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Fair Trade' Is About More Than Sourcing

Posted On: 8/21/2013

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TAGS: Vending Times, Vending Times editorial, vending industry, coin-op, vending machine, coin machine business, office coffee service, Alicia Lavay, Marley Coffee, Marley media tour, Marley Coffee farm, Blue Mountain, Fair Trade Coffee, Jammin' Java Corp., Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, premium coffee, Brent Toevs, Rohan Marley, Chepstowe Basic School, AVT Inc., Mother Parker's Coffee & Tea

In August 2011, industry veteran Brent Toevs

Alicia Lavay

When I started at Vending Times, I thought I had landed my dream job. I was 21 years old and living with my parents; what did I know about life? A quarter of a century later I still feel the same way, and as it turns out, I'm not alone in this. "If you have a job you love, you won't work a day in your life" is a quotation often attributed to the philosopher Confucius. I have my doubts about the attribution, but the observation certainly was as true 25 centuries ago as it is now.

I had the chance to reflect on this ancient truth on a recent press tour of Marley Coffee's farm in the famous Blue Mountains of Jamaica. It was educational and fun, as the accompanying photos will show. I had the pleasure of meeting the farm's owner and company founder Rohan Marley at the NAMA OneShow in 2012, when he introduced his coffees to the OCS and vending industry. He explained to us that his father, music legend Bob Marley, always had loved farming and planned to become a farmer himself some day. He also saw responsible farming as a way to promote economic development.

Rohan inherited that desire. A practical entrepreneur with a visionary streak, he set out to develop a self-sustaining certified organic coffee estate. In 1999 he bought 52 acres of land in the Blue Mountains, and in 2007 he founded the Marley Coffee brand. In 2011, his company went public under the name Jammin' Java Corp. The organization not only grows its own Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, but buys premium coffees from all over the world.

In August 2011, industry veteran Brent Toevs joined the company as chief executive officer and director, posts in which he is involved in all aspects of the business. Toevs, a second-generation coffee service operator, is a cofounder of National Coffee Service & Vending. Having grown up in the OCS business, he knows what operators need, and NCS&V was founded in large part to find it for them. He was an early adopter of and enthusiastic advocate for portion-packed single-cup coffee systems.

These career paths both reflect a pattern that's extremely widespread, common in small, midsize and some large companies around the world, and often overlooked in arguments about globalization and corporate multinationalism. The people who are having fun generally are the people who have built or developed something themselves, often in keeping with a family tradition. I naturally think of it as characteristic of many vending, coffee service, amusement and music operators and distributors (not to mention trade magazine publishers), but it certainly is not uncommon in the coffee trading and roasting business -- and quite a few others besides. I think it's the normal human pattern in most times and places. Commerce, after all, takes place whenever willing buyers can interact freely with willing sellers. It occurs naturally when someone needs something that someone else can supply, to their mutual benefit.

Human creativity not only is the foundation of art and science, but also of commerce. It is easy to overlook this; over the past half-century, discussions of "consumer protection" have prompted widespread suspicion that sellers always try to put one over on buyers, and that buyers' best defense is always to look for the lowest price. This can deform the market.

This endangered the coffee industry. When large retail chains began to offer coffee as a loss leader, they touched off a downward spiral. As cost became central, quality suffered, so younger consumers had less exposure to the pleasures of good coffee. Naturally, they drank less.

The industry responded by educating the public; a very effective example was the Coffee Development Group's campus coffee house program. As educated consumers demanded better coffee, the "specialty" segment emerged, and has exhibited continual growth. Premium coffee is artisanal, requiring skilled labor to grow, tend, harvest, process and grade. If the market does not reward those skills, their possessors will find something else to do.

My tour of the Marley farm and an adjacent processing facility gave me better insight into just how skilled that labor is. The Marley farm strives for sustainability, returning the organic waste from processing to the soil as fertilizer. The company also respects its human resources; steady work at a living wage fosters employee loyalty and stable communities. All of this increases the likelihood that the supply of high-quality coffee will not decrease.

