Coffee, COVID and why Jasper puts price before profit

When it comes to our morning coffee, we’ve spent a lot of time and effort over the last few years ensuring sure we’re drinking from a reusable cup. But, in our rush to do our part for the environment, have we forgotten about where our coffee comes from and how much it costs the producers to bring it to us?

Wells Trenfield and Merilyn Parker launched Jasper Coffee in 1989 with the sole purpose of bringing outstanding coffee to Australia while paying the growers what they needed to thrive.

This is still true 32 years later. Jasper is now a B Corporation that is Fairtrade certified and carbon neutral. Trenfield claims that his original purpose for Jasper has never changed — it’s simply that the world has become more convoluted, and what we consider to be “sustainable” doesn’t always reflect the wider picture.

What exactly is sustainability?

In the area of conscious consumerism, the term “sustainable” is frequently used, but Trenfield believes it has taken on a warped meaning.

“When people think of sustainability, they think of environmental sustainability, but it also includes economic sustainability,” Trenfield told Pro Bono News. “I’m well aware of how little [the industry] pays coffee farmers. If individuals can’t live after all of their hard work, I believe that is unsustainable.”

Part of the difficulty, according to Trenfield, is that western customers appear to be demanding more and more proof that the people they buy from are “sustainable.” He does, however, point out that the cost of gathering data to establish one’s own sustainability is usually borne by the growers themselves.

“[Sustainability] is a new consciousness for the West, but the reality is that growers care about the environment considerably more than we do,” Trenfield says. “They completely rely on their soil, processing, not wasting too much water, insect control, fertiliser, and whether it’s organic or not – we’re always learning from them.

“They are, in my opinion, the best environmentalists – they take after the soil and the earth for us just so we can have delicious coffee,” says one grower.

We ought to be paying a higher price for our coffee.

Trenfield and his coffee broker usually start with good coffee when looking for a new grower for Jasper. They work backwards from there to learn more about the farmer.

“We want to know who the grower or cooperative is, which involves learning about their circumstances and whether or not they can support themselves. We’d want to see if we can assist them by purchasing their coffee,” he says.

“Should we be paying them more?” has been a recurring theme for us. We’ve never been hesitant to pay higher prices; I’ve always picked coffee based on its characteristics and paid whatever the price was.”

Trenfield is an outspoken supporter of paying growers a greater price for their coffee. He believes that his growers are in desperate need of a higher price for their coffee, but that it is up to the buyer to recognise its value.

“People don’t like paying $4 a cup, but they don’t mind paying $12 for a beer or $14 for a glass of wine and then drinking two or three glasses,” he says.

“The mindset is that coffee is too expensive, but if we continue to expect the growers to provide it at a low cost, it will have a negative impact on their lives.”

COVID’s impact has complicated an already difficult situation.

The pandemic has added another degree of complexity and complications to the already complex issue of low prices offered to growers.

“Coffee prices have been extremely low for the past seven years, and harvesters are unable to traverse state lines to pick coffee. Harvesters would typically travel from Panama to Honduras or Costa Rica to pick the coffee,” Trenfield explains.

“As a result, growers in Costa Rica must pay greater wages to those who work for them in their own country. It’s a compounding process, which means the growers are getting less for their coffee as a result of the higher wages they must pay. That isn’t to suggest they shouldn’t pay those rates, but it exacerbates the issue.”

Trenfield has spent a lot of time throughout the epidemic checking in with Jasper Coffee growers in Peru, Columbia, Ethiopia, and India via Whatsapp.

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