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Sunday, August 12, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story

Ground Zero: A boomer idealist is hoping Seattle coffee drinkers can spare a dime for his global goal

To see the connection between songbirds and cappuccino and the global economy, you needn't stray far from Seattle.

First, head for a shrubby corner of McChord Air Force base on Migratory Bird Banding Day, as local birders check mist nets stretched across dry swamp. The birders emerge from the bushes dangling handsewn drawstring bags. These are opened, gingerly, one by one.

Out pops a tiny MacGillivray's warbler with lemony feathers, a soft slate hood, white crescents cradling chocolate eyes. Next, a fluffy yellow warbler streaked with orange. Then, an iridescent rufous hummingbird shimmering emerald in the sun. So small, each bird could nest in a child's palm. The hummingbird weighs less than three business cards and has only one gram of fat. But delicacy deceives. Like the other songbirds, it has recently flown thousands of miles to this Northwest patch from a swath between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer — coffee country.

Next, hop a ferry to Vashon Island for a cup of coffee with Danny O'Keefe. The boomer songwriter may be in his cluttered garage, roasting fist-sized batches of green coffee beans in a hot-air popcorn popper. He has ordered the beans over the Internet, primo coffee from Guatemala, Papua New Guinea and Haiti. He likes the latter for its handsome tobacco-y flavor and the others for their hints of citrus and chocolate. More to the point, he's chosen these beans because they are organic, brought a fair price to farmers and were grown in the shade of trees that provide refuge for songbirds like the hummingbird and warblers.

As coffee-bean chaff floats like flower petals around the garage, O'Keefe fast forwards through the past few decades — what's happened to his career, to celebrity activism, to coffee — since he played the No-Nukes circuit with Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne and wrote the classic tune "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues." At 58, O'Keefe looks softly weathered, like his faded denim jacket. He wears a plain green T-shirt and glasses, which he often takes off and puts back on. His only other adornment is a plastic pen, worn around his neck on a cord, so it's always handy.

Though he never had another big commercial hit, O'Keefe has earned a comfortable living writing songs for himself, Nashville and name artists including Browne, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, John Denver and Alison Kraus. As for celebrity activism: Even though Raitt, Browne and gang are now old enough to be card-carrying members of the AARP, they're still shouldering the social-justice banner, spouting slogans for causes that have become too complex to fit on buttons.

Take coffee. These days, it's an uneasy grind of politics, economics and ecology. Coffee is the second most-traded legal commodity on the planet, behind petroleum. This year, there's a surplus of 1.3 billion pounds, about 10 percent of annual global consumption. Paradoxically, that's both too much and too little in the eyes of sustainable-coffee advocates such as O'Keefe. Too much low-quality robusta coffee raised on treeless sun plantations using chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase yields. Too little high-grade arabica coffee grown in mountain forests and traditionally harvested by hand-picking each coffee cherry when fully ripe.

The coffee glut has dropped the price for a container of arabica beans as low as 52 cents a pound, less than half what it was two years ago. Some blame international development programs that, to alleviate poverty among struggling farmers, funded massive plantings of sun-grown robusta in Vietnam, where coffee had never been much of a crop. Others blame conglomerates for stockpiling trash-grade beans to use as filler in inexpensive blends.

Either way, the glut drags down the price of virtually all coffee. That means small farmers (who produce 70 percent of the world's coffee) can't make a living growing shade-grown arabica beans. So they're chopping trees to sell as firewood, clearing the land for quick-cash crops, grazing cattle. Or they a abandoning the jungle to seek jobs in cities north. Over the past decade, 40 percent of shade-coffee farms in Mexico, Colombia, Central America and the Caribbean have been converted to sun plantations. This means coffee, as a cause, has become an odd brew of songbirds, traditional Latin American farmers, the futures market in New York, international development agencies, backyard birders, Smithsonian biologists and, of course, the highly caffeinated, trend-setting café society of Seattle.

Enter O'Keefe. He and other sustainable-coffee advocates hope if they can persuade enough Seattle coffee drinkers to request "shade grown-fair trade-organic" when they order their usual no foam-double talls, the rest of the country will follow. Coffee companies would patronize farmers who grow environmentally friendly beans. Ergo, songbirds would have forest to live in, farmers would have a way to make a living and the specialty-coffee crowd could be assured an ample pipeline of primo beans. That's the one-sip summary and the goal of the Songbird Foundation, a nonprofit O'Keefe started four years ago.

