In a search for a reliable source of the top 1% of coffee beans, a Washington State roaster finds a solution by helping migrant coffee workers become land owners.

I always thought I would become a minister. Theology was the family business, with many preachers and missionaries among its ranks, and I have long been a deeply spiritual person. But while theological school, I found an even stronger calling in the business world. And I became successful beyond my expectations.

After building and selling two lucrative companies before the age of 40, I moved to an island in the Puget Sound in Washington State, where I intended to retire, and incidentally, recover from a serious illness. While regaining my health, I became interested in the small coffee roasting businesses springing up in the Seattle area. And coffee became my calling.

I also found inspiration in the social business model of Newman's Own, a food company founded by actor Paul Newman, where profits were given to charities. That was the first time I understood that a company could be successful while doing work for the greater good. Newman's Own set me on a new path in business.

A year later, I founded Camano Island Coffee Roasters, but decided this venture would be different. Our business differentiator was to use only the top one percent of coffee beans - fair trade, shade grown, organically farmed, single origin Arabica beans, and sold by the pound within 48 hours of roasting. I looked for guidance on industry best practices, but finding reliable sources for high-quality coffee beans proved frustrating.

That's when I met Chi-Dooh “Skip” Li, a Seattle lawyer and founder of Agros International. This faith-based, non-profit organization helps rural, poor families in Central America gain access to agricultural land, long-term credit and training, so that families are able to start, develop and eventually own an economically sustainable village. I did not fail to notice that Agros worked in one of the largest coffee growing regions in the world.

Jeff Ericson, Camano Island Coffee Roasters, coffee, fair trade, sustainable food choices, prosumers, minister of coffee, Agros

Ericson checks shade grown coffee crops in Nicaragua. (Photo by Matt Hand)

Camano Island Coffee Roasters has now partnered with Agros to work with more than 40 villages across Central America to develop sustainable coffee farms. Together they train the people to farm organic, shade-grown Arabica coffee crops, for which we often pay more than fair trade prices.

With this partnership, Camano Island Coffee Roasters gains a reliable source of the highest-quality beans. In turn, Agros helps the coffee growers own their farms within 7 to 10 years. We celebrated the milestone by throwing a deed burning party with the new landowners.

To ensure long-term funding for the projects with Agros, we started a Coffee Lover's Club, where customers can have freshly roasted coffee mailed to their home on a regular schedule. For every pound of coffee sold to club members, one dollar goes to Agros. This is very much a re-investment in the business because it helps support and grow our supply line. At the same time, it makes significant, lasting changes for hundreds of families in a way that protects and sustains their economy and environment.

Today, we preach the "good beans gospel," and our company and our people are dedicated to educating customers on how to become "prosumers" by making their shopping dollars count through smart and sustainable food choices. And it is humbling to have some of my customers call me the “Minister of Coffee.”

I admits I will always be a businessman to the core, seeking growth and profit. However, our work with Agros spreads the wealth, helping other people get the chance to grow and profit from their businesses, too.

Photos courtesy Matt Hand.

About The Author

Jeff Ericson

Jeff Ericson is a serial and social entrepreneur, and the owner of Camano Island Coffee Roasters on Camano Island, Washington. He can be reached at jeff@camanoislandcoffee.com.