SIDNEY — High Grounds Cafe , 705 Fair Road, Sidney, offered visitors a chance to hear firsthand what coffee farming is all about and how Direct Trade impacts the lives of the coffee farmers and those who work there.
Coffee grower Diego Chavarria, whose coffee is served at High Grounds Cafe, visited the business Thursday, March 9. Chavarria talked about how coffee is grown and how Direct Trade has helped his family and those living in and around his community in the Matagalpa Highlands of Nicaragua. Chavarria was accompanied by his wife, Gloria, and joined by Paul and Grace Kurtz from Mechanicsburg, who roast the coffee they import from Chavarria’s Nicaraguan farm.
Paul Kurtz had developed a curiosity about the coffee trade after visiting numerous coffee farms while traveling abroad as a mission’s director for a church outreach.
“There are about 25 million coffee growers world-wide so it was something I saw a lot during my travels,” he said.
While working with church groups in Nicaragua, Kurtz was moved by the suffering of the people there, many who labored long-hard hours in the coffee fields. He wondered why the people he ministered to remained so poor while the gourmet coffee companies like one in particular in the U.S. enjoyed tremendous profits. Kurtz did not refer to the big coffee company by name but noted while growers were sometimes paid less than 40 cents a pound, the retailer in turn sold the same amount of coffee for $15 to $20.
After doing some research Kurtz noted that while a reasonable amount of overhead could be expected the growers where little more than slaves to a corrupt and greedy process that provided them with just enough to survive.
“Traditional coffee businesses keep workers poor and dependant upon the coffee buyer, this forces the men to seek work away from their homes in the big cities leaving their wives and children to work in the farm field, days are long and hard; and there’s no school during coffee harvest, if a child is old enough they have no choice but to work like an adult” Kurtz said, “The buyers have a take-it or leave it attitude leaving growers no choice; take next to nothing or do without!”
Kurtz looked at the situation there and thought there had to be a better way.
“Later I was discussing the subject with a business attorney who assured me there was an answer to where all the money went and after further examination we determined something could be done to help the coffee growers and their families.”
In 2002 Kurtz began investigated the possibility of eliminating the middle-men who were reaping the lion’s share of the profits and figuring out a way to help the Nicaraguan people.
“I learned the real money was in roasting and distributing the coffee” said Kurtz “Time passed and I did more research.” Slowly but surely a plan was coming together.
In 2004, the Kurtzes met Chavarria while on a mission trip to Nicaragua. Chavarria a Nicaraguan native had returned to his homeland to try his hand at growing coffee after fleeing in the 1980’s during a conflict between the Contras and Sandinistas.
“My father’s home was hit by a mortar shell and we had no place to live, so we applied for citizenship and moved to Canada. Canada offered a vast improvement in lifestyle but Chavarria never forgot his real home or the people he left behind and growing coffee was in his blood. “Farming was a family tradition, I learned about growing coffee from my father and grandfather, for as long as anyone could remember that’s just what we did” said Chavarria.
Kurtz visited Chavarria’s coffee farm. Seeing an opportunity to help Chavarria, Kurtz looked into purchasing an industrial-sized coffee roaster that could handle the volume of coffee beans harvested on Chavarria’s farm.
Chavarria was farming about 400 acres of coffee trees in the prime elevation required to grow some of the world’s best coffee. Chavarria, his family and friends cleared the land by hand and planted 1,500 to 2,000 trees per acre, it risky business as it takes three years of cultivation and fertilizing before the trees are mature enough to produce beans. It cost about $2,500 per acre each year just to fertilize the trees.
As is typical, after all was said and done, Diego was barely making a profit so when Kurtz asked if Chavarria was interested in doing business with him in a way that would improve profits Chavarria said yes. Kurtz learned that roasters are quite an investment, costing well over $100,000, but he saw a potential for good profits if things were handled correctly. Kurtz felt the best way to help the Nicaraguan people was to help them help themselves.
It took a while but eventually Kurtz got his roaster and in 2007 Chavarria shipped 40,000 pounds of green coffee to Kurtz to be roasted, packaged and sold. Coffee prices are normally set by the New York Board of Trade (NYBOT) and are currently running about $1 to $1.50 a pound, but by Direct Trade, Kurtz is able to pay Diego nearly $3 per pound and still make a reasonable profit.
“I depend on Diego, he depends on me” said Kurtz “By dealing directly with the grower we are able to provide the workers with a much better way of life, it’s not a hand-out, but a hand-up!”
Kurtz noted the trickle-down effect and how coffee is the foundation for the local economy.
“It provides food, clinics, clothing and homes, lives are made better in countless ways” said Kurtz,”Coffee is king, it’s all there is there, growing coffee is a cycle of life, a product of a place and it’s people, their hopes and dreams are in that coffee.”
Kurtz said the whole process relies on trust.
“Diego receives payment for the coffee well in advance making him independent of big bank loans to cover the overhead, and this eliminates high interest payments which cut into profits. I don’t have to worry about Diego, he is a man of integrity, he works his butt off and his name is on the final product.”
The coffee is sold under the name “Cafe Diego.”
Diego now has about 60 full-time employees who travel daily for about one hour by paved road to a dirt trail. A 20-minute walk leads to the fields in the high elevations where the coffee grows. The coffee trees begin blooming in January and are nurtured and fertilized during the rainy growing season until October when the harvest begins.
“No chemicals are used in growing the coffee. We don’t use pesticides; chemicals are bad for us if we use them and bad for the people who drink our coffee,” said Chavarria.
Up to 250 extra part-time workers are hired for the harvest and most beans are picked by mid-December, and then it starts all over again.
“The trees are a lot of work but if properly nurtured they will live 20 to 25 years and produce about one and one half pounds of beans per tree … that’s a lot of beans,” said Chavarria.
The beans are then processed and sorted so only the finest will make it to market; the work is all done by hand.
“Paul pays us well for the coffee allowing our workers to make $20 a day working in the fields where the average worker in Nicaragua only earns about $3 per day, that is a blessing we can all use,” said Chavarria.
Besides growing coffee, Chavarria is also growing churches. Thus far he has planted more than 25 churches in his native homeland.
“A man named Troyer from near Akron, Ohio, visited us many years ago and told me about Jesus Christ and how he died for my sins. He taught me to study the bible and share the gospel with others. Trusting in Jesus changed my life and gave me hope! I knew Jesus wanted me to do the same for others and now there are hundreds of Christians in Nicaragua whose lives have been made richer by a life in Christ. God has been good to me and my people,” he said. “I have learned that if you bless others in God’s name he is going to bless you.”
Chavarria and his wife have four daughters and quite a few grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Counting all the brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and the in-laws, his family now numbers over 100 people; and many of them are working with Chavarria.
Chuck Price, manager of High Grounds Cafe noted he is thankful to be a part of improving the lives of those growing coffee in Nicaragua by offering Chavarria’s coffee at the diner and invites anyone wanting a great cup of coffee or other tasty treats to stop by.
“We have plenty of Café Diego coffee on hand ready to serve or you can take a bag home to share with family and friends; you won’t be disappointed,” said Price.
The writer is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.