Idealistic? Unrealistic?

It would mean changing business-as-usual for some 25 million farmers and 80 nations in the world's $11 billion coffee industry. It would mean changing cuppa-joe habits in America, which last year consumed about 2.5 billion pounds of coffee, a third of the world export. Surprisingly, only 13 percent of globally traded coffee is specialty coffee — the type used by gourmet roasters such as Starbucks, SBC, Peet's and Caffé Appassionato. So no matter how it's grown and traded, gourmet java can only minimally impact the global economy and planet's ecology.

Why, then, have activists such as O'Keefe targeted specialty coffee?First, there's a natural confluence of growing gourmet coffee beans, which require shade, and preserving bird habitat and traditional farming methods. Second, the demand for specialty coffee is growing while commercial coffee is losing the younger generation to pop. Third, at more than $10 a pound and $2.50 a latte, the spendy specialty stuff attracts consumers who've already demonstrated price is not their main consideration. They're most likely to pay more (up to 10 cents a cup and $1 a pound) for triple-certified coffee. Fourth, gourmet coffee is highly visible, a glam product around which to create public buzz and, advocates hope, a domino effect that knocks into the commercial-coffee giants.

"Change first has to happen within a core group," O'Keefe says. "If it's tuna, the activists have to realize the connection with dolphins. Then all the kids have to know and love Flipper. Then let's show a dolphin, hanging in the net, flipping. Now you got your poster boy. All the mothers and the kids will insist: Don't let Flipper die for our tuna!

"That's why the birds are important. Often, we get inundated by images of poor people. It's overwhelming. You can't connect with 10,000 poor people. Instead, treat the coffee grower as the steward of the environment. He takes care of the birds and the land de facto as you take care of him. You do that by paying a premium for a certain type of coffee."

If nothing else, Seattle is practiced in the art of paying extravagant prices for quality beans. Early this year, the Songbird Foundation commissioned an independent poll of coffee drinkers in Washington state. Asked which brand they purchased, 41 percent in King County named a specialty brand — more than triple the national average; 25 percent purchased Folgers. When told that shade-grown coffee preserves habitat for songbirds, 75 percent of the specialty coffee drinkers said they'd be likely to switch, and even pay a little more, as long as the coffee quality remained high. The poll confirmed Seattle as an ideal target market. The nation's first major sustainable-coffee campaign was launched here this spring by the Songbird Foundation, Seattle Audubon's Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign and TransFair USA, a nonprofit that certifies and promotes fair-trade coffee.

Maybe you heard the radio spots, or were offered a Dixie cup of sustainable coffee, or glimpsed billboards and bus signs of an adorable Peruvian boy with bright yellow tropical birds perched on his shoulder. Maybe the message stuck, maybe not. Maybe, the issue doesn't percolate to the top of your long list of cosmic concerns.

O'Keefe is betting that given a little information, enough people will care to create a tipping point. He's not a cyber millionaire with a fortune to throw at the problem. Instead, he's counting on friends telling friends telling friends — as if birds chattering in the forest could change the world.

•   •   •

IT ALL STARTED with sound. "As a singer, I know we have something profound in common with the songbirds," O'Keefe says. "When I'm singing, rather than talking, this whole other feel comes into play that's much more communication. Tone carries emotional context. What appeals to you is the vocal sound, as much as the words. It's like hearing a bird that sings a great song. You don't understand the language, but you know the feeling. They fill the air with song when spring comes and the flowers are in the air and suddenly there's hope again. . . . When they disappear, you know something has disappeared that is essential."

One morning, while reading the newspaper, O'Keefe stumbled across an article that said coffee was killing songbirds. Biologists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center had counted more than 150 species of birds on shade-coffee plantations in eastern Chiapas, Mexico, a greater diversity than anywhere except undisturbed tropical forest. But shade-coffee groves were becoming threatened habitat as farmers converted to sun coffee. Without trees, the biologists found, bird diversity plummeted 94 to 97 percent.

