Sustainability in Coffee: Seeds

We believe that forming partnerships across the coffee supply chain is the best way to improve coffee quality and sustainability.

These buying relationships are similar to social relationships in that the most successful ones are built on good communication and reciprocity. We ask a lot of the people who grow our coffee, and, in turn, we want to support them in what they need to have sustainable livelihoods.

We created our Seeds program in 2010 as a formal mechanism to support coffee-growing communities. Getting high-quality coffee from a farmer or co-op isn’t just the result of meticulous growing and processing—it requires a strong community to support those growers. Seeds supports social and environmental projects that work to strengthen the coffee communities where we buy coffee. We support 4–6 projects per year, chosen from applications submitted by our growing partners.

Our coffee department’s travels have given us the opportunity to check in on two Seeds-funded projects from years past: Jovenes Lideres at CENFROCAFE in Peru and the Baroida Plantation School in Papua New Guinea.

We’ve worked with CENFROCAFE cooperative in San Ignacio, Peru, since 2007. Its members produce our Valle del Santuario, Chirinos, and Huabal coffees. In 2011, CENFRO applied for Seeds funding to start a Jovenes Lideres or Youth Leaders program. By training youth to offer quality control and technical agricultural assistance, co-op leaders hoped to combat some of the issues facing youth in many rural coffee communities: lack of opportunities for jobs and educational development. These issues have lead to high levels of immigration away from rural areas to cities—and sometimes to other countries. Recognizing the need to provide attractive opportunities for the rural youth in their communities, CENFRO developed a set of training programs to provide them with coffee-related job training.

Back from visiting CENFRO just over a week ago, our head roaster Ben Horner had the opportunity to meet two “jovenes” working for the co-op as cuppers after completing quality control training. In creating this program to identify and train youth leaders, CENFRO is a great example of a progressive and forward-thinking co-op.

“With the Jovenes program, CENFROCAFE has identified two areas that are vital to their long-term growth and success: technical assistance on farms and quality analysis in the lab,” Ben observed. “The co-op has invested in developing this knowledge and these skills in a select group of their youngest members. It’s rare and very impressive to see an organization with such far-sighted priorities. And this is a big reason why we’ve worked with CENFRO for so long: They’re a very progressive cooperative.”

Since we began buying from them in 2010, Chris and Melody Colbran—owners of the Baroida farm in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea—have put a lot of work into improving their coffees, Baroida and Tairora. This relationship is unique in that we get one coffee, Baroida, harvested from the Colbran’s own trees, and another coffee, Tairora, harvested from farms in the surrounding villages. The Colbrans recognize that this tie between the Baroida estate and surrounding villages is important and built a school on their property in 2009 to support the coffee growing communities in the area. While they’ve completed construction and are currently using the school, they’ve had trouble attracting good teachers willing to travel to and live in this isolated area of Papua New Guinea.

The Colbrans need somewhere for teachers to live near the school and applied for Seeds funding in 2015 to construct teacher housing. When Counter Culture’s head buyer Tim visited the Colbrans in July of that year, they were just getting started on the teacher housing and have since completed the buildout.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to support and build resilient coffee communities, and that work is bigger than what Counter Culture can accomplish through the Seeds program. Recognizing the need for more collaboration to tackle some of the big issues like hunger and climate change adaptation, we’re working on forming partnerships with other like-minded roasters to tackle sustainability issues at the landscape level. Even with those large-scale efforts, however, it’s important to us that we continue to support our partners and to be part of the give and take that comes with any good partnership.