From small businesses to small farms (and back again)
Photo courtesy of Caputo’s
When it comes to international outreach, some of Utah’s impactful partnerships come from unexpected industries—namely, coffee and cacao.
“Caputo’s believes that capitalism can actually serve as a viable system for positive change when all stakeholders in the supply chain share equally in the rewards,” reads a press release announcing the recent deal Matt Caputo of Caputo’s Market and Deli struck with a cacao farmer in Bolivia. For every 60 grams of the resulting chocolate bar sold, Caputo’s returns $1 to the farmer. “With each purchase, food lovers join Caputo’s in blazing a trail to a food system that preserves biodiversity and sustainable agriculture.”
This symbiotic relationship is exemplified by local coffee roasteries, too—one being Wasatch Roasting Company in Ogden, Utah. Owner Darren Blackford was inspired by the unique tastes he and his family found at a small roastery while on vacation in Costa Rica. After bringing back as much of this bean as they could, they purchased a small roaster and unroasted beans from Costa Rica to replicate the experience they fell in love with. With time, orders from family and friends led to the Blackfords’ brick-and-mortar roastery and coffee shop.
Since then, they’ve sought out coffee farmers from Thailand to Guatemala. “One of our overarching missions is to support these producers and sustain them long term,” Blackford says. “One way is to buy directly from them. By doing that and cutting out some in-between importers, they can gain upwards of $2 to $3 more per pound for the coffee they produce.”
Supporting international biodiversity
To streamline the process and maximize impact, both Blackford and Caputo try to buy wholesale directly from the farmers. “We buy 100 percent of their product,” Caputo says. “We buy it the day it’s made if it’s not sold in farmer’s markets.” Caputo encourages the farmers to sell their products to him at a higher price, given their rarity and uniqueness.
The chocolate Caputo purchases is “genetically unique,” he says, continuing, “We were the first sponsor to get genetic testing done on this cacao.” The cacao tested as 97.3 percent pure. Two breeds of cacao especially caught their eye: Juruá and Beniano.
Photo courtesy of Caputo’s
Caputo also makes an effort to preserve the Indigenous plants that grow cacao by intentionally supporting the farmers that grow it. These plants are disappearing from the region’s biodiversity as locals sell their land to developers, Caputo says. He hopes to help change that.
Just as Caputo seizes the opportunity to locate, preserve and sell Indigenous cacao, Blackford seeks to do the same for coffee beans. One of Wasatch Roasting Company’s prize coffee beans comes from a man named Goh Chaosuwanwilai, who Blackford met through an employee and their working relationship during a visit to Thailand.
Chaosuwanwilai was experimenting with fermentation processes on his farm and was referred to Blackford as a hidden gem. “[Goh] really dug into coffee production and helped the community understand organic farming and different methodologies to produce better coffee,” Blackford says.
Improving the lives of farmers around the world
The importance of supporting Supong and other small coffee farmers like him extends far beyond the flavor of the products he grows. The region in Thailand where Supong produces is called the Golden Triangle, a major site for opium production in the 16th and 17th centuries, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Post-World War II, heroin production made the area susceptible to other dangerous activities, including drug and human trafficking.
In 1988, Thailand started the Doi Tung Development Project, which transformed the region from an opium production site to one that specializes in legal crops like coffee. According to the United Nations, the project sought to target the root causes of the region’s poverty and lack of opportunity.
The project reforested much of the area and restored the biodiversity in the region, making it suitable for growing high-yield coffee. The average income for locals rose more than 20-fold from $802 to $19,200. The results have also produced significant changes and benefits to local education and healthcare systems. In what was once a largely illiterate region, 99 percent of 7- to 15-year-olds are now enrolled in formal education programs.
“We want to know [the producer’s] story and what they are doing in their community,” Blackford says. “In Guatemala and Honduras, we reach out to handfuls of producers and seek out two things: a specialty coffee bean, and more importantly, the impact the producer has on their community from their production.”
"Caputo’s believes that capitalism can actually serve as a viable system for positive change when all stakeholders in the supply chain share equally in the rewards."
Photo courtesy of Wasatch Roasting Company
While some coffee producers simply farm the crop to make ends meet until they can sell the land, Blackford seeks to support those striving to produce higher quality crops, have a greater impact on their community, and “stay after it” long-term with the reward of higher payments through direct relationships.
Caputo strives to source products with the same intention. “[Our farmers] have had financial struggles. Even with elite cacao that gets famous, not enough money makes it down to the farmer,” he says. “We talk about fair trade, but it doesn’t do the trick. More needs to be done, even for these famous farmers.”
The cacao preservation program exists to create a system that is more equitable, Caputo claims. “To have a cacao that is this unique and tastes like this, it takes someone who has studied and practiced their whole life to do agriculture this way. As a chocolate geek, when I taste a product made with Beniano cacao, I’m like, ‘This is really special. This needs to be preserved.’”
The future of small, sustainable agriculture
Both Blackford and Caputo hope to inspire the youth of the local regions they support to become farmers, as preserving Indigenous processes can help promote biodiversity and inspire landowners to turn their land into fertile farming grounds instead of selling it off for development.
Cacao growing conditions are fragile. According to NOAA Climate, the plant can only be grown 20 degrees north or south of the equator. It becomes even more of a rarity when companies continue to cut down the rainforests where cacao grows.
“Ever since modern-day agriculture, the biodiversity of these very unique things are being squeezed out consistently,” Caputo says. “If we don’t work to preserve it, we will see these lost forever. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
From their visits to coffee producers in various countries, Blackford and his team realized that some coffee producers have a need for tools that they either don’t have access to or can’t afford. At Wasatch Roasting Company, Blackford has set up a “producer tip” option and offers products made from the jute bags his unroasted coffee beans arrive in. The proceeds of these sales go back to producers like Chaosuwanwilai.
“All our support for Goh and his efforts is about his story, impact and efforts in continuing to teach and provide jobs for his community,” Blackford says. “That’s what we’re most interested in supporting. And by the way, the coffee is excellent.”
Photo courtesy of Wasatch Roasting Company