At the time, O'Keefe happened to be at a mid-life crossroad. He wasn't enjoying churning out lyrics for Nashville. "Maybe if I'd had a lot of hits, I would have," he says. "Everybody wanted me to write another `Good Time Charlie,' but I didn't have any more. It was a gift." He realized songwriting wouldn't be how he changed the world. "I thought to myself: What am I going to do that's going to make a difference?"

That night, O'Keefe dreamed he was surrounded by singing birds. They were hidden by leaves, but their songs swirled through his head, a glorious dawn chorus. Then, in his dream, he awoke to eerie quiet. "False dawn," he says. "But I kept following this path. Once you step out, you keep on looking for clues, and one thing leads to another."

He called Hazel Wolf, a fiery 97-year-old who'd long championed birds and social justice in Seattle. Wolf connected him with Carolee Colter of Seattle Audubon, who, at the urging of the Smithsonian researchers, had recently founded the Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign to encourage local roasters and retailers to sell shade-grown coffee and tell consumers where to buy it. Caffé Appassionato jumped on board. Now, the campaign has compiled a list of hundreds of places to buy sustainable coffee in Alaska, Washington, British Columbia, Oregon, Montana and northern California.

But the Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign lacked money and visibility. O'Keefe figured he'd solve that by calling his Hollywood friends. They'd cut a celebrity CD and maybe publish a star-studded coffee-table book with glossy pictures of songbirds in shade-coffee forest. "It's good you're naive when you start," O'Keefe says, "because if you knew what you were in for, you'd never even try."

Four years later, there's still no CD, no coffee-table book. But O'Keefe has navigated nonprofit paperwork; landed a $200,000 grant from the Summit Foundation, a nonprofit that supports work in Latin America; joined international talks on Coffee Conservation Principles to guide international development; staged this spring's sustainable-coffee campaign, capped by a sold-out benefit concert featuring Raitt, Browne and Keb' Mo'.

O'Keefe has come a long way from his first speech about songbirds and sustainability — to a sleepy audience of 300 at a specialty-coffee industry convention in 1998. "I was trying to explain why shade was important. I was up there on a panel with a lot of experts, and I wasn't an expert and I started to get lost in the speech I was making." So he trailed off . . . pulled out his guitar . . . and sang the song he'd written for Hazel Wolf on her 100th birthday.

. . . A bird came to my back yard

I thought some kind of wren

A bird I'd never seen before

And I've never seen again . . .

"It was late in the day, and it woke everybody up," recalls Sue Mecklenberg, Starbucks' director of environmental and business practices.

"Danny's a soft-spoken artist. That's his way of communicating. . . . You can't underestimate the power of an idea or of people who decide to make a difference."

•   •   •

SOUNDS GRAND. In theory.

The daily checklist is a trudge — thousands of errands before budging global forces even a bit.

Miraculously, O'Keefe was able to track, via e-mails to a small German press, the Amazon rainforest photographer who'd 20 years ago shot the picture of the grinning Peruvian boy with feathered pals. Metro's design department morphed the images onto 50 downtown buses as well as eight billboards for six weeks this spring.

Earlier this summer, TransFair USA brought leaders of coffee cooperatives in Mexico and Nicaragua to local campuses and grocery stores to tell how earning a guaranteed $1.26 a pound for their certified fair-trade coffee changed lives.

Cement floors instead of dirt. Aluminum roofs instead of cardboard, explained Javier Cabadilla of Oaxaca, Mexico. Before, when rain leaked through the roof, coffee beans set out to dry would get wet and children would become sick from sleeping on thin mats on damp ground. Now, not only are the beans dried properly, Cabadilla says, but the cooperative has organized schools, a health clinic, agricultural and business training. Farmers deal with buyers instead of middlemen, whom Cabadilla calls "coyotes."

Cabadilla seems a long way from home, standing near the automatic sprayers that mist the vegetables every few minutes at Green Lake PCC. It must seem strange, but he doesn't remark on it. Instead, he fixates on the high prices at the coffee display. "I suppose that's the cost of importing, processing, packaging," he says. "People in coffee country, I think, would be really surprised."