Operators, too, are discovering that quality products with sustainable sources have an appeal that transcends price. This gives them something to talk about that's more interesting than price. So, while Marley coffee has a unique opportunity to benefit from the fame of its namesake, its successes go far beyond the brand, and stand to benefit the entire industry. Bob Marley's "One Love" has very wide implications!

Marley Coffee Hosts Media Tour Of Jamaican Mountain Estate

Marley Coffee, Vending Times.
ONE LOVE (left): Rohan Marley (second from right) founded Marley Coffee to realize the dream his father, the late Bob Marley, had of returning to his farming roots and aiding the Jamaican economy. Here, he joins (from left) Marley Coffee Jamaica president Balram Vaswani, farm manager Richard Sharp and green coffee sales manager Jason Sharp, Marley Coffee USA president Anh Tran and (at right) Brent Toevs, CEO of Marley Coffee USA, in welcoming media representatives.
CONCRETE BARBECUE (center): After the coffee cherries are picked and the skin and pulp removed by washing and abrasion, the beans are spread on a concrete patio (known locally as a barbecue) to dry the remaining "parchment"; they're rotated by frequent raking. Since coffee absorbs and loses moisture quickly, careful timing is essential to avoid damage to the coffee embryo at the center of the bean. The beans then are sent to a "dry mill" for controlled aging and hulling.
TALKIN' BLUES (right): Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee is known for its balance and sweetness, the result not only of the plants, soil and climate, but also of careful processing. Here, Anh Tran (left) and Brent Toevs escort VT president and publisher Alicia Lavay on a tour of the dry coffee mill. The beans, in their parchment rind, are held in wood silos to "rest" for eight to 10 weeks before they are hulled to remove the parchment and the "silver skin" underneath it. "Green" beans emerge from this process.

Marley Coffee, Vending Times.
SKILLED WORKFORCE (left): The coffee processing center is the largest employer in Jamaica's Trenchtown, providing jobs for more than 600 women. These artisans hand-sort the coffee to remove defective beans and sort the sound ones by size. These quality-control steps are done painstakingly by hand. Marley Coffee emphasizes that steady employment at a living wage is the key to improving the lives of the workers, their children and the Jamaican community.
BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (center): From left, factory manager Phillip McDonald, brand ambassador Lennox Lewis (the last undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion), green sales director Jason Sharp and company founder Rohan Marley grade a batch of coffee by cupping a sample brew. This ensures consistency of the brand. Cupping requires practice and cultivation of taste, as coffee exhibits 30 distinct flavor profiles. By way of comparison, wine has only 15.
VIEW FROM THE TOP (right): After an informative morning of touring and education, the visiting media party was treated to a traditional Jamaican lunch at the Island Outpost restaurant at the Strawberry Hill resort hotel, former home of Island Records cofounder Chris Blackwell. Here, VT's Alicia Lavay and host Brent Toevs enjoy the view from atop one of the rugged peaks of the Blue Mountains, more than 3,000 feet above the famous seaport of Kingston.

Marley Coffee, Vending Times.
SUSTAINABILITY (left): Visitors to the Marley estate take part in assuring continued production by planting seedling coffee trees, as the VT president and publisher demonstrates here. The farm is located amidst the lush rain forest in the rugged, precipitous Blue Mountains, a region that has ideal conditions of soil, sun and rain for growing coffee. Jamaica has taken full advantage of this by developing and producing coffee that is among the most sought-after in the world.
THIS GREAT FUTURE (center): Rohan Marley presents a check for $10,000 (a million Jamaican dollars) to the Chepstowe Basic School. With help from AVT, Mother Parker's, National Coffee Service & Vending and National Coffee Roasters, the Marley family plans to raise another $10,000 so every child in the school will have a computer. With a steady income, farmers are able to support their families and children need no longer work in the fields. Visit
YOU CAN'T FORGET YOUR PAST (right): Bob Marley always said he planned to return to farming. With Marley Coffee, Bob's son Rohan (fifth from left) continues his father's legacy through unwavering commitment to social and environmental responsibility. The Marley family hopes that the coffee farm will inspire other Jamaican farmers to the join the organic movement by showing them that sustainable farming can be profitable and, in fact, more cost-effective than the traditional kind.