Can A Cup of Coffee Build A Village
or Protect A Rainforest?
By Jim Zelinski
Esmeralda Perez has a new home. Not much, really, by American standards. But she’s not complaining. After all, she now has ‘a room with a view.’ It doesn’t flood every year. And now, when she cooks, the smoke actually goes out of the kitchen. The faucets and roof don’t leak. Oh yes, there’s clean drinking water now — every day. And finally, her house isn’t drafty — unlike the wood and tin structure she called home for years at the El Quetzal coffee farm in Nicaragua.
Ms. Perez picks coffee beans — along with the rest of her family at El Quetzal, one of the farms from which the Rogers Family Coffee Companies buy its high-quality arabica beans. And one of the many places where the family is raising the standard of living — one house, one school, one medical clinic at a time — for some of the planet’s poorest people — while protecting natural resources right at the “source” of the world’s premier coffee.
New housing is but one of a myriad of components of the Rogers family’s “Source Aid Development Program” — which for more than a decade has provided direct continuous aid to thousands of coffee farm workers while protecting wildlife in or around Latin American coffee farms whose living conditions Americans would consider “Spartan” at best.
One of the nation’s few remaining family-owned gourmet coffee roasters, the San Leandro, CA-based Rogers Family Coffee Companies include the San Francisco Bay Coffee Co., the Organic Coffee Co. and Fairwinds Gourmet Coffee. Since their launch in 1979 by Princeton University graduate, Jon B. Rogers, the companies have practiced and advocated production and consumption of “socially/environmentally-responsible” coffee.
The Rogers family’s longstanding approach has taken on greater urgency in the last four years during a coffee market “crisis” that has generated global headlines.
“SOURCE” / IMPACT OF COFFEE MARKET CRISIS
Today’s coffee market continues to suffer from all-time low prices caused by a glut of low-quality “robusta” coffee beans — especially from Brazil and Vietnam. This has created a severe socio-economic crisis in some developing countries and threatens the livelihood of millions of workers from pickers to roasters across the globe. Thousands suffer from no work. Some farmers who can’t afford to grow high-quality coffee are selling their land — often in the family for generations — for resorts, hotels, houses or cattle grazing. Some farms are simply abandoned. In turn, this has increased pressure to clear surrounding rainforest, further diminishing some of the world’s most important wildlife habitat and natural resources.
The crisis has also impacted socially-responsible roasters who pay more than the market rate for high-quality beans and help establish social and environmental programs at the farms.
What goes into your coffee, where it comes from — and what you pay for it — affects an estimated half billion people across the globe.
“You may not realize it but that cup of coffee was as important as anything you’ll do all day — at least to 8 percent of the world’s population,” says Jon B. Rogers. “That cup of coffee may have helped provide a house, school or doctor for some of the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere, helped preserve a rainforest which just might harbor a cure for a deadly disease, saved wildlife or even sent a youth from Nicaragua to college on a scholarship.”
ROGERS FAMILY VOWS TO ‘MAKE A DIFFERENCE’
The Rogers’ “Source Aid” program is the inspiration of green coffee buyer, Pete Rogers, who recognized early on in his travels that one company could ‘make a difference.’ In 1986, Pete — one of Jon. B. Rogers’ three sons who play an integral role in the company — made his first trip to a “source” country. The trip to Guatemala “opened my eyes to the abject poverty in many of Central and South America’s coffee growing regions,” recalls Rogers. “I vowed then to do something to help these people.”
Several years later, the Rogers’ business had grown large enough to begin a program to directly aid these extremely poor workers. With farmers’ assistance, Pete and the family ensure aid is funneled directly to workers and their families to improve living and educational standards of coffee farm communities. During his three to four months “at source” — where he traverses jungles or climbs mountains — Pete continually adapts “Source Aid” to benefit each farm’s situation.
The family has a vested interest in keeping farmers who grow high-quality beans. Each year the market crisis continues, it’s harder on such farmers.