Several weeks later, 14 Mexican peasants die in the heat while attempting to illegally cross the Arizona desert. Six of the dead were coffee farmers in search of jobs because coffee prices had fallen so low they could no longer make a living.

•   •   •

ON STAGE at the Paramount, it seems, finally!, those thousands of details are ready for the spotlight.

A CD-rom infomercial about songbirds and coffee farmers runs without glitch. The www.songbird.org banner doesn't crash from the rafters. Raitt's spirit burns hot as her red tresses; Keb' Mo's guitar slides smooth; Browne coolly saunters along the frets. O'Keefe makes the show feel like old friends jamming. The sold-out crowd of boomers drinks it up — even Raitt's cheerful nagging, "We can change our lifestyle just a little bit to make a big difference in the world!"

Afterward, when 300 organic-cotton T-shirts have sold out and the gate receipts reach $100,000 and the reviews glow, O'Keefe is ecstatic. A poll following the six-week campaign finds 15 percent of coffee drinkers in King County said they'd recently purchased organic coffee, 8 percent had purchased shade and 6 percent had bought fair-trade. Of those, 94 percent said they'd buy shade and fair-trade again.

The sustainable-coffee movement seems to be gaining momentum even faster on college campuses, the same ground where specialty coffee took off in the mid-'80s. During the past two semesters, 35 university food services, including Washington State University, Western Washington University and Whitman College converted their accounts to include some, or all, certified fair-trade coffee. Another 93 campuses are in the works.

O'Keefe sees other evidence of success. "You notice the coffee companies are getting irritated with you," he says. "Your constant niggling makes them do more than they really want to do at the moment." Starbucks, for example, recently pledged to add certified fair-trade coffee to their daily brewed rotation, in addition to selling whole beans.

The main impediment to buying sustainable coffee has been "transparency," not price, says Starbucks CEO Orin Smith. While Starbucks pays higher than the fair-trade price for virtually all its beans, Smith says, "there is a lot of the coffee that comes through exporters and importers where we don't have transparency as to who gets the money. We don't know the small farmers don't get their fair share, but we don't know that they do. There are unscrupulous people in the supply train. . . . We can't say we won't buy from you unless you disclose that information, because they'll say, `We'll sell to someone else.' "

Already, competition is stiff for the dwindling supply of highest-quality beans.

No excuses! say the activists who picket Starbucks shareholder meetings and threaten boycott.

"It's curious," says Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. "When it comes time to pick on an industry for not doing anything, they pick on specialty coffee, particularly Starbucks. The segment doing the most to help the farmers is specialty coffee. And the industry that continues to sit on its hands is the commercial sector."

Starbucks and SBC have each launched programs in coffee countries that verge on development. SBC, for example, adds 10 cents a pound to the price it pays for Peruvian coffee; the extra dime is used to build village schools and clean water systems. SBC is working on contracts that would guarantee growers a fixed price, higher than the current market, in exchange for a set supply of quality beans for the organic and sustainable coffee sold in its cafes and 1,400 Safeway stores.

"Coffee that's grown in the shade, organically, prepared properly by workers who are happier because they're paid properly — that's when the coffee develops more flavor and tastes best," says Jim Stewart, SBC founder and chairman. "Our company needs to educate consumers about these little hidden places where coffee is produced that gives them a special little flavor and gives them value. Like a fine bottle of wine. . . . We need a Robert Mondavi of coffee!"

There's no such excitement for sustainable coffee at Procter & Gamble, maker of Folgers, which competes mainly on price. Margaret Swallow, of media relations: "The way we buy beans is very complex, through brokers. The market is not set up to trace back to the source. The way the coffee is traded, it's not possible to do that. It's really an industry issue."

Nonetheless, O'Keefe has started talking with other coffee activists about taking on the commercial giants. "We're asking ourselves: Is there any way the can-companies, the big guys, can be approached in a way that makes them good guys, that is not straight-out warfare?"

Closer to home, the Songbird Foundation is planning its autumn campaign in Seattle: Direct mail, public radio, refrigerator magnets, maybe a TV ad, grass-roots gigs in local cafés.

Meanwhile, the commodity price of coffee continues to fall on the world market and the days are getting shorter here in the Northwest. Soon the little songbirds will take flight. It's a long way back to coffee country.

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest Magazine staff writer.

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