Above and Beyond – Grower Relationships



Coffee Growers in El Salvador / Wikimedia Commons

By Shanna Germain


There’s a lot of talk in the coffee world about being responsible. There’s an environmental responsibility to protect forests and birds. There’s an ethical responsibility to sell quality coffees. But the biggest responsibility seems to be that of a social responsibility, one that ensures that coffee farmers and their families receive respect, recognition and fair wages for their work.


Of course, there are many organizations and programs in place to help roasters achieve those goals, from TransFair to Global Exchange, but some coffee professionals believe more should be done. In fact, many are choosing to go their own way when it comes to grower relationships, whether they’re creating their own co-ops or building the foundations for education.

Hands-on Heritage

Ken Palmer, owner of BJ’s Coffee in Forest Grove,Ore., knows the meaning of relationships – so much so that he’s willing to travel thousands of miles just to maintain one. The relationship is with Oscar Arroya and his family, coffee farmers in Costa Rica. The farm, which is in the Penas Blancas (White Mountains) area of the country, has coffee trees that date back nearly 50 years.

“Arroya’s grandfather started the farm, and then his father ran it, but they both died and the rest of the family lost track of it,” Palmer says. “I found these old coffee trees in the jungle, but they weren’t doing anything with them.” Instead, the family was raising cattle for money.

“It’s easier for them to go down and have the cattle brought up,” Palmer says. “They have 3,000 to 4,000 acres, and they just let the cattle roam and get fat. But that’s not helping the future generations.” Palmer was in Costa Rica looking to buy a coffee farm when he met Arroya at a restaurant. The two got talking and realized they had something in common: a desire to produce high-quality coffee from Costa Rica.


Ken Palmer with one of the kids from the Arroyo farm.

Arroyo had the trees and the land and Palmer had the marketing and processing knowledge, so they agreed to work together. During the past year, Palmer’s spent much of his time forming a cooperative with the family that owns the farm. As part of the agreement, the family will plant a certain number of coffee trees to reinvigorate the farm. “Oscar is going to plant 30,000 trees in the next few months,” Palmer says. “After they’re planted, my role will be to teach [the family] how to prepare and dry the coffee.”

Although the cooperative is currently renting a mill for production, they eventually hope to build their own. The arrangement didn’t come easily or quickly, however. “It’s been three years, and I’ve made four trips down there and he’s come to my location here twice,” Palmer says. “He wants to be sure I’m stable, and I want to make sure he’s stable. It took quite a period of time to generate a relationship before we both decided we were compatible.”

Ideally, the arrangement will have three benefits:  it will allow the family to continue their heritage of growing coffee, it will provide a solid income for the family as well as for future generations, and it will enable Palmer to provide quality coffee that he’s had a hand in producing.

“It’s really the way to ensure long-term financial stability for the family,” Palmer says. “And they’ve had the same land for 100 years, so this is their heritage, their history.” Eventually, Palmer will receive some of the land so that he can grow his own trees. “They are giving me the land in trade for the skill and knowledge, and I will also plant mine in coffee,” he says.

Palmer firmly believes that grower relationships are the way to go when it comes to making a difference in the coffee world. “More of this has to happen, like buying directly and going to the farmers and actually physically dealing with them,” he says. “There should be more hands-on with the farmers, or else we’re going to have less quality coffee.” For Palmer, creating relationships with growers is a vital part of being a coffee roaster. “People have to interact with the farmers,” he says. “It takes 400 man hours for one bag of coffee to be produced. You need to go down and see how hard these people physically work so that you don’t take it for granted.”

Water Everywhere

Other companies are creating relationships in entirely different ways. Portland Roasting, a Portland, Ore., company known for its environmental and social choices, recently entered a unique relationship with a Guatemalan grower, Sandra Isabel Roche and Farm El Paternal. The partnership will result in a new roast water treatment facility on the coffee farm, as well as fair wages to the coffee growers, and increased coffee quality. “We care about things, so we’ve decided to do it ourselves,” says Mark Stell, managing partner for Portland Roasting. “We also feel that for us to be competitive long-term, we have to create a relationship with the farmers. We want to be a trend-setter, not a trend-follower, and the next trend we see is buying direct.”

