Caffeine Fix: Helping organic coffee farmers get a better price for their beans

By Paige Parvin | Emory Magazine | Feb. 27, 2014

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Photo by Bryan Clark

High in the chill, mist-blown mountains of northern Nicaragua, on a farm called Finca El Peten, more than 175,000 low, leafy plants are silently toiling to fulfill their biological destiny: producing bright red coffee cherries.

It's an uphill battle. Blight, bugs, soil composition, rainfall, temperature—a whole host of dangers lurks in the shadows of the surrounding shade trees, ready to divert the plants' patient progress. If they do yield healthy, ripened coffee cherries, it's probably a good thing the plants cannot know what's in store for their colorful offspring: the picking, milling, drying, shipping, roasting, and eventually grinding—likely passing through some thirty pairs of human hands—that will transform their beans into a very, very fine cup of coffee.

This is the farm of Jon Thompson, an Atlanta native who bought these 250 acres with business partners in 2007 to pursue a grand social experiment. Now El Peten produces coffee for distribution through Farmers to 40, a business launched in Emory's Goizueta Business School as part of a program called Social Enterprise @ Goizueta. The ambition of Farmers to 40 is to return 40 percent of the retail price of each bag of coffee to its Nicaraguan partner farmers, compared to the much lower percentage they typically receive—an aspiration as lofty as the mountains, a thousand feet above sea level, where this coffee grows.

Being the brainchild of the business school, Social Enterprise @ Goizueta is not a purely altruistic endeavor, but a blend of public service and for-profit savvy; it's designed to apply business practices and market solutions to achieve positive social impact. Program founder and director Peter Roberts, professor of organization and management, says the idea is to engage faculty and students in working across the spectrum of for-profit, nonprofit, and hybrid organizations. The coffee industry—notorious for leaving the growers themselves out in the cold, financially speaking—presents a perfect testing ground.

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