Transforming Lives, One Cup of Coffee at a Time

By Joshua Witchger 1-19-2012
Growers First coffee farmer, Rito Sierra with his wife, Maria, and four of their
Growers First coffee farmer, Rito Sierra with his wife, Maria, and four of their five children.

Fight global poverty, invest in agriculture. ~ Growers First

As the winter winds bite at our collars, a hot cup of coffee is a perfect antidote for healing.  But what you might not consider when you sip a mug of dark roast is the economic injustices that many coffee growers around the world face.   

Coffee is one of the largest cash crops in the world – the U.S.D.A. Foreign Agricultural Service reports that last year 15,689,340,000 pounds of coffee were distributed world-wide. Yet, indigenous coffee growers see only a tiny fraction of the revenue. 

These are some of the reasons why fair exchange programs such as  Growers First  got into the coffee business — to tip the scales of economic and social inequity that has become a way of life for many coffee farmers globally in a more just direction.

Even more importantly, Growers First exists to transform lives. The non-profit based in Laguna Beach, Calif., has a powerful story of action, conflict, struggle — and ultimately hope.


“There is a significant and obvious disconnect between the value farmers give to the coffee versus what others are making off the beans,” said David Vanderveen, who has served on the board with Growers First for eight years. “The guy who makes the lid for the cup of coffee is making more on that cup than the farmer who grows it. It’s not right.”  

Twenty years ago, Grower’s First founder Dave Day, the son of missionaries to Africa, traveled to a small coffee farm in Mexico where he saw first-hand the struggles farmers face. From those first encounters, the beans, if you will, for Growers First were sewn.

“There were men leaving their villages in search for a better life,” said Growers First co-founder, Glenn Parrish, who describes himself as a “venture philanthropist.”

“Some were cutting down their coffee plants to plant crops with more cash value,” Parrish said. “It was a struggle for them to survive.”

Parrish and Day (he was involved in the coffee industry already), wanted to do something to support the coffee-growing community, but didn’t want to become the “privileged white guys” who came to bring order and make money. Instead, they focused their efforts on helping one community transform itself, by listening and working alongside the local farmers to become a self-sustaining, abundant community.

Growers First began a relationship with farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico. Day even left his day job and began working to unite small farmers to increase their product value, partner with co-ops, introduce the local farmers to the global market, and implement a process of organic certification that would  yield higher revenue and enable them to chart land productivity.

Growers First strives to be more than just fair trade or ethically conscious coffee company. “Fair Trade alerts people to the disconnect between farmers and their compensation, but the problem is that most aren’t doing it,” Vanderveen said. “When we met with farmers, they had no idea. Growers First is about seeing things through to the last mile, incorporating farmers as the integral part of the process.”

All of these efforts have led Vanderveen, Parrish, Day, and others in Growers First family  to craft a measurable story of transformation — not simply as a cute story, but something that produces real results, fostering the well-being of farmers and their families.

The labels on Growers First coffee feature photographs of the farmers who have grown the beans inside, accompanied by a scannable QR code that allows the consumer to see directly which farming community they’re assisting with each cup of java they brew. The idea is to connect the product with a face, and the face with a community.

One transformation story dear to Vanderveen involves a Honduran farmer named Rito Sierra, a father of five children who were often sick and had no access to clean drinking water. When the folks from Growers First initially met Rito, his family made only about $95 a year.

Slowly, in partnership with Growers First, things began to change for Rito and his family. After 3 ½  years of guidance and investment in Rito’s farm and community, his family was able to afford better foods and health care, a well with clean water, a larger house, and an exponentially higher income — $1,500 for his yearly coffee crop.

Today, Rito is a village leader and his children have excelled in their studies. His son, Selvin, began 9th grade — one of only two kids from their village to make it that far in school. On a visit to Honduras last month, Rito showed Vanderveen how he was leading efforts to transform a neighbor’s floor from dirt to concrete, taking each of the steps necessary to fund, begin and complete the work.

Rito and his family are what the mission of Growers First is all about: Investing in communities in ways that lead to self-empowerment and sustainability.

“It’s showing that a generous and abundant life is possible,” said Vanderveen, who, when he's not busy surfing, is the successful entrepreneur behind the energy drink company, XS.


Over the years, Growers First has expanded its reach from a small farm in Mexico to similar communities in Indonesia, Rwanda, and Honduras. Salaries have risen 300 - 500 percent among farmers, new jobs have become available, and social and economic quality of life has improved. Growers First now has 657 farms bringing coffee to the market, and a goal of reaching 2,000 farms by the end of 2012.

A year and a half ago Vanderveen brought Growers First to Wheaton College in Illinois, where he had been a student nearly 20 years before. The organization’s story resonated deeply with students and professors.

“Students made the connection,” Vanderveen said. “This is some of the finest coffee in the world, and when it’s a choice between a product and a product of values, why not choose the ethical option?”

As Growers First demonstrated how to make wise choices in consumption, Wheaton students got behind it in a big way. Some even traveled to Central America to visit with farmers and see the Growers First work on the ground for themselves.

Several Wheaton students made a documentary film about their experience with the farmers in Honduras called Follow the Bean. Watch the film below:

Growers First now partners with seven colleges and universities, including George Washington in Washington, D.C., the University of Southern California and Stanford. The organization has an eye toward expanding beyond coffee into other fair-trade markets, but its commitment remains to the farmers — real people with real struggles, joys and aspirations.

As we reach for our lattes, café americanos and cappuccinos this week, may we give thanks for the hands (and hearts) that toiled in the fields, harvested the beans and brought them to market.

May we rally around those communities and organizations that value the health and well-being of its employees, and work to bring transformation and economic justice to all people.

And may we remember that a cup of coffee can be much more than just a cup of coffee.

Joshua Witchger is an editorial web assistant for Sojourners. Follow Joshua on his blog, Hail Fellow, Well Met.


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