You are here
In partnership with organizations like USAID, Keurig Green Mountain, and Starbucks, Root Capital has become well known for offering low-interest rates on pre-harvest financing loans for farmers.
Coffee farmers generally receive one payment a year for their entire harvest. This means planning out expenses can be difficult, and, once preparations for the next harvest come around, they often have little money left over to invest in their crop. As such, they often look for loans to be able to apply to their agricultural needs each season. Root Capital sets itself apart from micro-lenders like Kiva because they are loaning amounts upwards of $40,000 each time.
Lending money to smallholder farmers can be risky. If a farmers experiences difficulty meeting volume or quality expectations with their crop, they would not meet sales goals and, ultimately, would not be able to pay back the loan. One way lenders mitigate this risk is by charging high interest rates. Root Capital, on the other hand, chooses to provide low interest rates—offers ongoing training to farmers to help to ensure their ability to repay the loan. They also engage in conversations about best practices for environmental stewardship and long-term sustainability.
I have long appreciated Root Capital's transparency: they openly share both their operation's approach, as well as a commitment to sharing the metrics used to measure what success means.
Counter Culture has been watching their good work for some time and continually tried to identify places of overlap, as well as potential partnerships. Our first entré came this year when we brought Root Capital into a study regarding coffee farmers’ adaptation to climate change that we embarked on with Duke’s Nicholas School of Environmental Management.
Root Capital and Counter Culture have a shared interest in applied research—meaning, we don’t want to do research just for the sake of researching something. We want the research to be of use, to generate an agenda, to mean something concrete on the ground to the people who were initially involved in the research. This type of project is unique in that it brings together a university, a coffee roaster, and an NGO. None of us working alone would be able to understand the issue as comprehensively as we are now able to working together.
Mike Younis, one of the six Duke students involved in the research, had the opportunity to tack on some extra time with Root Capital in their offices in Lima, Peru, as part of the overall project. Here’s what he had to say about the experience:
Both of our business and Root Capital's business are impacted by external factors that can be hard to control. We each have to look for ways to protect ourselves and our supply chains from risks—in this case the vulnerability brought on by climate change. When farmers are impacted by climate change, their overall supply of coffee is less stable, and they are less likely to be able to repay loans or have a consistent supply for buyers. Root Capital and Counter Culture Coffee will benefit from better understanding the impacts of climate change and hopefully be better poised to be a part of the solution.
Moving forward, I believe that collaboration among interested parties from different industries and organizations—all with common goals and interests—will only continue to blossom within the coffee industry. Results from the climate change adaptation study will be shared on our website and elsewhere late-spring 2015.
Hope you’ll keep following along and be in touch with any questions or comments!
Today, we will take a look at a non-profit we admire out of Burlington, VT, called Food 4 Farmers. Their mission is "to facilitate the implementation of sustainable food security programs in coffee-growing communities." In particular, they focus on collaborative work by emphasizing building local knowledge and capacity for individuals to solve their own problems by working through coffee cooperatives.
"Through a collaborative approach and partnerships, our goal is to transfer the tools and knowledge that coffee-farming families—and their communities—need for long-term food security," said Janice Nadworny, Co-Director of Food 4 Farmers. "One of the most exciting aspects of our work is witnessing this transformation from dependency to self-sufficiency."
The most eye-catching piece of their work to someone like me—who has been a part of and studied a number of non-profit and NGO models—is the following, in their own words:
"We don’t import a simplistic, one-size-fits-all model—we help communities identify locally appropriate solutions and strategies—and support them in managing their progress."
Though they are a fledgling non-profit, their small staff brings a range of experiences from the non-profit and academic world to the table. They are already well respected within and connected to the coffee industry with the likes of Rick Peyser (formerly of Keurig Green Mountain Coffee, currently working with Lutheran World Relief) on their board of directors.
Over the last four years, they have worked to design, implement, monitor, and evaluate food security strategies in Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia.
We are now in the second year of funding a food security project with Food 4 Farmers in Chiapas, Mexico, with CESMACH, a co-op that is part of Union el Triunfo. Food 4 Farmers is currently assessing the strengths and challenges of and resources available to the cooperative as they work to address seasonal hunger.
"Counter Culture has been a key partner in this work, stepping up to make the long-term investments necessary to help coffee-farming families thrive," Nadworny added.
To learn more about the great work Food 4 Farmers is doing click here.
As a recent Green Fund approval, Ben and Hannah took a moment to discuss his latest endeavor—building his second bike from the ground up.
Why build a bike instead of purchasing a new one?
