GMCG’s experience and expertise in the world’s second-poorest country, as well as its ongoing social improvement efforts, make it a perfect match for our goals.
I recently sat down with Ben Weiner, president of Gold Mountain Coffee Growers to discuss these issues.
AMRDI: What is Gold Mountain Coffee Growers and how long have you do been active in Nicaragua?
Ben: Gold Mountain Coffee Growers has its own coffee farm in Nicaragua, called Finca Idealista, and we also work to connect coffee roasters directly with other coffee farmers, who have asked for our help connecting with markets. Everything that we do is based on high-cupping, high-quality specialty coffee. And, that makes everything else that we do on the social and environmental side possible.
We’ve been working with our farm and with producers in Nicaragua since about 2007. I did research in Nicaragua as far back as 2002.
AMRDI: And, what were you researching initially? What brought you to Nicaragua?
Ben: I went to Nicaragua to do research on a debt pardon initiative for my senior honors thesis at Washington University in St. Louis. As part of that work, I interviewed many coffee farmers, coffee workers, middlemen, exporters, importers, staff of the Central Bank, and people in civil society organizations.
All of those interviews and that information made it amazingly clear that coffee farmers needed a way to connect directly with roasters in order to make their farms economically sustainable.
AMRDI: You mentioned that you have your own farm, as well as partner producers; how do you go about selecting these partner producers? Or, how do they come to participate with Gold Mountain?
Ben: When we first started down there, we joined a Fair-Trade coop[erative] and, unfortunately, many of the producers at the time weren’t earning enough, through systems that relied upon certain certifications, to make a living.
When we first started [Gold Mountain], we cupped hundreds, and now thousands, of coffees and started working only with producers who had high-cupping coffees. We perform experiments on quality before we start working with a producer in a big way. All of that work, along with hands-on teamwork during the harvest, results in consistently high-cupping coffees.
We literally have our own staff on partner farms during picking, working hand-in-hand with farmers and pickers to ensure that coffee cherries are picked at the peak of ripeness. That, along with supervision of transportation, drying, storage, hulling, sorting, export, import, and shipping all the way up to a roaster’s door, allows us an incredible level of control over coffee quality.
Ben: A typical Nicaraguan coffee producer sells their coffee on the local market and middlemen often rob them of weight on their altered scales. If they are sophisticated or well-positioned enough to sell to a large exporter, many times the yield does not add up due to corruption. They sell their coffee for a very low price.
Often in order to have access to credit, producers are forced to lock into very low prices or even borrow money from loan sharks, where they might even end up paying 100% interest.
AMRDI: Would you say that that type of behavior is prevalent?
Ben: Yes... Unfortunately for small producers, yes. Well, even for some large producers too. It is very difficult to be a coffee producer and make a living.
AMRDI: What is the typical experience of a coffee producer who works with Gold Mountain Coffee Growers or other direct-trade relationships?
Ben: Partner coffee farmers of Gold Mountain Coffee Growers have used extra income and, importantly, access to credit, to expand their farms, improve their houses, increase their yields, install solar panels on their houses, improve their coffee processing infrastructure and equipment, and even purchase vehicles to be able to transport their goods more easily.
AMRDI: Do you think that the future of the coffee industry is in direct-trade? Or, is that the first step in creating distinction for farmers?
Ben: I think that the world is becoming a smaller place and there are now more opportunities for direct-trade to occur between coffee farmers and roasters. There is still a place for exporters and importers because coffee has to move from one place to another. However, it is very important for roasters to get involved at origin with the coffees they are purchasing in order to know that their coffee is being ethically sourced and also not having a detrimental effect on the environment at origin.
AMRDI: You’ve been in the coffee industry, specifically in Nicaragua, for about 14 years now. How have the industry and Gold Mountain Coffee Growers changed over that period of time?
Ben: There are many ways that things have not changed in Nicaragua, unfortunately. We still see loan sharks. We still see environmental degradation including deforestation around us. We still see a very difficult economic environment for coffee producers and coffee communities.
However, I think that Gold Mountain Coffee Growers as a specialty coffee social enterprise has changed in many ways. We have increasingly been able to narrow down very high-cupping coffees and, because of our use of refractometers, ripeness teams, process of elimination, and many different tools and techniques, we’ve been able to achieve very high-cupping coffees while adding value for producers. We’ve had a direct effect on their standards of living and also the environment around them.
On our farm, Finca Idealista, we have used earnings to purchase a rainforest next to the farm for the sole purpose of protecting it, conserving it, and preventing illegal logging. We’ve seen other producers use their quality premiums to literally build filters to prevent water used in washing coffee from affecting the environment. We’ve also seen producers improve their homes, feed their families better, install solar power on their houses, and take steps to diversify their crops. For the producers that have been working with us, we’ve definitely seen an improvement in their standard of living and also in better treatment of the environment.
Ben: Climate change has made it unviable to farm at altitudes that not too long ago were the driving force behind the country’s coffee industry. There is an entire zone next to Managua, the capital, that was full of large plantations and now produces only a small amount of coffee because it is at a lower altitude and is infested with coffee-borer beetles, coffee leaf rust disease, other plagues, and has no or little water to wash coffee.
AMRDI: And the regions that you generally play a part in, Jinotega and Matagalpa, those are generally 1000m above sea level?
Ben: We don't work with producers that are below 1,000 meters. There are many producers that we would love to be able to work with at the lower altitudes. However, we found that because of climate change, but also the interaction between altitude and its effect on coffee growth, the lower altitudes just don't produce good enough coffee for the markets that we are serving. We’d love to be able to help the entire world, but you have to start somewhere and we are starting at the higher altitudes.
I’ll just add that it might be the case that many farmers will have to diversify into other crops that work better because coffee is no longer viable at certain altitudes, where it might have been viable just a few decades ago. Some producers may be better at producing passion fruit, pitaya, or other wonderful tropical fruits, instead of coffee.
AMRDI: I would assume the answer to be, “No,” but, in your experiences, are these small farmers and small communities equipped to handle this change? Not only the change that has happened, but that is going to continue to happen over the next decade?
Ben: Which communities? Do you mean at the higher or the lower, or any altitudes?
AMRDI: I would say at any altitude, but do you think that coffee will have to go higher and higher over the next ten years?
Ben: Coffee production will only be viable at increasingly higher elevations and, yes, the small producers will have a much more difficult time adapting because they do not have the economic means to deal with droughts, pests, and other problems associated with climate change.
AMRDI: In your opinion, what is the greatest way that a country or communities will be able to, not just cope with, but actively get in front of these types of climate change issues?
Ben: Producers should diversify what they grow, so that if they ever have a problem with, for example, their carrot crop, their potato crop, their coffee crop, or their passion-fruit crop, their other crops will help them get by economically. They can diversify their risk by diversifying the crops that they grow.
AMRDI: Is that something that you guys employ on Finca Idealista?
Ben: On Finca Idealista we grow coffee and small amounts of other foods. However, as a base farm that serves as an example for many other coffee farmers, we are focused on coffee and rainforest conservation.
AMRDI: I guess I was maybe alluding to bananas as shade trees, or...
Ben: Oh, we definitely have shade trees. And we definitely have bananas and some other fruit trees growing. However, our economic mainstay is high-cupping specialty coffee.
Join us next week for PART II of our discussion with Ben Weiner, where will address seasonal food insecurity, crop-diversification, and proper harvesting technique.