Coffee grown in Haiti, roasted in The Woodlands

A farmer in the Marmelade mountains of Haiti holds up coffee beans. Woodlands Church has been working with farmers and paying them about three times what they made before. Photo courtesy of Steve Helm.

Coffee grown in Haiti, roasted in The Woodlands
How one local church is bringing fair trade to farmers in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Published 01/26/2012 | By Bryan Shettig-Woodlandsonline

THE WOODLANDS, Texas –– High up in the mountains of Haiti, farmers in the town of Marmelade work to grow coffee beans in sweltering conditions.

But that coffee isn’t roasted in Haiti. It’s roasted in The Woodlands.

Once a powerhouse of world coffee production accounting for more than half of the globe’s consumed coffee beans, Haiti has seen its industry fade with embargoes and corruption, despite coffee being the biggest commodity in the planet after oil. Farmers growing coffee in the mountains are at the mercy of anyone at the bottom of said mountains with a truck that’s willing to transport the beans.

The farmers have to accept whatever they’re offered; growing and processing techniques have fallen by the wayside and former workshops lay abandoned.

Enter the missionaries

Steve Helm of Woodlands Church has been involved with missions in Haiti, Honduras, Kenya and other countries and has seen these situations first-hand. Early in 2011, the church decided to invest in the farmers of Marmelade when missionaries started to notice a pattern.

“Most of the areas we work in are about 1,000 to 1,500 miles from the Equator and many have coffee development,” Helm said.

In addition to Haiti’s poor economy, the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island left 316,000 dead and about 3 million people affected in some way. Good will from foreign countries was even adversely affecting the country: one of Haiti’s main industries was textiles, but after the earthquake there were waves of used clothes pouring in. The local textile industry was crushed.

Rice from the United States constituted the majority of the grain eaten in Haiti before the earthquake, but the tremors damaged ports to the point that they could only receive a fraction of what they did before. Millions of tons of rice came into the country from foreign aid, so locals stopped buying rice, one of the main foods that street vendors sold. Farmers growing rice in Haiti’s northwest region saw prices plummet so they got out of growing.

Haiti is now the poorest country in the Americas according to the Human Development Index. Missionaries knew they were dealing with a serious crisis.

They would begin by teaching the roughly 30 farmers and their families techniques on coffee cultivation and paying them roughly three times what they were making before, Helm said. They called the coffee, Provision Coffee.

“They’re some of the sweetest people in the world, but they had untended crops,” he said.

A Taiwanese company had built a co-op that was abandoned, but missionaries helped restore it and it’s now in use for coffee bean processing. About 50 to 75 women sort the beans and men who are not farmers work in the old co-op building with processing.

Now on sale

The first beans were imported out of the country in suit cases. They’re now shipped to Miami where the beans must pass through brokers, who ensure quality, in an international warehouse. They’re then driven to The Woodlands where they are roasted as close to being put on the shelf as possible, Helm said. The coffee is grown at a similar altitude and almost identical latitude as Jamaican blue mountain coffee, a highly sought-after roast.

In addition to helping with coffee production, small teams from the church have helped the Marmelade community with reforestation; farming rabbits and poultry; a solar and wind power project for electricity and a clean water project.

They’ve also helped with access to doctors and even providing eyeglasses, something many people don’t have access to or can’t afford. A recent eyeglass drive saw spectacles go to people Haiti, Honduras, India and Kenya.

Marmelade has about 1,000 residents but its outlying areas have up to 20,000 people, Helm said.

“When we teach them, it helps them for generations because we’re training them on how to train others as well,” he said. “They’re in a closed economic system; there are no credit cards, no checking accounts, so this is like an infusion of economic strength for the community.”

The coffee now sells at Woodlands Church’s bookstore off One Fellowship Drive and will soon be available online and possibly in 100 churches around the country by the end of 2012, Helm said.

The farmers are producing twice as much as they used to, he said, and with some selective pruning of coffee plants, they can increase their output possibly three or four times more.

It would be easy for the church to rest on its laurels after the apparent success of its work in Haiti, but Helm said there are plans to take the exact same initiative to farmers in Kenya who have expressed interest. Pastors in Uganda and Indonesia have also said they would like to bring the project to communities there.

“They are ready and all in to learn,” he said. “Every time we go, we bring respect for them as much as we bring hope.”


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