Level Ground Trading: creating local and international impact

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Stacey Toews and Laurie Klassen established this business to provide equitable global trade opportunities for small-scale farmers

A Victoria couple act on issues they see in the global trade scene. From their ambition, blossomed a successful business that influences local and international change.

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When Stacey was in his early 20s, he volunteered in the Philippines for a year. His friendships with people living in poverty, challenged his worldview and opened his eyes to the privilege he’d been born into.

Upon his return to Canada, Stacey met Laurie. Awash with idealism, they started a family and to brainstorm ideas. “It was really about, how do we make the biggest bang? We can rally consumers, look for value alignment and talk about issues that no one was addressing at that time. Companies weren’t talking about people before profit or about the fact that you should you know where your products come from, so you know how people are affected by global trade,” Stacey says.

This concept came to life with Level Ground Trading, a specialty coffee company. Four families came together to see farmers flourish through fair trade.

Rome was not built in a day

Stacey, Laurie and their business partners all had full-time jobs when they established Level Ground.

“We started roasting at night, borrowing another company’s facilities from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M,” Stacey says. “Myself, my wife and our co-partner would go in there as a trio and roast and package and then go back to our day jobs.” The partners started with Colombian coffee and gradually expanded their sourcing to other countries.

The group initially partnered with fair trade “businesses like Ten Thousand Villages, which is the pioneer in North America in the whole fair-trade movement. We added consumables to the artisan-driven, hand-made and craft-type space that fair trade got going in,” Stacey says.

“Our goal was always to give a voice to small-scale farmers, whom we largely considered anonymous in an industry that had become very commodified.”

The Level Ground Trading team work to share the faces and names of coffee producers, amplify their stories and show consumers how global trade affects people on a local scale. But to garner attention to these stories, consumers first needed to be drawn in by the taste and quality of the products.

“So, we really dug into roasting technologies and packaging systems to create coffee in a way that really delivers the quality to get the recognition the coffee deserves,” Stacey says.

Now, Level Ground Trading works with 15 farmer cooperatives in eight countries from three continents!

“We grew our trade relationships and product line and gradually grew into bigger and bigger facilities to the point that we are now sourcing more than a million pounds a year of green coffee each year,” Stacey adds.

‘Leveling the playing field’

Level Ground Trading has expanded their reach to other products including dried goods, tea and sugar, but coffee remains the centre of their work.

“So much of trade has been regarded over time as inequitable and often the response is that you get a hand up or a handout,” Stacey says. “There is a positioning of hierarchy, and our goal is to create a level playing field.”

They want to ensure that all of the parties involved in the trade process benefit equally and that farmer cooperatives are business partners. Level Ground helps open more markets for small-scale farmers along with a purpose to elevate coffee for everyone, from farmer to customer.

Level Ground achieves their objectives through carefully curating a team of coffee specialists.

“We have a robust system for selecting and onboarding staff.  Through sourcing products, staging in our facilities and support in the marketplace, the team reflects this coffee specialist mentality,” Stacey says.

Enacting change at home

Not only is Level Ground supporting communities abroad, but the team also implements sustainability initiatives to reduce their environmental footprints at work and at home.

“We are 17 years landfill free. Our dumpster is only for recycled cardboard! We make all of our waste products like coffee chaff and sacks available to local farms and gardens for composting,” Stacey says.

In addition, Level Ground staff are encouraged to go landfill free at home. The local business has car charging stations for employees and pays staff to cycle and carpool.

Level Ground’s tasting room is designed to attract cyclists who are exploring the Saanich Peninsula sans CO2 emissions.

Community is the tie that binds

“We live in Brentwood Bay. We can see our home from work and vice versa. We’ve been in the same area for 18 years,” Stacey says. “Our kids have been raised to know the peninsula. An incredible local preschool in the local community was a great start for our kids. We love the local beaches, local trails and local little league.”

When the Saanich Fair is in town, Level Ground offers free coffee to every food service non-profit, including “The Lions, Kiwanis, 4-H, and Hungarian club. We do this to say, ‘We love you all, we want you to flourish.’ The sense of connection is huge,” Stacey says.

And the community is reciprocating that love through supporting Level Ground and its producer partners.

“I see such incredible community around us. Just this morning, a friend and I were sitting on the tasting room patio and we had teachers from a local high school and some road cyclists come in for coffee and snacks. A local police officer who is a friend of mine came up to get a coffee, too,” Stacey says.

“I was looking at all these different people, of all different ages, who are powerful contributors to the community, and they were all here enjoying coffee in the same space. That is the crystallization of what we’ve being doing here the last 25 years. “

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