The Coffee Maverick
David Griswold of Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers travels farm to farm to bring you earth-friendly beans
By Karen Foley
At a remote coffee farm in the lush highlands of Guatemala, a screen door creaks open as David Griswold steps into a small, rugged building nestled under a canopy of grevillea trees. Inside is a carefully assembled circle of chairs occupied by several members of a coffee-farming cooperative eager to meet the 41-year-old American importer. Fluent in Spanish, Griswold exchanges pleasantries with the men as they all take a seat, but before long, the discussion shifts to business. Griswold interviews the farmers to get a sense of whether their coffee might meet his expectations; they talk about coffee quality, growing practices, cooperative politics, and price. He also inquires about their visions, ideas, and needs.
Soon the farmers are staring at him in disbelief. A buyer rarely—if ever—considers their interests. Like millions of other coffee producers around the world, they are accustomed to dealing with middlemen seeking nothing more than inexpensive coffee and the highest profit margin. These bargain-hunting intermediaries are less attuned to quality, work ethic, and developing or sustaining relationships with coffee farmers. Presented with few options, many farmers sell their coffee for as little as 50 cents per pound. There are even accounts of farmers accepting less than 10 cents per pound for their harvest. For much of the coffee industry, this is business as usual, but for Griswold, it’s a crisis he’s working to solve.
As president of Portland, Oregon-based Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers, Griswold is trying to reinvent the business of coffee importing by developing mutually beneficial relationships with farmers and putting a human face on coffee. “What makes our coffee different is that every bean can be traced back to a person or a family,” he says. “We do that with 4.5 million pounds of coffee a year.” Hoping to communicate a story of interconnectedness—every person in the coffee chain linked, from the farmer who carefully cultivates a harvest to the consumer who ultimately enjoys a cup of coffee—Griswold says he’s creating the future of coffee.
A Coffee Calling
Raised in Fort Collins, Colorado, Griswold attributes his core values to his parents—both educators—who fostered an environment of tolerance and generosity inside and outside their home. The family traveled extensively, even living in Turkey for several years, which provided Griswold with an open eye to the world.
A few years after college, Griswold took a position as director of communications for Ashoka, a nonprofit foundation that funds individuals involved in Third World development initiatives. It was at Ashoka that Griswold first got hooked on the coffee business, helping a grant recipient organize coffee-farmer cooperatives in rural Mexico. Griswold had no knowledge of the coffee business, but the prospect of helping farmers build a more sustainable future inspired him. At the time, coffee prices were depressed, and Griswold was struck by the fact that a leading commodity wasn’t providing enough income for the people who produce it.
His plan was to spend a year in Mexico before heading to business school, but the farmers persuaded Griswold to stay to help them develop a strategy for marketing and selling their goods. “I realized how important it was to take immediate action for them,” he says. “I thought, ‘What’s the most innovative model by which farmers can control their own destiny?'” His solution was to create Aztec Harvest, a farmer-owned company that exported organic, shade-grown coffees (plants are grown under a canopy of shade, which protects them from intense sun exposure and prevents deforestation) from small cooperatives in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Veracruz.
Griswold traveled regularly to the United States from his home base in Mexico City, where he had settled in with his future wife and former Ashoka coworker, Marie Schumacher. But coffee was still a tough sell. “It was 1989, green coffee prices had collapsed, and I was going around selling the idea that these small farmers were trying to organize themselves,” Griswold recalls. Then, Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream expressed interest in using Aztec Harvest’s beans for a coffee extract, offering a defining push. “That helped me see that it was a viable model and that maybe some people would value the story matched with the product,” says Griswold, who steadily secured an impressive roster of clients, even landing the coffee on all United Airlines flights between the United States and Mexico.
Five years later, Griswold left Aztec Harvest in the hands of the farmers and launched Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers, an independent importer of organic, fair-trade, and shade-grown specialty coffee. It took two years to get the company off the ground. “[An importing company] is hard to get funded because it’s massively intensive in capital and it’s very risky—you’re dealing with agriculture and small farmers,” says Griswold. “And it was a niche market.” He eventually found funding, though, and after two years bought the company outright, settling the new headquarters in Portland, Oregon.
