Sustainability Through the Kitchen Window of a Coffee Farmer

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by Kenneth Lander, chief sustainability officer and co-founder Thrive Farmers

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When you talk with coffee farmers about sustainability in Central America, the conversation always turns to money.

It’s noble to talk about using more sustainable agricultural practices, treating workers better, reforestation and investing in the future business opportunities of a farm. But if you are a coffee farmer coming in for lunch, the first thing you see through your kitchen window are the people you love sitting around the table enjoying a cup of coffee and waiting to share a meal with you. If you can’t support them with the income of the family farm, then you probably need to find something else to do to make sure that the kitchen table has food, and the people around it are taken care of first.

After sitting around countless coffee farmers’ kitchen tables, Thrive Farmers is transforming the coffee industry. Inevitably, the economic realities of coffee farming surfaced in these conversations and we had trouble finding resolution. We found that unless you help the farmer solve these economic hurdles, other changes you wish to see in their communities or in the environment are neither feasible nor sustainable.

Marta Adela Solares

Marta Adela Solares

The greatest enemy of a coffee farmer, even more than global warming, fungus or drought, is the volatile commodities market in which he or she doesn’t know what the price of a crop will be from one day to the next. Pair that with an ever-increasing cost of production and all the other normal risks a farmer faces, and you have a valid excuse for farmers, and more importantly their children, to leave coffee farming in search of an easier and more stable means to put food on the kitchen table.

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Farmers of Concepcion Pinula, Guatemala

So, how does Thrive Farmers offer coffee farmers something different?

We’ve all watched coffee prices tick upward in grocery stores and coffee shops in recent years. It’s clear that consumers want great coffee, and are willing to pay for it. The demand is actually growing year over year, even resisting economic downturns in the marketplace.

In its most simple explanation, Thrive Farmers shares with farmers the revenue generated from consumers. This price is consistent and predictable, and it is higher than that which global coffee traders set on any given day in the New York commodities market.

We also know that demand for a socially sustainable coffee option is growing for both corporations and everyday consumers. Through Thrive Farmers, consumers not only receive farmer-direct coffee, they also have the ability to support coffee farmers directly with each purchase.

Companies can have a lasting impact on coffee farming communities around the world by purposefully choosing to purchase basic items, like coffee, through a more transparent model. This integrates Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) into necessary spending. By simply directing budgeted dollars to a product that has a more tangible and traceable impact, companies can bring a CSR commitment and message to employees at the most basic level.

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Marta Adela Solares

Once farmers can wake up without the concern of an unpredictable income, they can begin to think proactively about all aspects of their work, including sustainability.

Proactive investment usually begins with a focus on the health and education of their families. Once basic needs like food and education are stable farmers can adjust priorities toward investing in their farms, which for the first time make sense as a business. With a properly functioning business, thoughts and resources pour into the actual quality of the product. The farmers’ kitchen-table conversations shift toward satisfying the coffee drinkers on the other side of the ocean. They genuinely want that coffee to taste better every day! This has an exponential effect economically because better quality coffee results in a better price and higher value to the consumer marketplace.

Establishing the positive cycle of predictable, stable and higher prices also allows farmers to invest more in their business operations. When farmers see that consumers value best social and environmental practices, they are more willing to invest in and protect their human and environmental resources. We have seen farmers turn their attentions toward their workers, their neighbors, their community and their environment, results of a firm economic foundation.

Family farmers, Enrique Ferrufino and his son, Enrique Ferrufino, Jr.

Enrique Ferrufino, the next-generation leader of one of our farming families in Nicaragua, is not a smallholder farmer. However, his family farms are surrounded by smallholder farmers who benefit from their family operations.

Because of scale, the Ferrufino’s have access to markets, and with Thrive Farmers, even better access and more stable and predictable pricing. The Ferrufino’s have seen a direct connection between good economics of coffee, the quality of the cup and the social and environmental impact that a good coffee business can have not only for themselves, but also for their neighbors who benefit from the family efforts.

Environmentally, the Ferrufinos principally focus on soil conservation in the land they use to produce coffee. They see value in teaching those practices to their neighbors. It helps the quality of the coffee and the environment at the same time.

The farm is also exploring energy renovation projects such as bio-digestion and hydroelectricity while conducting reforestation projects in many areas. These projects help the common environment with their neighbors and create a culture of sustainability in the area.

Admittedly, it is hard work to maintain sustainable practices year after year, while striving to produce more and better quality coffee. Enrique has a hands-on approach to achieve these goals. He employs assistants to supervise and support the neighboring farmers in their commitment to sustainability throughout the cultivation process, and in daily life as members of the same community.

The Ferrufino story drives home a fundamental point about sustainable agriculture. Until the conversation around the kitchen table moves beyond the question of money, survival and meeting the basic needs, there can be no true sustainability in agriculture. Unless and until the next generation around that table decides to stay and raise their families on heirloom farms, there is no true sustainability in agriculture.

Integrating sustainability into your business begins one step at a time. THRIVE Farmers provides an opportunity to bring sustainability into the daily practices of your business and around your kitchen table with something as simple as a cup of coffee. We want to empower coffee drinkers to make sure that farmers wake up each morning with the incentive to grow that next cup of coffee for you. That satisfaction is sweet.

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Article by Kenneth Lander, Chief Sustainability Office and Co-Founder of THRIVE Farmers (www.thrivefarmers.com). As a retired trial lawyer from Georgia, Ken has extensive experience in advocating client’s interests on long-term projects as well as in complicated litigation in both the private and public sectors. After 14 years of the practice of law, Ken decided to move with the entire family to a coffee farm in Costa Rica. With the transition from trial lawyer to coffee farmer, Ken quickly began to understand the injustices that farmers face in the current value chain of coffee.

With the combination of Ken’s never failing passion for advocacy and his new found vocation as a coffee farmer, Ken decided to make the case for the coffee farmer and to reveal the truth about your morning cup. THRIVE Farmers is the direct result of Ken starting the San Rafael Sustainable Coffee Initiative in mid-2010 with other farmers in his coffee-growing community. The SRSCI became the initial local platform and test case for the farmer in San Rafael. THRIVE Farmers was the natural next leap to take the case of the coffee farmer to the entire world.

As Chief Sustainability Officer of THRIVE Farmers, Ken seeks to find, advocate and project the voice of the farmer and to tell the world that a new day has come in the world of coffee. His passion to stand and advocate on behalf of his fellow coffee farmers has found its place in THRIVE Farmers.

Prior to law and farming, Ken was a marketing director with Feld Entertainment, Inc. working in public relations and marketing for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Walt Disney’s World on Ice.

There is no coincidence in life, only Providence. A past experience in public relations, the practice of law, the passion for advocacy, and now coffee farming all are being brought to bear in Ken’s life to make THRIVE Farmers the connection between the coffee farmer and the lover of coffee.

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