Caffeine Fix

How a Goizueta Business School experiment is connecting American coffee drinkers with Nicaraguan coffee growers—one bag of beans at a time

By Paige Parvin 96G

The farm, with sign and gates

Photos by Bryan Clark

High in the chill, mist-blown mountains of northern Nicaragua, on a farm called Finca El Peten, more than 175,000 low, leafy plants are silently toiling to fulfill their biological destiny: producing bright red coffee cherries.

It’s an uphill battle. Blight, bugs, soil composition, rainfall, temperature—a whole host of dangers lurks in the shadows of the surrounding shade trees, ready to divert the plants’ patient progress. If they do yield healthy, ripened coffee cherries, it’s probably a good thing the plants cannot know what’s in store for their colorful offspring: the picking, milling, drying, shipping, roasting, and eventually grinding—likely passing through some thirty pairs of human hands—that will transform their beans into a very, very fine cup of coffee.

Roasted coffee beans

This is the farm of Jon Thompson, an Atlanta native who bought these 250 acres with business partners in 2007 to pursue a grand social experiment. Now El Peten produces coffee for distribution through Farmers to 40, a business launched in Emory’s Goizueta Business School as part of a program called Social Enterprise @ Goizueta. The ambition of Farmers to 40 is to return 40 percent of the retail price of each bag of coffee to its Nicaraguan partner farmers, compared to the much lower percentage they typically receive—an aspiration as lofty as the mountains, a thousand feet above sea level, where this coffee grows.

Being the brainchild of the business school, Social Enterprise @ Goizueta is not a purely altruistic endeavor, but a blend of public service and for-profit savvy; it’s designed to apply business practices and market solutions to achieve positive social impact. Program founder and director Peter Roberts, professor of organization and management, says the idea is to engage faculty and students in working across the spectrum of for-profit, nonprofit, and hybrid organizations. The coffee industry—notorious for leaving the growers themselves out in the cold, financially speaking—presents a perfect testing ground.

Group walking in countryside

back to nature: Coffee farmer Jon Thompson (front left) and Emory alumna Alicia Philipp lead the pack on a tour of the farm.

CREDIT

“I’ve always had an interest in coffee,” Roberts says. “And I’ve come to understand why the farmer gets shafted. In the wine industry, where folks also pay a lot for premium products, the vineyards and the wineries are colocated out of necessity—grapes can’t travel long distances. A huge problem for coffee growers is that they are so geographically and financially removed from the later-stage business processes.”

Since 2010, Social Enterprise @ Goizueta has been bringing groups of business students to Nicaragua to expose them to the range of developmental issues facing the region and to help them envision solutions. Coffee is not the sole focus; in addition to purchasing the farm six years ago, Thompson cofounded the nonprofit Comunidad Connect to facilitate community building and development. The Goizueta program now partners with Comunidad Connect on various projects, including the Nicaragua Community Health Connection, the first health clinic for the town of Los Robles, now near completion.

And in November, a small group of Emory alumni and friends joined the first Coffee Community Connection Tour, an educational trip focused on the challenges of coffee production and the need for efforts such as Farmers to 40. Roberts hopes that trips like these might help bridge the yawning chasm between Nicaraguan coffee growers and American coffee drinkers.

“If people like coffee, shouldn’t they want to know more about it and the communities where it comes from?” he says. “What’s wrong with touring coffee farms like vineyards?”

Group having discussion around milling equipment

milling around: Dariel Potoy (above from left) and Rosa Villagra of Finca El Peten, with Emory’s Peter Roberts, describe the wet mill process to alumnae Bridget Booth and Alicia Philipp; water pushes coffee beans through this chute for soaking and de-pulping.

it’s breakfast time at Finca El Peten, and a handful of guests are playing a friendly game of get-to-know-you over farm-fresh eggs and fruit. Outside, low clouds drift over a serene offshoot of Lake Apanas, a massive lake that generates about one-fifth of Nicaragua’s electric power.

Alumni who have joined the Emory trip include Alicia Philipp 75C, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, who has been a mover in the nonprofit world for more than thirty-five years. Under her leadership, the Community Foundation has grown into the foremost grant-making organization in the Southeast. An Emory Medalist and one of the university’s 175 Makers of History named in honor of the 175th anniversary, Philipp is also spearheading another partnership with Social Enterprise @ Goizueta that eventually will create new “green” jobs in Atlanta by providing locally grown produce to businesses and organizations.

Jameson hiking at Finca El Peten, with rustic structures and a chicken nearby

what boots are made for: Goizueta graduate Linda Jameson (above), a frequent traveler, explores Finca El Peten.

This morning, though, she’s lacing up her hiking boots and getting ready to learn something about coffee. “I’m really interested in social enterprise and also in Central America,” she says. “I hope to live here in the next phase of my life.”

