Higher Grounds Eyes Expansion into Olive Oil

TRAVERSE CITY – At Higher Grounds Trading Co. it's always been about more than just a hot cup of joe. The company does not run on caffeine alone, but also a healthy dose of social responsibility. Continuing under that philosophy (and thanks to strong growth over the last several years), the company is considering its next venture: olive oil from Palestine.

Owner Chris Treter recently returned from a trip to Jenin, the northernmost city in Palestinian territory in the West Bank, where he is exploring the possibility of importing the first fair trade, organic olive oil in the world to northern Michigan.

His would-be partner? The Palestine Fair Trade Association, which is exporting one of the region's oldest products-as well as a new image-to the world. It hopes to change the perception of Palestine from a place of war and suicide bombs to a region noted for world-class olive oil, some produced from trees as old as 3,000 years.

Olive oil is just one product available from the Palestinian Fair Trade Association, a national union of fair trade-producing cooperatives, processors and exporters founded in 2004 by Palestinian-American entrepreneur Nasser Abufarha, whom Treter stayed with on his trip.

Treter stresses that this latest venture is not a political statement. "There needs to be a resolution to the occupation that is good for both sides," he says, adding that this opportunity is about helping to support an avenue to a livelihood, part of an economic development plan for the Palestinian territories.

"Everything but the bottles is manufactured in the West Bank, including the labels, boxes and labor, so this is way beyond just supporting the growers," says Treter. "This is an investment in peace."

Treter has contacted local grocers and received enthusiasm for the project and interest in carrying the products. If the partnership is finalized, the olive oil will be on store shelves (and at the Higher Grounds café) in the coming months.

This possible partnership with the Palestine Fair Trade Association for olive oil is based on the same idea embraced by the cooperative to which Higher Grounds belongs for its coffee. Both allow the company to import a product from the best growing regions in the world and ensure the farmers are getting a fair price. That, in turn, works toward eventual stability in these economically challenged countries.

Higher Grounds Trading Co. was founded with the intention of expanding into ventures beyond coffee, Treter says. Though coffee will always remain its focus, he says "it's about creating a real connection between growing groups and consumers." BN