Ben Weiner has a business to run. Sometimes, as he put it, working in coffee is about "pushing pennies." But his operation, Gold Mountain Coffee Growers, is more than a business. He's on a mission.
After graduating from Washington University in our hometown of St. Louis, he started a coffee farm in Nicaragua. Having already spent time there as a student, he had learned quite a bit about the coffee business, and was keenly aware of the country's economic situation. He decided to simultaneously focus on coffee quality and quality of life for ordinary Nicaraguans. It turns out, the two missions are inextricably intertwined.
Gold Mountain Coffee Growers is a social enterprise that reinvests profits back into Nicaraguan coffee producers' crops, standards of living, and communities. They provide access to credit (with an emphasis on female farmers), help other farmers improve their coffee quality (thereby increasing that farmer's revenue), conduct computing classes for kids, and work to provide books and running water to schools.
I sat down with Ben to talk about their coffee farm, the social programs the company is involved in, and what coffee quality can mean to the coffee farmers of Latin America.
Chris: Welcome to St. Louis!
Ben: Thank you. Very glad to be here.
Chris: You flew in to meet with us, and deliver two presentations. Tell me about your visit here, and what you’ll be presenting on.
Ben: We’ve been selling to Kaldi’s for many years, and it’s a wonderful partnership. We have our own coffee farm, Finca Idealista, and we also connect other coffee producers directly with roasters like Kaldi’s. At the same time, we do a large amount of work on quality control with other farmers. And we do social projects in their communities, including free computing classes for youth, running water in schools, books in school libraries, access to credit in Nicaragua where access to credit is almost nonexistent or at exorbitant interest rates for coffee farmers, and other projects.
Chris: This is credit they can use to improve their facilities? Increase their acreage?
Ben: We see producers using both the low interest or zero interest rate loans we’ve given them to put solar panels on their homes, improve their coffee processing equipment, put new roofs on their houses, expand their farms, take better care of their coffee, pay their workers better, build better facilities for cooking for the harvest workers, buy vehicles to better transport their coffee (because some of them are located near the ends of the earth), and more.
Chris: So you have your own farm, where you’re working to make great things happen. Why do you step away from your farm to help others?
Ben: As a social enterprise, our main goal is to empower others. To empower coffee producers and many others in the coffee supply chain, while delivering an absolutely stellar quality product. We unfortunately can’t export every coffee producer’s coffee because we’re strict on quality. We cup every single lot, and we only export the best cupping lots.
Chris: As an exporter, it’s in your best interest to help them improve their quality, I suppose.
Ben: Yes, and we're not only an exporter. We're also an importer and coffee farmers. Cutting the entire supply chain all the way to roasters helps us get producers better prices for their coffee. In a country as poor as Nicaragua, this can mean the difference between starvation and improving their standard of living.
Chris: The list of social activities you’re engaged in is amazing. Tell me more about your work in the schools.
Ben: We’ve been installing small libraries and donating textbooks to schools. We work in coffee communities where teachers have so few resources, there will sometimes be one or zero textbooks for an entire class in a given subject. The teachers resort to using carbon paper to make lesson plans—several pieces of paper at a time—for their students, because that’s the only resource and technology they have. We’ve been giving students access to technology through our free computing classes, and also bringing them the basics they need for education: books, textbooks, the first chapter books most of these students have ever seen in their lives, and other things they need for education.
Chris: Tell me a little bit about Gold Mountain Coffee’s farm.
Ben: Our farm is called “Finca Idealista.” We have roughly the equivalent of five U.S. football fields of land. We produce both washed and natural processed coffees. We’ve built new infrastructure for our washed and natural processed coffees, in an effort to continuously improve. We have a living coffee museum on our farm. The purpose is to be cupping various varieties of coffee, and also see how each variety grows at our altitude. In addition, we’ll be giving free seeds to our partner producers, so they can be improving their varieties and see how the coffee in the coffee museum is behaving in terms of cup quality, in terms of resistance to disease like Coffee Leaf Rust, its yield, and in other ways.
Chris: Is your farm considered a large farm?
Ben: It’s considered a small farm when compared to some large estates. However, we’re trying to make a big difference. Our social enterprise and our farm have been reinvesting profits back into producers by giving them access to credit, paying them more, and all of our other social projects. The impact we’re making is that, when our partner producers get a better price from us because they’re selling to a roaster like Kaldi’s and others, it means their standard of living immediately improves. And they can turn around and reinvest in their farms and their coffee. The impact is larger because we’re dealing with farms with fewer economic resources.
Chris: Tell me about being a “social enterprise.”
Ben: Our main goal is to improve the plight of coffee producers through coffee quality in an economically sustainable way. Along the way we do social projects to benefit producers. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America, after Haiti. For that reason, it’s very important to be giving producers prices that allow them to have a dignified standard of living. We are empowering producers so that when they improve their quality, they receive substantially higher prices. We’re very strict with coffee farmers about improving their quality because it’s the only way they can get ahead. Kaldi's understands this because it won't pay high prices for lower-quality coffee.
Chris: What do you mean by “strict?”
Ben: Strict on quality. They have to take great care of their coffee trees over the course of the year and then pick the reddest cherries during harvest. They can’t over-ferment their coffee. They have to wash it perfectly. They have to get it to us quickly so it doesn’t get damaged on their farms, and so we can get it into a different microclimate where it’s sun-dried. They have to do everything required to produce excellent quality coffee.
Chris: Thanks for talking with me.
Ben: My pleasure. Thanks for welcoming me back to St. Louis!