Ensuring Coffee Viability Through Community and Sustainability

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By Russ Kramer

Specialty coffee customers expect the best. It’s the current state of the industry. The end user demands complex, distinctive flavor in every cup. It is important for our industry to understand that producing great coffee requires selecting coffee fruit from the “grand crux” producing regions of the world, and controlling their transformation into the cup of coffee consumed at home. There must be control at every aspect of coffee production, including the selection of fruit, milling, transport, and the final roasting of the coffee.

While some of the steps along the path of coffee production have become mechanized, a majority of them still rely on the skill of the human senses. One must judge the ripeness of the fruit by its color, drying of coffee should be measured by hand, and cuppers must note both the wet and dry aroma of the final product.

To make the finest coffee in the world, it is important to hire the best employees. Distant Lands Coffee got its start in 1968 in the lush mountains of Costa Rica, the home of our flagship farm, Hacienda La Minita. We have always believed in stewardship of the land and the people.

In Costa Rica, from the beginning, we have provided our employees the best wages, provided on-site healthcare, and supported local schools. This has resulted in multi-generational employees. The farm managers on our farms today are the grandchildren of our former managers. When we moved into the Nariño and Antioquia areas of Colombia in 1993, we were determined to bring the same dedication to employee care. We also believed that true success would come from building a sustainable model that helped build future generations of farmers and coffee professionals.

The only way to ensure a sustainable community is to focus on both safety and education. So, we set out to make contributions to strengthen the coffee-producing communities in the areas of Nariño and Antioquia.

We approached these communities, their leaders and residents, and asked them what they needed. We approached with both respect and concern. Frequently, organizations providing outside assistance have a tendency to take a “we know better” attitude when providing assistance. We were determined to allow the communities themselves to define how we could best support them.

Like all countries within the Pacific Ring of Fire, Colombia is seismically active and prone to earthquakes. While the news media tends to focus on the large, high-Richter scale earthquakes, the more frequent, smaller earthquakes are also a concern. In the past year alone, Colombia has seen over 100 quakes.

This near constant shaking has the insidious ability to weaken structures and infrastructure that local communities depend on. City and school buildings, church structures, power grids, water systems, and the very homes that people live in are often left in weakened conditions.

In rural areas of Nariño and Antioquia, some schools had been left nearly unusable. When we asked leaders in both communities how we could help them, they had an immediate answer. They needed their schools back. We began a now 20-year-old program of working directly with communities to build sustainable buildings for education.

Together we assessed the root cause of the buildings’ structural problems. We developed a plan on how to rebuild the school facilities using better materials and construction techniques. The push to rebuild the schools had a wider effect; it led to the development of better education for each community where we do business.

Distant Lands partnered with many of our customers and local leaders, government bodies, and community members to provide easier and safer access to schools. It led to more children in the system, which in time, will result in better opportunities for new generations. Partnerships such as these send messages to communities of long-term commitment.

To date, Distant Land’s Colombian school initiatives have donated over $175,000 in funding, provided $38,000 in scholarships, built 17 schools, and directly impacted 16,000 people. This year, Distant Lands also paid for bus transportation for students from four neighborhoods to go to classes at a university an hour’s drive away. The university teaches them how to grow coffee successfully and sustainably, and provided them with the knowledge they needed to become successful farmers. Those students will go on to be the farmers of the future that Distant Lands hopes to work with.

Growing coffee is the lifeblood of regions such as Nariño where agriculture provides jobs, food, and other resources. In the past, parents frequently saw their children leave the communities they grew up in for greater opportunities elsewhere. Educating children within their own communities can create a cycle of local economic opportunity. That in turn creates stronger communities.

To produce great coffee, it’s important to develop long-term strategic partnerships with the coffee producers of the world. We have adapted our approach to meet the needs of our own employees at our farms and mills and the thousands of small coffee farmers we work with worldwide.

Ensuring the viability of the communities where coffee is grown and harvested has major long-term benefits. South America is one of the world’s best regions for coffee farming. Countries such as Colombia, Brazil, and Peru produce the largest amounts of coffee in the world. Not only are their climates ideal, but the coffee farming industry is one of the top sources of income and economic stability for locals. Creating an economic model where communities share in the financial benefits of locally grown coffee keeps the industry strong.

The world has developed a sophisticated taste for fine coffee. In every corner of the globe, people drink it. Like other coffee companies, Distant Lands is looking for ways to provide product for a thirsty market. In two areas of Colombia, we found that working within communities where coffee is grown, by truly partnering with and investing in the local people and infrastructure, we are building a sustainable supply chain that is working today and will keeping working in all the tomorrows to come.

Photo by J. Rene Martinez

russ-kramerRuss Kramer, president of La Minita, has worked in the coffee industry since 1983. He has served on SCAA’s Environmental Committee (now called the Sustain-ability Council), the Coffee Advisory Board of Dunkin’ Donuts, and has been a frequent speaker and panel member at the SCAA Exposition.