Cathie Anderson: Social justice is just part of the coffee brew

Published: Tuesday, Sep. 4, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 4, 2012 - 7:34 am

If a coffee roaster wants customers to get the best cup of java, then he has to find the best beans. That sounds simple, doesn't it? Jon B. Rogers can tell you that it's anything but.

He is the founder of Rogers Family Co., the Lincoln-based coffee farm owner and roaster with sales last year of $112 million.

Rogers started buying coffee beans from farmers in Panama and Costa Rica back in the mid-1980s, but as soon as he would find good beans, the grower's business would collapse.

"For years, the coffee farmer was paid less than his cost of production," Rogers said. "His cost of production was around $1 or $1.09 (per pound), and he was getting 60, 70 cents. A lot of these farmers got into big financial trouble, and they just kept huge loans with banks down there, and the interest rate was almost 20 percent. It's just a disaster for the coffee farmer. We decided that if we found a good farmer, we have to keep him in business, … so we ended up buying some (farms)."

Rogers' family business now owns 10 farms, though he continues to buy beans from indigenous owners in Sumatra, Rwanda and other far-flung places.

The Rogers family helped the farmers figure out their cost of production, then added a profit that would keep the farm going.

Creating a safety net

As Rogers and his children visited coffee farms in remote, mountainous regions, they discovered workers and their families living in untenable conditions.

Seeing huts that posed health and safety hazards, the Rogers family built 45 housing complexes. Finding medical care inadequate, they built a dozen clinics and ensured they were staffed. Learning that students were going to school hungry, the family helped to feed them.

In all, they have donated $6 million to improve living conditions, education and health care in regions where they buy coffee. Their social programs place them in the top 15 percent of all companies evaluated at, a website that identifies environmentally and socially responsible companies.

They do it, even though when Junior gets an education, he doesn't always come back to the farm.

"He wants to go to Mexico City or Panama City, and so Dad and Grandpa are left with this, and they say, 'Well, you know, we can't do this forever,' " said Rogers, who sees it as a good problem to be forced to solve.

His globe-trotting son, Pete Rogers, and an overseas team are working to form co-ops in such cases.

Teaching sustainability

Living in remote areas, coffee farmers aren't exposed to sustainable practices, agricultural research or new machinery. It can be tricky to achieve change.

"They're growing coffee the way their great-grandfather grew it," Jon Rogers said, "and we go down there and say, 'Have you tried this? Why don't you do that?' And they say, 'What does this gringo know? I'm five generations of coffee-growing.' So, it is a difficult task, but we've done it."

At their farms, they show how new practices improve yield and quality, and they invite farmers to share ideas at annual meetings.

Two examples of changes: When coffee beans were removed from their cherries, farmers had tossed the pulp into streams or used lye to dissolve it. Now they compost it, along with table scraps, to get fertilizer.

When trees are trimmed, workers now burn the wood in oxygen-less stoves to produce charcoal and then add bacteria to get carbon. Both carbon and fertilizer are buried around the coffee trees. The mixture, simulating terra preta, creates a fertile, stable soil that better holds nutrients when it rains on the mountains.

Although it was difficult to overcome skepticism with these practices, one innovation was readily adopted: hand-held weed trimmers. The devices clear land so well, Rogers said, that a good number disappear to theft.

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