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Small-farming advocate puts the tea in fair trade

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It started as the Presbyterian Coffee Project, but has expanded over the past decade so now Linda Elliott orders and stocks tea, chocolate bars, breakfast bars, nuts and cocoa.

"We sold about $5,000 the first year," Elliott said. "Last year, we sold $18,000."

In fact, she sold so much tea -- 133 cases -- from October through December last year that she won a free trip to India in March to visit two sites where the organic tea is grown and produced under the auspices of Equal Exchange.

Those sales were the highest of any church that sells Equal Exchange products in the United States. And nearly all those sales were done on the honor system.

Elliott explained that her customers do their shopping by coming to the First Presbyterian office on Leon Sullivan Way and asking for the key to unlock the cabinets full of items. They pick out what they want, then pay and drop off the key at the church office on their way out.

"It's unique in all America," she said. "The honor system works beautifully."

Elliott, 72, has attended First Presbyterian for the 41 years she has lived in Charleston. She had been retired from teaching early childhood education in Kanawha County for a couple of years, when she initiated the Coffee Project 10 years ago. It seemed like a good way to give back to the community.

Since then she has twice had expenses-paid trips to coffee farms in Central America to observe the growing conditions there. "That's what really puts the fire in your belly," she said.

Equal Exchange is a fair-trade company, meaning that it supports small farms producing chemical-free crops. "With fair trade, you essentially cut out the middleman," said Elliott.

She especially approves of the Equal Exchange practice of paying the farmers up front for their harvest. That keeps small farmers from having to borrow at exorbitant interest rates, which "just sets them up for failure," she said.

In India, both the Potong Tea Garden and the Mineral Springs Tea Plantation are co-ops that supply Equal Exchange. Potong is in Kureseong, a region in the foothills of the Himalayas. Mineral Springs is in Darjeeling in West Bengal. Elliott explained Darjeeling tea is grown at high altitudes and is considered the "Champagne" of all teas because of its quality.

Showing her sales skills, Elliott said what she learned on her trip "is like getting a foot in the door. If I can tell someone about a product, they will nearly always buy. I've sold tea for years not having a story to tell."

Now, however, Elliott can tell how she and others in her delegation planted saplings that will live for 100 to 150 years. She'll be able to describe the women clothed in bright colors who carried baskets filled with green tea leaves that have been plucked. Other women carried body-size baskets of dried grasses to mulch tea saplings.

The group also visited the processing center where the women bring their baskets of tea leaves every morning. There the tea leaves are dried, crushed, sifted and left to ferment before undergoing another drying and sorting process. The last stage is a five-step tasting and evaluation process.

A portion of those teas will eventually end up on the shelves at First Presbyterian in 12 flavors and selling for $3. "For the quality, products are very cheap," Elliott said. All products are 100 percent organic.

Coffee sells for $7 for 12-ounce bags and up to $16.65 for 2-pound bags. Almonds sell for $4.60, breakfast bars are $4 and cocoa is $5.50 for 12-ounce cans. "The chocolate sells really well," said Elliott, at $2.75 per bar.

Sometimes, Elliott said, customers pay extra for their order and that money goes into a kitty for special projects. Over the years, contributions have been made from the kitty for purposes such as a field mission in Delphi, India, a ministry for children with AIDS and to a local food pantry.

Elliott said she spends a piece of each day working on the coffee project. But the nice part of this volunteer effort is that she can still travel and still invest in other projects. "I can order online," she pointed out.

She recently returned from leading a group of eight to Charleston's sister city of Banska Bystrica, Slovakia. She is co-chairwoman of the sister cities alliance.

And Elliott is active in Hope for Children, a project that works with children and youth of the Roma people.

Romania and Serbia are on her bucket list of places she wants to visit, as is Palestine. "I tend to like places most won't want to journey into."

She has loved geography since the fourth grade when she pored over those textbooks with the little black and white photographs. She remembers one photograph was of Switzerland, one of the first places she visited.

Elliott said began traveling regularly in the early 1980s with a trip to Ireland. She has gone on only two organized travel tours. In India, she hired a driver to take her to other sights after the week at the tea gardens. She said she would love to return to there.

Next year, she plans to travel by sea from Bellingham, Wash., to Alaska. But rather than book a cruise, she'll take a ferry. "That sounds a little more adventurous," she said.

Reach Rosalie Earle at earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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