Business By Relationship
In the Pacific Northwest, Griswold has continued to nurture a variety of coffee relationships, and by importing coffees that are grown organically and traded fairly, he has infused the coffee industry with a greater degree of transparency, environmental stewardship, and compassion. By drinking such coffees, Griswold says, consumers can make a positive impact around the world. “When people purchase organic coffee, they’re supporting a better agricultural system for the planet that’s going to protect the biodiversity and forests under which coffee plants grow. Organic farming eliminates toxic chemicals that do tremendous damage to the planet, and it ensures that farmers are getting a fair price because organic coffees command a premium.”
By importing coffees that are grown organically and traded fairly, Griswold has infused the industry with a greater degree of transparency, compassion, and environmental stewardship. With 30 coffee farms throughout Latin America in his business portfolio and sales expected to reach $5.6 million in 2003, Griswold has become a leader in the sustainable-coffee movement. But selling the “story” of coffee has not always been easy. “When I first tried to talk about the stories behind the farms and the coffees, most buyers thought I was trying to substitute a story for quality,” he says, adding that his openness is often met with skepticism by farmers and roasters alike. “At first they may think, ‘Is this for real?'” he says. “But over time, loyalty is created, and they start to say, ‘This really is different.’ There’s a lot of depth to our model, and the further you dig, the more interesting it becomes because it’s based on 14 years of having open conversations with suppliers.”
Even today, some of Griswold’s customers are surprised by the gratifying relationships they are able to cultivate with farmers through his business model. “They’ll say, ‘I finally get what you’re talking about—this relationship thing,'” he says. “It’s a foreign concept in business. You’re really bucking a trend by saying, ‘We can care about our suppliers, and they can care about us, and we can work together as a team rather than with animosity.'”
Griswold imports coffee for a range of roasters around the country, including such mainstream companies as Allegro Coffee Co., Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Peet’s Coffee and Tea, and while Sustainable Harvest is among a minority of independent importers, Griswold believes he can serve as a model for larger importing companies. “Our purpose is to act as a beacon on the hill of how business can be done,” he says. “We have looked at the [traditional business] paradigm and questioned it. And by creating a model from scratch, we could say what we wanted to stand for from the beginning—the kind of coffees we wanted to buy, the kind of people we wanted to work with, and the kind of transparency and communication model we wanted to work under. So we can say to a roaster, ‘You just bought coffee in a different way from a different group.'”
Investing It Back
Griswold says that one of the most rewarding aspects of his company is seeing how the farmers build their own business with the money he helps them earn. As an example, he cites a Mexican co-op from which he buys coffee at almost three times the commodity market price. (The price Griswold pays is a reflection of the actual cost of producing a premier coffee rather than a price that is lower because of oversupply.) “Every year, their bonus is $75,000 to $100,000 in additional income, and they have a meeting to decide how they’re going to spend that money in a country where the annual income might be $600 a year in rural areas,” he says. “Some of it they divide up; some of it they put into chairs so they can sit down in meetings. One year they built a warehouse to store their coffee, and they bought a truck to transport their coffee, which actually improved the quality because it wasn’t traveling on the same truck with cows and chickens and petroleum. It kept their coffees clean.”
The impact of these premiums becomes painfully apparent when Griswold sees neighboring farmers looking to migrate north because they can’t make a living growing coffee. “It’s very tragic, and yet I visit the villages [where I do business], and no one talks about a coffee crisis. Instead they say, ‘Come look at my newly constructed drying patio or my new manual depulper. Come see the new school we built.'” It’s at these moments that Griswold witnesses firsthand that his goal of creating mutually beneficial relationships with coffee farmers has become reality. “I hope I have created a strong community in the coffee world between people from different cultures—that we see each other as part of the same family and that we realize that the mark we leave on this planet has a lot to do with how much we give.”