Coincidentally, the two other Emory graduates who have joined the group—Bridget Booth 80C and Linda Jameson 02EMBA—have recently left behind successful business careers and are starting that next phase. Both are interested in exploring social development in disadvantaged communities, in the US and abroad.

“I am in career transition, and I’m interested in the sort of work that Social Enterprise @ Goizueta is doing,” Jameson says. “I had met Peter through a business school connection, and when I learned about this trip I thought it would be a great way to check it out.”

Thompson—whose sister, Kore Breault, is senior associate director of development for Goizueta—gives his guests an overview of his background with Comunidad Connect and Farmers to 40. A former social worker, Thompson first came to Nicaragua in 1998 and met his wife, Arelis, while visiting San Juan del Sur on the southern coast. Cofounding Comunidad Connect and buying Finca El Peten, he says, was “a chance to combine my passion for social work with stewardship of the environment and do something positive here. It was a way to develop long-term relationships with these communities and create permanent jobs for farmers.”

Now Thompson divides his time between Nicaragua and Atlanta, working to expand the reach of Comunidad Connect around the country and to increase El Peten’s coffee production, quality, and local impact. Since he purchased the farm in 2007, its full-time staff has increased from two to thirty, and they have planted more than sixty thousand new trees—all with the aim of revitalizing the former cattle farm to yield organic coffee that doesn’t need chemicals or pesticides because it’s grown as nature intended: in shade. Thompson’s team also had an old stable converted into rustic dormitory-style accommodations; he describes his vision for El Peten, the largest organic coffee farm in the country, as both a working farm and a center for education, training, and sharing knowledge.

“Our farm’s processes are rooted in a commitment to the soil that nurtures the coffee plants and to the canopy that protects them,” Thompson explains. “Our practices apply ‘permaculture’ techniques to encourage the appropriate biodiversity in the ecosystem. A critical part of this is developing the canopy that provides shade for our plants, while encouraging the right mix of birds and insects. Permaculture is not so much a project as a way of life.”

Green beans growing on a coffee plant

Thompson leads the Emory group on a walking tour of El Peten, which grows organic vegetables, fruits, and medicinal herbs as well as coffee. In the roomy chicken coop, water fountains made from two-liter Coke bottles suspended upside down offer a coy glimpse of home. As the guests pick their way along the rutted, muddy path, Thompson points out new growth of the hardy elqueme trees ideal for providing shade, healthy coffee plants with berries in various stages of ripening, and farming challenges such as the “coffee rust” or reddish-brown rash on the leaves that indicates the presence of harmful spores.

“We lost a third of the crop to this blight last year,” he says.

At the farm’s wet mill—the first of many stops for freshly picked beans—Thompson and Dariel Potoy, executive director of Comunidad Connect, fire up the machinery with a roar, explaining the multifaceted process the beans undergo here before they are loaded up for transport to be sun dried at a dry mill. It is customary for the coffee producers themselves to accompany the loads, or lots, of beans to the dry mills located to the south, where they are weighed and inspected for various quality indicators. Thompson and farm administrator Rosa Villagra, one of many Nicaraguan women emerging as leaders in the country’s biggest business, typically handle this important step.

This is the beginning of the harvest season, which will last about three to four months. At the height of picking, Thompson hopes the farm will yield about two thousand pounds of coffee each day and twenty-five thousand for the year.

“Every step along the way could compromise the quality of the coffee,” Thompson says. “Beans can be over-fermented, over-roasted, even transported in a dirty truck that will affect how they smell and taste. It’s a high-risk process.”

Corrales kneeling down to show a plant to visitors

constant gardener: Byron Corrales (left, on right) explains his methods to visitors Angie Allen (far left) and Tania Herbert.

Thompson’s team learned much of what they know about coffee production from his friend and mentor Byron Corrales, a near-legendary Nicaraguan coffee farmer internationally known for his award-winning “Maracaturra” coffee. A highlight of the trip for the Emory group is visiting Corrales’s farm, Finca Los Pinos, which is operated according to the natural growing techniques and processes developed by his family over multiple generations.

A strong connection has flowered between El Peten and Los Pinos, driven by a shared commitment to sustainable farming and to engaging the surrounding communities and farms in beneficial relationships. Finca Los Pinos produces the only other coffee currently available through the Farmers to 40 program, although Emory’s Roberts hopes to expand that network to include other organic farmers.

Corrales’s genius for coffee farming lies chiefly in his approach to soil conditioning. Rather than using costly chemicals to strip the earth of microorganisms, he does the opposite—enriching the soil with a home-grown fertilizer, made by blending rock dust with waste from cows that are fed an all-natural diet of grass, sugarcane, and other plants. Corrales’s special family recipe for bocachi, or fertilizer, is largely credited for the high quality of his coffee, and Thompson has begun to adopt it on his farm as well.

