on rice to coffee.
Abbott's not the only one pushing coffee, though. Parker explains that both the Thai government and humanitarian influences have been trying to support agricultural alternatives to the opium trade.
"They're really trying to take the hill tribe areas and turn them into a new industry that's not driven by poverty so much," he says. "Sean is at the forefront of that, and he's at the forefront of it outside of the king and the queen's program," which has its problems.
"It's just like any government subsidy," he says. "You come into an impoverished, marginalized area, you set up shop, and then you leave. So now these farmers, they don't run the program in a way that's gonna [generate] cash flow. ... It's that kind of solution that looks good politically, but in reality there is not that sense of sustainability and profit.
So Abbott's found a niche in helping villagers with fair trade and organic farming, movements gaining recognition and cachet globally. (Parker says the Dutch and Canadians have moved in on Thai beans specifically, though Americans haven't taken notice yet.) After the harvest, what the farmers need, often, is a set of wheels — because these villages are so remote, they don't have a way to reach a local market. And brokers who come in don't pay them fair-trade prices.
"Our vision," says Parker, "is to surround the village and say, 'We're gonna bring a market to you. First it's global — with the United States — but as we have revenue coming back in to the village, we want to see them buy that truck, so now they can take their produce to market locally. And potentially Sean has connections with national chains as well, so now we have a global-national-local market we're bringing to them, really increasing the capacity of that village so that not only are they sustainable, but they can thrive."
The benefits go beyond economic infusion. Parker's plan is to buy green beans at fair-trade prices, ship them to Colorado Springs, then sell to local roasters, with a percentage of his proceeds going into Exodus Road's counter-trafficking measures. So far, the nonprofit has freed more than 250 sex slaves.
"I think there's ways to motivate people who care about developing the world, creating a better world, who also love coffee and want to invest in coffee," says Parker. He adds that he'd like to find investors who might be willing to put a few thousand dollars each into a village, combining philanthropy with business development.
He wants to make one-on-one connections as well — one of the impacts direct trade has over fair trade. Think pictures and stories printed on individual coffee bags.
"When you buy this coffee, not only is it premium and it's delicious and it's from Thailand, which is kind of a hidden market ... but there's a person behind this that you get to somewhat 'meet' on the back of the coffee bag. ... I love the thought that there are people rallying around a village to bring it to sustainability."
Next steps include Parker getting beans to Nicol and local roasters to test out in early May. For Nicol's part, he says he sees the potential all around, and that local roasters he knows have expressed an interest in some direct green-bean buying, and in the idea of just trying to connect more to farms.