“If we don’t help,” said Jon, “one day there will be huge corporate farms where we currently do business, growing large quantities of lower-quality robusta beans and degrading the environment. I hope that my great grandkids can run this company and we can’t do this if there isn’t high-quality coffee for us to buy.”
“SEAL OF SOCIAL /ENVIRONMENTAL RESPONSIBILITY”
Each bag of the Rogers’ coffees carried what is in effect a ‘Seal of Social/Environmental Responsibility.’ Each bag has this pledge: — “Crafting Great Coffee with Concern for Nature; Care for People; Respect for the Environment.”
This ‘Seal” underscores the Rogers’ approach that goes far beyond basic ‘Fair Trade’ practices.
The Rogers establish “social contracts” in partnership with farms. Under these “social contracts, the Rogers set a fixed price for five-seven years — above the average market price, cost of production or “Fair Trade.”
The “social contracts” and “Source Aid” guarantee social/economic/educational programs, ensure long-term viability and productivity of ‘source’ communities, guarantee customers a long-term source of high-quality coffee and protect the people, flora and fauna
Once described on a San Francisco radio network affiliate show as a “miniature Peace Corps for some of the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere” — Source Aid completed in the last year alone more than 18 major projects that included building houses, schools, day care centers, providing doctors, nurses, medical facilities, teachers, food, clothes, clean drinking water and energy systems, funding college scholarships, sponsoring Little League baseball and protecting the rainforest and wildlife from poachers.
“We want to thank our customers for helping to make a difference in the lives of the people who help fill their coffee cup,” said Jon B. Rogers. “With their help, we’ve accomplished a lot but there is so much more to do. “Source Aid” reflects our commitment to improve the quality of life of everyone and everything connected to our coffee.”
Source Aid Development Program constructed or renovated 85 houses on 17 coffee farms where the family has established “social contracts” — from Finca Irlanda in Mexico to Rincon de los Planes in Guatemala.
Where entire families once endured drafty, corrugated tin shacks with leaky roofs, smoke-filled cooking areas and no indoor plumbing, the Rogers Family is replacing them with insulated, livable dwellings. For the first time in some of their lives, mothers wash in sinks — not streams — and cook in ventilated kitchens.
“Source Aid” has built eight schools with 41 classrooms, hired teachers and purchased school supplies. Children no longer share a single book with dozens or even hundreds of classmates. Workers and their children now receive nutritious meals every day and have healthcare from new medical clinics.
At El Quetzal in Nicaragua, workers now have what Americans have always taken for granted — clean drinking water!
To ensure school attendance at Santa Maura in Nicaragua, “Source Aid” sponsored/funded a Little League team. But there’s one overriding rule for these aspiring Major leaguers — attend school or you can’t play. Not only did this program boost attendance, the team last year won the Nicaraguan State Little League Championship!
Mexico’s Finca Hamburgo (‘Fin-ca” is the Spanish word for farm) also has a unique way of boosting attendance at their new schools — the students are paid! “Source Aid” pays each family the amount their children would earn if they were picking coffee instead of attending school. In this way, family incomes are not diminished, and the children receive an education — part of the family’s plan to break the cycle of poverty through education.
The Rogers family has emphasized these philosophies to customers, buyers, other roasters, media and the general public. First because, it’s the right thing to do; second — they hope the public and industry will eventually embrace this comprehensive approach to coffee production/consumption. The Rogers family pays on average $1.38 per pound directly to growers — more than the $1.26 per pound that goes to coffee growing cooperatives under Fair Trade certified coffee which the Rogers also provide.
“I’ve seen living conditions on coffee farms which make the poorest American cities seem posh,” said Jon B. Rogers. “In America, a ‘dream home’ conjures up images of a beautiful view or a huge backyard with a swimming pool. For literally hundreds of thousands of people who help bring your and my cup of coffee to market, it’s a dream just to have a home that doesn’t flood every year and a roof that doesn’t leak.”
Environmental Responsibility Brews Better Coffee
Unlike some “monoculture” coffee farms, the farms from which the Rogers family buys its beans must commit to environmental responsibility. This means maintaining native plants and wildlife, practicing natural methods of fertilization and pesticides, and preserving soil and water supplies. This not only protects the environment, but also produces a higher quality coffee.