“It is not correct that production through agrochemicals is the solution. The industry that practices agriculture at such a high cost is in crisis,” Corrales says. “The real truth is that productivity comes from the earth itself.”

Finca Los Pinos is one of fifty-two members of a local farming co-op that collectively produces about eight hundred thousand pounds of coffee for sale and export each year, and Corrales is encouraged to see an increasing number of these and other Nicaraguan farms moving away from agrochemicals. His daughter, Sara, is pursuing a degree in business and will assume a leading role in running the farm.

Three members of the co-op hold coffee in various stages of production

Members of the coffee co-op show their stuff.

The Emory visitors also are treated to a coffee “cupping.” Much like a wine tasting, a cupping is a meticulous, step-by-step sampling guided by a professionally trained Q-rater, or cupper, who has the expertise to score the coffee’s quality according to international standards of taste, aroma, acidity, and other factors. Another positive development for Nicaraguan coffee farmers is a growing number of professional cuppers in the country who are able to both educate local growers about raising their quality, and to influence the market on the Nicaraguan side, before the beans are exported.

Several members of the co-op are on hand to meet the American guests, putting faces and names with the coffees that are being tasted. And that, says Roberts, is the soul of this tour and of Farmers to 40—creating a connection between product and people.

“The concept is to remain connected through the cup of coffee,” Corrales says. “So when you drink this coffee in the US, you think about the community where it came from. You understand that behind that coffee are farmers, families, homes, and schools.”

 farmers to 40 officially began offering coffee through its website in late October; when the Coffee Connection trip departed, the business had sold forty-eight bags of beans. Now the program is shipping nearly two hundred bags a month. The goal, says Roberts, is to sell about three to five hundred monthly, with the farmer and community receiving $4 for each $10 bag—compared to the regular market, where their take can be as low as forty cents.

“Forty percent is aspirational,” he says. “But we’d like to develop levels of certification that are more transparent than the current fair trade model, which is clearly a step in the right direction but doesn’t give the consumer any real idea of how much the farmer is getting. We want more of the money to stay in coffee communities. By bringing our Nicaraguan partners closer to their consumers, our hope is that, ultimately, they will have more ownership in their own business affairs.”

Karen Boomer 12B, now a senior analyst in revenue management with Delta, is proud of Farmers to 40’s progress in the time since she helped get it started. The business model was developed with the help of undergraduates in Roberts’s classes; students also worked on the marketing plan, website, and fulfillment system.

“When I started working on Farmers to 40, it was still just an idea,” Boomer says. “Peter had extensive knowledge about the global coffee community, a great connection to the farm in Nicaragua, and the support of Social Enterprise @ Goizueta. My task was to turn all these great ideas and connections into a fully functioning social business.”

Boomer has remained involved with the program, serving as a resource for students who picked up where she left off. “I enjoy meeting current Emory students and other like-minded alumni who are interested in supporting causes like this,” she says.

Like-minded alumni, in turn, are inspired by young women like Boomer. “I think the main impact of the trip for me,” says Emory alumna Philipp, “is my complete faith and belief in the next generation. From Rosa on Jon’s farm, to Byron’s daughter who is going into farming—it’s just so impressive to see their motivation. This is what I hope and believe Emory is doing—producing students who are aware and engaged in the world.”

Booth likens the Coffee Connection trip to a crash course in the concept behind Social Enterprise @ Goizueta itself—the blending of for-profit and nonprofit business practices for social good.

“It was an exceptional experience to stimulate thinking beyond serving as a member of a board of directors of nonprofits to applying business skills to social issues,” she says.

For Boomer, her blue-sky research project from business school has blossomed into a tangible product that she continues to touch—and taste.

“Every month I get so excited when I see a fresh bag of coffee delivered to my door,” she says. “It brings me back to my time at Emory and to the farmers I visited in Nicaragua.”

Portrait

As part of the Coffee Connection trip, the Emory group participated in a service project—mixing and pouring a concrete floor for this Nicaraguan family. During the course of the afternoon, Roberts connected with daughter Vanessa Blandon Rivera, one of the eight family members living in the three-room house, who was selected to attend courses in agribusiness at La Bastille Technical School of Agriculture based on a business proposal she created. She hopes to develop an enclosed nursery for large-scale production of vegetables and plants; she has the model, she tells Roberts, she only needs the funding. “We happen to have business students who are interested in microlending for start-up businesses,” Roberts tells her, asking her to email him her proposal when she can access a computer. “I very much look forward to seeing your plan.”

Email the editor