According to Stell, the first criterion for making the Guatemalan project work was to find a grower that produced excellent coffee. It was also important that the farm use sustainable growing and processing techniques. This meant the coffee had to be shade-grown, the farm needed to minimize use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, and the workers needed to be treated fairly. It took a few years for the company to find the farm that they wanted to do business with. “We realized it couldn’t be a wealthy farm because they didn’t need anything,” Stell says. “We wanted someone who wanted to make their farm better, who would agree to change. In a very male-dominated field, it was refreshing to meet a female who is dedicated to the farm.”

It didn’t take long before they realized that Roche was their ideal partner, and El Paternal was their ideal farm. For two years in a row, El Paternal has placed among the top 15 in the ANACAFE’s Cup of Excellence, a competition among Guatemala’s 30,000 coffee growers sponsored by the country’s specialty coffee association. “She didn’t know she had great coffee,” Stell says.

Under the agreement, Portland Roasting will pay a premium over the market price for Guatemalan coffees and will make El Paternal its exclusive supplier for non-organic Guatemalan beans. Roche then matches this premium, and the combined money will be used for a farm project.

“When we asked what the farm needed, at the top of the list was a water treatment facility,” Stell says.

The combined amount will be used to build a water treatment facility in Guatemala, which will treat the water used in processing the beans so that the water returns to the river free of contaminants. The facility will also allow El Paternal to reuse some of the water, reducing the environmental impacts of the farm.

Although the work that Portland Roasting is doing doesn’t come with an official fair-trade certification, the resulting coffee offers a variety of benefits, Stell says. “If we’re going to ask for all these things, we have a responsibility to pay a farmer-friendly price for the beans,” Stell said. “If we call it farmer-friendly, we call it that because we’re doing something there to make a difference.”

For Portland Roasting, farmer-friendly means buying directly from the grower, so that the full price goes to the farmer and not some middleman. It also means working with growers to help make their operations more sustainable and making long-term commitments so the relationship can have meaningful results.


Head of the Class

Karen Gordon of Coffee Holding Company in Brooklyn, N.Y., believes that education holds the key to a positive future for the children of origin countries. And she’s so strongly tied to this conviction that she’s decided to do something about it. Earlier this year, Gordon created Cup for Education, a non-profit organization designed to provide school facilities, teachers and educational materials to the origin countries of Central and South America.

Gordon credits a January 2003 trip to Nicaragua with the inspiration for the organization. She says it was seeing small farming cooperatives work hard to improve their lives, despite the lack of educational opportunities, that started her down the path of Cup for Education. Gordon says she was concerned that buyers were asking growers to improve their coffees, become self-sufficient, and build organizations without giving them the necessary resources for education.

“In the scheme of it, they’re doing their part,” Gordon says of the growers. “And we need to do ours. I decided that education was the best place to start. What better way to create a better future than by educating the children?”

While in Nicaragua, Gordon visited a community in Jinotega, and saw the struggle for education. The cooperative there had started to build a schoolhouse but had run out of money. After working with others to contribute money to complete the school and sponsor a teacher, Gordon held a raffle through Coffee Holding Company, and raised an additional $800 for the community to purchase outhouses, chalkboards and library books.

Right now, Gordon is working with pro-bono lawyers to establish the non-profit company and is hoping to have the organization’s first official education project in place by the end of 2003. Gordon says she’s leaving the door open to any and all educational projects and eventually hopes to have a scholarship program in place.

“The best part is knowing that we’re able to help people,” Gordon says. “Our goal is to create as many schools as we can and provide an education for every child in these communities.”

Respect, says Gordon, is what it really comes down to. “The people we’re working with are very proud people, and they work hard. They want to know that you enjoy their coffee, and that’s the best thing you can do for them. Buy their coffee, let them know how good it is, and pay a fair price so they can pursue their own futures.”

When it comes to being a socially responsible roaster, there are many ways to get involved. From entering into a co-op with a grower to helping a community grow, going above and beyond can make a difference not only to the coffee industry, but to your business as well.