By Elisabeth B. Wall
Over winter break, Dr. Ken Corley, professor in the Walker College of Business, along with local resident and java entrepreneur Don “Bald Guy” Cox ’93, took 18 Appalachian State University students to Costa Rica for a deep-dive into the workings of the coffee industry.
The focus of the trip was an up close and personal examination of the coffee supply chain. The students saw and learned far more than what an average coffee tour might include. They walked the coffee farms and co-ops, heard from coffee agents and distributors, worked with migrant workers, saw their housing, and visited mills, factories, shipping and distribution centers – “in large part because Bald Guy has such rich relationships in Costa Rica,” Corley said. “He is literally the only white guy I know who has ever walked the coffee fields with his suppliers.”
There are many obstacles for a small coffee producing country like Costa Rica, Corley explained – plant disease, poverty, unfair trade practices, water quality, diminishing work force to name a few – but with education, a shift in sustainable priorities and consumer awareness, he and Cox have hope for the industry and the people.
Opening the eyes of the Appalachian students is a beginning, Cox said. “Millennials like changing the world. The coffee business emerged from colonial conquest and it’s been that way since the 15th century. In order to change, we need to look at it from the heart of the people.”
“The honesty with which we evaluate the supply chain helps the students engage, evaluate,” Cox said. “This experience gives them exposure to a culture they have never seen before. When they see a Guaymi Indian lady who has been picking all day earn $18 to $20, when they know regardless if her beans are labeled “fair trade” or “organic” she will not realize another dime of the higher priced end product, they begin to get a little frustrated. There’s a lot of hype in a cup of coffee,” he continued. “This group has great DNA for sustainable living and this will impact how they go forward.”
It all comes back to our concept of fair trade, said Melanie Ward, a Boone area native earning her MBA with a concentration in human resources. “Just because the [fair trade] stamp is there and we pay a premium on this end, it doesn’t really impact the farmer. You see the children working, see where they live, all under the stamp of fair trade. What should we do? Stop buying coffee? We can share, tell the story. By not focusing on the bottom line of profit but leaning more toward people and planet... maybe we can figure out a solution.”
Asked how this trip would impact her career choices, Ward said, “I always go back to the people. We talk in our sustainable business classes about people, planet, profit. If you don’t support the people in your supply chain, or your employees, whoever you’re interacting with, everything will crumble or fall apart. It’s all about people and relationships. You can’t hide what you’re doing if it isn’t ethically right. So, start with the people. That will help your business strategy, that will impact your success.”
There was down time for the students to get a taste of the culture — try local food, visit a volcano, zip line through the canopy of a rainforest and snorkel in the Pacific. And, visiting an emerging second world country pushed many of the students out of their comfort zones. Ward was tentative about taking the trip from the start. Corley, she said, “was so straightforward about what to expect: hiking, being in nature, spiders and all … I had all this paranoia. Personally I grew a lot, faced my fear of heights, I did repelling, I had critters under my pillow in my sheets… Sure, I had pre-travel jitters, but I grew up from it.“
Ward said she found the culture calmer, more relaxed than ours. “It was a big change for me culturally to slow things down, be more flexible,” she said. She particularly appreciated the times “when we were able to interact with the farmers .... When I left, [the Nicaraguan man I had been picking coffee berries with] said, ‘Don’t ever forget my name.’ I realized how important the small connection I had with him was. Sometimes we don’t respect the smaller things.” (Editor’s note: Ward does remember his name. It is Marvin.)
Toward the end of their Costa Rica adventure, the Appalachian students were given seedling coffee plants to sow. Corley’s dream is that in the not so distant future there will be a hillside of thriving plants, sown by Appalachian students, tended by farmers who are fairly paid for their labor; their coffee beans graded on quality, shipped openly and without undue tariffs and red tape, and enjoyed, guiltlessly, by coffee cravers everywhere.