Various wildlife species have been saved by anti-poaching measures. Native shade trees have been planted to replenish the soil’s nitrogen stores and promote animal and bird habitation while reducing or eliminating pesticides. Many, many acres of valuable rain-forest and wildlife habitat have been preserved because coffee farmers who partner with the Rogers family don’t have to sell their land to developers or cattle ranchers.
coffee for birds,
the land and people
Last fall, the Rogers family launched their newest habitat-friendly, shade-grown organic coffee line under license with National Audubon Society in concert with the Rainforest Alliance.
“Audubon™ Coffee” features a full line of new premium products offered at select retail outlets, gourmet stores and supermarkets, as well as through the Audubon Coffee Club. Visit website www.auduboncoffeeclub.com
This premium line of coffee reflects the goal of the National Audubon Society, the Rogers family and the Rainforest Alliance to promote environmentally and socially-responsible products that protect bird species, wildlife habitat, and dwindling rainforests, and which raise the quality of life for people in the world’s coffee growing regions. Coffee lovers can now purchase various premium blends certified by Rain-forest Alliance that meet its rigorous standards for environmentally and socially-responsible coffee farming, which protect natural resources, mini-mize agrochem-ical use and waste, safe-guard soil quality and water supplies, and provide sound working conditions for farm workers. Aud-ubon™ Coffee is 100-percent certified organ-ic.
In an era during which U.S. corporate scandals, centered around a lack of accountability, have given rise to consumer mistrust, the Rogers Family isn’t simply donating a percentage of their sales without knowing where the money is going.
The Rogers aim for measurable social and environmental prog-ress. Through “Source Aid,” the Rogers family is integrally involved in each and every project. The goal is to contribute toward a common good in these communities — addressing some of the most basic needs of life: clothing, education, food and shelter.
December 2003 marked another milestone in the Rogers Family’s effort to help the people and protect the land connected to the coffee industry. In response to public interest in supporting “Source Aid,” the family formed the Rogers Charitable Fund. See www.rogerscharitablefund.org Anyone who supports the production and consumption of “socially-responsible” coffee can make a tax-deductible donation to the Fund. All donations go directly to coffee farm social or environmental projects. The Fund will include a grant program.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Jon B. Rogers drank his first cup of coffee at the age of 15 — an attempt to impress his older classmates at a Wisconsin boarding school. After graduating from Princeton and a stint in the U.S. Army, he served in various corporate managerial positions including heading up a division at Rev-lon. Increasingly, Rogers tired of toiling for short-term gains — stock price surges — rather than for a company’s long-term health.
In 1979, he took out a second mortgage on his home to purchase a small bankrupt firm so cash-strapped it lacked merchandise.
Using their years of business experience, he and his wife, Barbara, transformed the firm into what today collectively comprises one of the nation’s larger family-owned wholesalers/roasters of high-quality branded gourmet coffee.
Jon and Barbara’s timing was not coincidental. Jon had always been passionate about good coffee. But he knew that richer, fuller gourmet varieties weren’t widely available at that time. Their steadfast mission upon forming the company? Search out the world’s finest arabica varieties and “make a difference.” Today, Jon and Barbara’s children also play an integral role in the business.
Jon and Barbara Rogers’ four children — Jim, John, Pete and Lisa — as well as daughter-in-law, Kirsten, also play key roles in advocating the companies’ business philosophy.
Regarding his business approach — from which one newspaper said has earned him somewhat of a “maverick” reputation, Jon B. Rogers said: “this is not just a public relations ploy. It’s the right thing to do.”
For more information on the company’s “Source Aid” program, Rogers Charitable Fund, where to buy products, or any coffee in-dustry issue, visit these websites: www.auduboncoffeeclub.com, www.sfbaycoffee.com, www.organiccoffeecompany.com, www.fairwindscoffee.com, www.rogerscharitable.fund.org and www.naturefriendly.org. Or call (800) 829-1300 or
1 (510) 638-1300.
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