In addition to satisfying the unique requirements I placed upon my new ride, building this bike myself has been a very gratifying process, and I recommend it to anyone. A bicycle may seem intimidatingly mechanical, but its bits are very straightforward in principle and they’re mostly all out in the open, inviting even the slightly curious to understand its workings, and pick up a wrench. So the joy of owning a bicycle can actually extend beyond simply riding it. By understanding how it works, and building or maintaining one on your own, you strengthen your sense of independence, and feel a connection to a tangible object in our universe.
What’s the most sustainable thing about bike riding?
Bike advocates rightly like to talk about the intersection of sustainability with bike riding: you use less fossil fuel, you spend less money, you become a fitter, healthier person, etc. All of this is completely true and wonderful about a lifestyle filled with bike rides. But what is often overlooked and left unsaid in the conversation is joy. Joy is such a crucial facet of riding a bicycle, and so essential to the long-term sustainability of cycling as a lifestyle. [Yet] how often is sustainability viewed in terms of deprivation?
Cycling brings me a deep abiding joy, which may be counterintuitive to an outsider. I glide past gridlock, face in the wind like a dog hanging his head out the car window, and even on those sweaty uphills I feel that great sense of independence, accomplishment, and freedom that comes with overcoming an obstacle under one’s own power. A bike opens up the entire city and surrounding area to me, unbeholden to public transit schedules and delays, or parking, gas costs, and (most) traffic.
So living sustainably actually has everything to do with joy, and relatively little to do with deprivation. The fact that Counter Culture’s coffee is threefold sustainable and some of the yummiest, most-joy-inducing out there is no accident; one aspect is essential to the other. Such is also the case for a sustainable approach to cycling as a lifestyle.
If you could tell someone who was nervous about bike riding—I’m asking for a friend—one thing about taking the plunge, what would you tell them?
Tell your *ahem* friend that she is not alone in being a little anxious about leaving the comfort of a metal box while traveling the roads. You can also tell her that a little caution and respect for the risks of cycling—particularly bike commuting—are a healthy thing to adopt and be ever mindful of. However, cycling is a pretty vast universe, with many levels of risk, challenge, and exertion left completely up to your—sorry, “her”—preference and degree of comfort. Stick to trails until you get the hang of it. Learn to ride in traffic on quieter streets, with friends who aren’t new to it. Know the laws in your state and obey them. Be courteous to drivers, even when they aren’t. Get tips from local bike-advocacy organizations. Use lights. Wear a helmet. (Seriously. Do it.)
But you asked me to say *one* thing, so I’ll boil it down to this: like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, you choose your own adventure.
This spring, La Voz que Clama en el Desierto, a cooperative out of San Juan de la Laguna in Guatemala that we have worked with for the last four years, applied for funding through our Seeds initiative and was one of the two projects that was selected and approved. Counter Culture and La Voz split the costs of the project down the middle with Counter Culture’s funds covering the majority of the material inputs and La Voz’s segment covering a lot of the labor needs.
Not only did the project focus on compost creation from start to finish (delivery of materials, mixing materials, distributing ready made compost, storing compost for later use) it also had a unique focus on female cooperative members. In total, 60 women received the completed compost to spread on their coffee parcels. Over 35 hectares were fertilized. While there isn’t a direct correlation between solid agricultural practices and cup quality, it bears noting that this year was the first year we sold La Voz’s coffee as a single origin and we have high hopes that this trend will continue in the coming years.
Each year we open the window for Seeds applications once in the spring and once in the fall, ready to support initiatives at the community level that work toward sustainable agriculture and food security efforts at origin. The next cycle for Seeds applicants will begin mid-September and we anticipate more noteworthy applicants and initiatives ahead and producers and producer groups are encouraged to apply here.
In partnership for inspiring work at origin,
Since the Western hive was basically a full hive already with probably 30,000 bees post-winter, they had relatively little issue starting up in their new habitat. I'm sure the first couple weeks were really confusing, as bees have a little GPS system in their heads and are very much creatures of habit when it comes to favorite food and water sources. Reorienting is serious work. I remember LOTS of bees just flying around in circles during these first weeks trying to reprogram their paths. The human equivalent would be if one were to be blindfolded and dropped off without Google Maps or even a compass. Go ahead! Find your way home.
It's been almost four months since the hives were set up, and it's still hard for me to believe that they're up and running on a balcony in a relatively small space. I like to call it "EXTREME URBAN BEEKEEPING" (mostly in jest). A few weeks ago, I was able to harvest about three gallons of honey from the Western hive. The sales of that honey, along with the awesome Green Fund money supply, has practically covered all beekeeping expenses up to this point.
After my latest inspection or biweekly check-in on the general health of the bees, I decided to make a split with the Western hive. This hive is so strong and healthy that I would love to keep that going. I ordered more materials and built out another hive last week. I took five or so frames of brood (baby bees), food, some nurse bees, and the Western queen, put them into the new hive body and let them go from there. The Western hive will make another queen, and they'll be good to go before wintertime. That's the plan, anyway.
