Meet the man who wants to change the way you buy coffee. Ken Lander is cofounder of Thrive Farmers, a coffee company championing a farmer-direct model in which the farmers retains ownership of their coffee until the final sale. Thrive’s unique model allows the producers to share in a larger percentage of the profits. We caught up with the former trial lawyer to ask him about what it takes to create a sustainable coffee supply chain.
What inspired you to start Thrive Farmers?
My inspiration for thinking about making a living as a coffee farmer was out of necessity. In 2008, I lost all of my real estate holdings in the U.S., which was my exit strategy to leave with the family and move to Costa Rica in 2005.
We lived on a coffee farm, grew coffee, and that was the only and most immediate source of income other than returning to the States and being a lawyer again.
Trying to make money as a smallholder coffee farmer was a lost cause in the current system of volatile commodity markets and rising costs of production. The coffee I was growing on my farm (6,000 to 8,000 lbs green) was being roasted and sold for $30,000 on the demand side of the value chain, and my net profit on a good year was $600. I didn’t understand the disconnect until I convinced a group of farmers in my community to sell our coffee in a coffee shop, roasted and directly to tourists. That integrated value chain made sense, and from that point forward, I knew that connecting the farmer directly to the consumer was the key to success in coffee.
I met my business partner, Michael Jones, whose father-in-law was a Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee farmer. Michael was also trying to understand the value chain of coffee and why his father-in-law’s coffee sold for $80 / lb roasted in Japan, and his father-in-law was getting $4 (gross revenue) of that $80 on a good day.
From these experiences in understanding coffee farming as a farmer came the inspiration to do coffee differently, making the farmer a stakeholder in the value chain where the value was being realized. We created a platform to take the farmer to market and share the revenue in a way that created a predictable, stable and higher income for his or her hard work on the farm.
Tell us about the vision of Thrive Farmers. What sets Thrive apart from other coffee companies?
Thrive Farmers exists for and is passionate about one thing: empowering coffee farmers to thrive!
What sets us apart from other coffee companies is that we take the farmer (not just his or her product) to market as a partner. We know that unless you change the economic reality of coffee farming, more and more farmers and their children will leave the industry. The key is taking them to market as true stakeholders and partners.
Before founding Thrive, you worked as a trial lawyer, then you moved your family to Costa Rica to work on a coffee farm. What was that transition like?
I can tell you that a place does not change you. The transition was very hard. A hyper-type A person who enjoyed having 500 balls in the air at one time was my condition in moving to Costa Rica. Many a panic attack occurred as I realized that other cultures actually live a slower life, do less, and are much happier.
Early on, my training and passion to be an advocate of others made me question the justice in a family working for generations, just to survive on something that I paid $3 per cup for without thinking twice. It wasn’t until I reached the place of fully relying on the same amount of money my neighbors were accustomed to that I realized that my life could be about finding a better way, not just for me, but for the worldwide community of coffee farmers who work so hard with such little compensation.
I was humbled by their passion to the craft and trade, and by their commitment to continue the work of the generations before them.
Do you still live in Costa Rica?
I sure do! I am writing to you from the front porch of my house on my coffee farm (Finca Flor Mar) in San Rafael de Abangares, Costa Rica.
What coffee are you drinking right now?
Right now I am drinking a coffee from fellow Thrive Farmer in Helsar de Zarcero in the West Central Valley of Costa Rica. All of our coffee from our farm went to Thrive Farmers this year!
As an industry, we talk a lot about premiums for quality. Do you think this is the best way to improve the livelihood of farmers?
No, I don’t necessarily think premiums based on quality are the best way to improve the livelihood of farmers. However, quality has to always be the standard from the beginning of any relationship in coffee. Premiums necessarily indicate, in my vernacular, a premium above the market price. As long as the market price is in play at any level, there will never be stable, long-term and predictable pricing, which is key for a farmer to build an economically sustainable business.
The word premium has the significance of “prize,” and in Spanish, a prize is a “premio.” What coffee needs at scale is two things: First, long-term, stable, higher and predictable pricing that is based on the real value of the coffee in the consumer marketplace, not some volatile C-market. Second, coffee needs identity and partnership for the farmer in the value chain.
It is interesting that when you have these two things, quality coffee results. Why? Because there is an alignment of interests between the farmer and the consumer. Economic sustainability leads to consistent quality, and a long-term relationship brings identity and partnership with the farmer.
It is interesting that when you have these two things, quality coffee results. Why? Because there is an alignment of interests between the farmer and the consumer.
Who are some of the producers you’re most inspired by?
Hands down, I am most inspired by the producers who caught the vision of Thrive Farmers from the very beginning, like Franco Garbanzo of La Violeta, Frailes de Tarrazu, Costa Rica, and Vinicio Gonzalez of Concepcion Pinula, Guatemala. They were able to see beyond one crop year, realizing that the only way to see their kids in coffee in the future was to pave a way to do the business of coffee differently. They had faith in the vision before it was a reality, and many days I looked to these first farmers and their faith in us as a source of strength to continue.
I am also inspired by farmers like Estuardo Falla in Antigua, Guatemala and Lydia Matamoros in Naranjo, Costa Rica who are estate farmers, continuing in third, fourth and fifth generations of estate coffee farming. They had faith in the vision of Thrive Farmers from the beginning as well, and their affirmation of our business model proved the need for stable markets is not just one for small farms. Farmers like these have enormous impact on the smallholder farmers around them. They have a heart for their people, and use their resources to help their communities, their workers and their families to reap the benefits of generations of farming coffee.
They and other estate farmers have been incredible supporters of our platform as we have scaled.
All photos courtesy of Thrive Farmers.