Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 10, 2013

Locals work to improve far away lives

Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Chris Treter’s search for the world’s best coffee beans has taken the owner of Higher Grounds Trading Company all over the globe, but you won’t find the places he visits in any travel brochure.

Treter’s trips to the Yirgacheffe region of southern Ethiopia offered him an up-close look at the lives of the coffee farmers who grow some of the finest coffees in the world, as well as their families and their living conditions.

His 2010 visit to the small village of Hase Gola, where some of the world’s most unique and sought-after coffee beans originate, left him troubled but committed to improving the lives of its residents after he spoke with residents and heard their stories.

The statistics haunted him. Little more than half the region’s children complete primary school. Life expectancy is 53 years. The average income is barely $1.25 per day, while the coffee they grow fetches United States retail prices upwards of $15 a pound.

“It was inspiring to see the level of commitment the farmers have for what is a specialty crop for us,” Treter said. “But the people themselves lacked basic necessities like access to water, health care and education."

Treter, a long-time activist for social and economic change in the world’s farming communities, said those who produce goods, farm crops or make clothing are born into the cycle of generational poverty that he terms ‘economic slavery’. Buying their coffee at Fair Trade prices helps, but Treter realized Fair Trade wasn’t enough to lift people out of poverty.

Treter, along with a small group of individuals who are passionate about the Fair Trade movement, formed On The Ground, a nonprofit that reaches out to farming communities around the world. The organization has projects in Ethiopia, Palestine and Mexico.

“On The Ground is different from other nonprofits that often go into a community and do what they think needs to be done. Chris talks to the people and asks them what their needs are,” said Randi Stoltz, program administrator for On the Ground.

The people of Hase Gola identified education as their chief need. In 2011 On The Ground focused on meeting that desire by sponsoring Run Across Ethiopia, a 250-mile ultra run that raised over $200,000 to provide three schools in Hase Gola that now are educating about 1,500 children in the community.

“Just as important, education plays a strong role in women’s rights issues in Ethiopia, a vital role in the survival of women in southern Ethiopia,” Treter said, relating the story of a young Hase Gola mother. “I sat on the dirt floor of a small hut with a woman. Surrounded by her children she told me her own story and the plight of young girls barely entering their reproductive years being abducted, raped and eventually entered into a ‘forced marriage’ with her abductor. She said to me, ‘I don’t want my children to end up like me,’” Treter said.

On The Ground continues its commitment to the people of Hase Gola by partnering with Endurance Evolution on June 20 to sponsor a 40-mile Solstice Run across the Leelanau Peninsula to raise funds to complete construction of a library. The building will house over 1,000 books, plus provide additional space for community literacy classes.

The ultra run begins at sunset at North Lighthouse Point near Northport and continues through the night, ending at sunrise June 21 at Clinch Park in Traverse City.

“The goal is to ask runners to try to raise $1,000 in pledge donations, but we’re not turning anyone who wants to participate,” Stoltz said.

Participants have three options, they can run the 40 miles, complete a 20-mile stretch or be part of a four-person relay with each runner completing 10 miles. For more information and to register, call Stoltz at 877-825-2262 or visit