Andrew of Farm51 has been a really great friend and bee-resource, as well. We have helped each other a lot in the bee-scape of things.
It feels really great to have such good support in doing this. Even though I've done all I could with my Green Fund dollars, I really don't think I could have gotten this far this easily without the fund. For reference, one hive's materials from start to finish usually ends up being about $500. As you gain more experience, you can trim some of the fat off this cost, but the woodenware and shipping of goods alone is usually a couple hundred bucks.
If you have any questions at all about what I'm up to with the bees, please reach out. I'm learning more all the time, and it's fascinating to see these ladies—and gents, can't forget the drones—work so hard for the greater purpose of their bee-community.
H: What made you realize it was time for a change in regard to how we manage water filtration at our headquarters?
B: Well, we changed filtration here because we started working with WateRx in New York. We were looking for a better option to recommend for our customers (cafes), and a great coffee shop called REX told us about these WateRX. All the units are really customizable so the water qualities can be exactly as you want them to be. The three units we have here are made so that we can change the makeup of the filters internally and thus the taste of the water pretty easily.
H: What can you tell us about WateRx and why did you decide to use them?
B: WaterRx is a company based out of Cincinnati, Ohio, and they are a national water filtration brand. We decided to go with them because the filters are super reliable, they need very little service and upkeep and they last significantly longer than any other filters we’ve used in the past. This ties into the green aspect of the filter—the medium, meaning the filtration material, is all natural minerals and rocks. Once you need a filter change you can dump it outside with no issue and no disturbance to the natural environment. We were really sold when we realized how durable the filtration is and it’s unique ability to process large volumes of water—the filters never break!
H: Can you give us a breakdown of how the filtration works?
B: First, water enters through the top of the unit and then there are three layers of medium (made up of rocks, sand, salt, and resin) that remove unwanted items from the water. Unwanted items include bacteria, rust, dirt, chlorine, arsenic, mercury, odor, and color.
H: What is the key takeaway for people who don’t know much of anything about water, water filtration, and its impact on coffee and the environment?
B: Number one would be that properly filtered water makes your coffee taste better. Second and equally important is that adequately filtered water makes your machines last longer. Sustainably speaking, the tanks we are using now only have to be recharged 50,000 gallons, or every 12-18 months, and can be reused. Our previous filters only lasted 3-6 months and had to be thrown away.
H: What does “adequately filtered water” mean exactly?
B: The simple answer is that it is water that is free of chlorides, arsenic and anything harmful. The water also has a balanced hardness. We have used the set of parameters that La Marzocco recommends for our water.
H: What else do you want us to know about the filters?
B: The big filter that we use in the coffee and tech departments track the amount of water used. The tracking means that you can check on averages used and you can decide if you need to reduce your usage and it allows you to know your carbon impact. Also, this makes it easier to know when you need to “recharge” the system, meaning, swap out the old filtration material.
H: Who currently uses this filtration?
B: A handful of our accounts are already implementing the new filtration: Open City in Washington DC, OK Café in Astoria, NY, Brunswick in Brooklyn, and Big Bear in Washington DC. In terms of our training centers they are in place in NY, Atlanta, Washington DC, and Durham and we are recommending the filtration for all new accounts in those areas.
H: What’s next in the world of water filtration?
B: We will continue to develop our water parameters so that we can make the water taste as delicious as possible for our coffees. As we calibrate we will move this filtration into all of our TCs. WateRx is a great partner to continue to work with!
This spring, Counter Culture embarked on an exciting new partnership with six students and a professor at Duke's Nicholas School for the Environment. After discussing research questions casually with Professor Shapiro-Garza for a couple of months, we decided to go all in and work jointly on a master's project that will explore resiliency and issues facing smallholder coffee farmers as they adapt to climate change.
The students have been gearing up for the fieldwork segment of the project which will involve spending time in Colombia, Guatemala, and Peru. In preparation for the fieldwork, the students visited our roastery, co-designed survey tools that will be used to interview people at different levels: from individual households to the farmer cooperative, to key stakeholders in the communities and regions. They have also done literature reviews to help them understand the (admittedly massive) scope of this issue. In addition, Professor Shapiro-Garza and I had extensive conversations with coffee industry actors including certification agency Rainforest Alliance and social lender Root Capital.
We couldn't be more excited to follow along on their journey—which starts right now—and we'd like to invite you to follow along, as well: Facebook and Twitter. We will also periodically post blog entries on our website.
Photo: (left to right) Joanna Furguiele, Brenda Lara, Saira Haider, Martín Ramírez, Mike Younis, and Claire Fox. (Photo credit: Professor Shapiro-Garza).
All the best,