Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is a giant in the coffee industry and it is a Vermont business success story. They grew from 35 employees and 3 coffee shops in 1987 to a global company of over 6,000 employees purchasing over 206 million pounds coffee. As a leader in specialty coffee and coffee makers, GMCR, is recognized for its award-winning coffees, innovative Keurig® brewing technology, and socially responsible business practices. It was recently named the largest purchaser of Fair Trade Certified™ coffees in the world, for the third year in a row.
In 1991, then-Vice President and public-relations spokesperson Rick Peyser went on GMCR’s first employee trip to Costa Rica to investigate reports of extreme poverty amongst its suppliers. Employees traveled around the country and didn’t see any of the poverty they’d been told affected their coffee-growing communities. Instead they saw manicured grounds, swimming pools, and felt puzzled that what they were told about the deplorable living conditions and what they saw were entirely different.
Peyser returned to GMCR concerned that if he got a call from the media that he wouldn’t be able to accurately speak about the issues that were impacting the growers. He needed to get back to the origin of the coffee to reconcile the stories of poverty in the coffee world and what he saw in Costa Rica. In 1995 he flew to Guatemala to visit organic farms and co-ops. It was only then that he saw the extreme poverty he’d been told about. Everyone was so warm and welcoming and he was determined that GMCR was going to support these farmers by buying their organic coffee.
In 1996, then-owner of GMCR, Bob Stiller, made the decision to start buying organic coffee. Peyser became the facilitator and a conduit for establishing a relationship between GMCR and the Central American organic coffee growers, but it took many years to get it off the ground.
In the early 2000’s, Peyser began working with the Farmer-to-Farmer Program operated by Partners of the Americas and the Vermont-Honduras chapter that was managed by the University of Vermont. They recruited Peyser to assist them with working with a coffee cooperative located in Capucas, called COCAFCAL. Peyser flew to Honduras and worked with the co-op that had 80 members at the time. He realized that the co-op had serious quality issues with their coffee and that they had never “cupped” their own coffee to taste the quality of their coffee that they were growing. After the visit, Peyser worked with the co-op to get them certified as an organic and a fair trade organization.
Peyser also decided GMCR should buy fair trade coffee and in 2000 the company signed an agreement to purchase 3% of their coffee as fair trade. While buying organic fair trade coffee was Peyser’s initial goal, his vision was to help support the local farmers and co-ops. In 2006 Peyser was given the opportunity to make his vision a reality. He moved from his public relations role with GMCR to his current position as Director of Social Advocacy and Supply Chain Community Outreach.
In the fall of 2006 GMCR partnered with an organization called CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture) to conduct interviews in Guatemala and Mexico. Peyser went with the CIAT team and he was profoundly impacted by what he learned. Every time that he got to the question of food scarcity, people would become sullen, and some would even cry. It turned out that most people experienced 3-4 months of extreme food scarcity every year.
The coffee harvest season begins in October and ends in late February/early March and by the end of May, most families had depleted their coffee earnings. As specialty coffee markets grew, many farmers used all of their land to plant only coffee and most farmers with 3 acres were earning about $4,000 a year or less. They survived by eating the same diet but eating less, buying less expensive food, or perpetually borrowing from other families and the co-ops.
CIAT issued its final report in the fall of 2007 and reported that 67% of small-scale farmers were experiencing 3-8 months of extreme food scarcity. Armed with this information, Peyser submitted a proposal to present at the 2010 Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Conference. Peyser presented the interview findings at the conference and people were shocked. They had no idea that food scarcity existed.
In 2011, GMCR and Heifer International partnered to produce the documentary “After the Harvest – Fighting Hunger in the Coffeelands,” narrated by Susan Sarandon. In February 2012, GMCR formed a group of large coffee companies called the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition that focuses on food security, empowerment of women, and diversification of crops.
The Coalition established an educational system in the coffeelands that helped farmers diversify their crops and assisted in growing yearlong alternative crops. Most farmers thought that coffee was the most lucrative way to make a living, but after being educated and experiencing crop diversification, they realized that their lives were better. Other farmers saw that crop diversification worked and started to diversify as well. Eventually, entire coffee communities were diversifying and thriving.
Peyser and GMCR looked deeper into what on the surface appeared to be a well functioning coffee industry that in reality needed serious intervention. They spent years helping the farmers become organic and fair trade, interviewing families to determine their quality of life, identifying the systemic issue, implementing educational programs, and partnering with others to help create awareness and provide resources to end food scarcity. Since 2008, GMCR has assisted 60,000 families or about 300,000 people minimize or close the window of food scarcity.