Food & DrinkFood Features

Charlotte-Based Farmers First Coffee Goes to Root of the Honduran Exodus

When Matt Hohler brought samples of his company’s Honduran coffee to fairs and festivals in rural areas outside Charlotte, he was surprised by some of the reactions. A handful of people took issue with the coffee’s country of origin.

“They said Americans don’t want Hondurans coming over here,” Hohler remembers. “They asked why Hondurans didn’t stay on their side of the border.”

Such attitudes are directly at odds with his company’s commitment to justice, he adds, a purpose that’s been baked into the business’s DNA since day one. In 2014, Hohler and his partner Robert Durrette launched Farmers First, a Charlotte-based coffee company dedicated to giving farmers a fair shake. Both men, who have each worked for nonprofits in Central America, partnered with two, and eventually three, Peruvian farmers, offering the growers a 50 percent bonus above market value for their coffee beans.

The company’s goal then and now is to afford its farmer partners a dignified return for their crop. In 2018, Durrette and Hohler expanded their operations to include two new farmers from Honduras, Simeon Ventura from Santa Elena and Ana Santos from El Pedernal. So when Santos’ and Ventura’s coffee spurred a handful of negative comments, Hohler took it in stride.

The Farmers First team (from left): Robert Durrette, Simeon Ventura and Matt Hohler. (Photo courtesy of Farmers First)

His reply to the bigoted folks in towns like Lexington and Concord wasn’t the shot heard round the world, but it was equally on target. The comments provided an opportunity to have a conversation about the hardships Hondurans face, Hohler says.

“[Many Americans] don’t realize that these people don’t want to leave their homes,” Hohler maintains. “Can you imagine if the best option for your family is to walk across three countries so they can survive?”

The fact remains, he continues, that asylum seekers from Honduras will keep coming to the U.S. despite any deterrents that authorities throw in their way, including draconian measures like separating children from their parents.

“There’s just an abundance of opportunity here,” Hohler explains, “jobs Hondurans are happy to do that most Americans won’t even touch.”

When Hohler frames the issue this way, he often sees recalcitrant customers soften, he continues.

“Half the time, when we hear a stronger remark, we ask the customer to take a free bag of coffee home.”

Last summer, Johnelle Causwell, citizen diplomacy director at International House in Charlotte, met Hohler at a summit on economic development and entrepreneurship. The summit, hosted by International House, focused on global connectivity and how it drives economic development. Hohler was one of the presenters.

Johanna Causwell

Like Hohler, Causwell believes that many Americans aren’t hearing the entire story on Honduran refugees. Outreach efforts with the local community have done much to combat perceptions that the caravans consist of gang members and rapists, Causwell says, but there is still much to do.

“The narrative has become warped and distorted,” says Causwell. International House serves the local Honduran community, though none of the organization’s Honduran students and clients agreed to comment for this story. Causwell stresses the difference between refugees and asylum seekers, or asylees. A refugee is someone who has already been vetted, completed all paperwork and been admitted, she explains. An asylee is someone who has come to the U.S. seeking asylum, but has not been processed.

“The majority of Hondurans fall into the asylee category,” she says. For destitute migrants under threat of violence and starvation, navigating a costly and time-consuming torrent of paperwork to attain refugee status is not a realistic option.

As reported by CBS journalist Maria Jose Burgos, between 5,000 and 7,000 Hondurans and other Central Americans set out on foot toward the United States last October, hoping for asylum. The caravan fueled a tide of racist rhetoric in the run up to the U.S. midterm elections. In January, a new group of men, women and children fleeing systemic poverty and violence left Honduras for the American border, even as the previous wave has dwindled after log-jamming into a logistical and humanitarian crisis at the end of last year.

Popular perceptions of the Honduran caravan, and of the kind of people joining the mass exodus from the impoverished Central American country, lie at the base of the controversy surrounding Trump’s divisive border wall. Conflict over the wall’s funding prompted the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, but Caswell still finds reason to hope.

Simeon Ventura on his farm. (Photo by Nahun Rodriguez)

“Ever since the administration has taken on this divisive, hateful rhetoric against immigrants, I’ve seen a dramatic outpouring of warmth, giving and kindness [toward immigrants] from the local community,” Causwell says.

It will take time to solve our immigration issues, she continues, but in the meantime we all have to come together.

“We have to stop building walls,” she concludes. “We have to start building bridges.”

But how to build that bridge? Durrette and Hohler’s coffee company may have an answer.

“Job creation is critical,” Durrette says. He’s speaking by phone from his other business, the D&D Brewery, Lodge, and Restaurant, located in the rural village of Los Naranjos in the Lake Yojoa region of central Honduras.

Durrette came to Honduras in 2009 and, except for a year-long sabbatical in Peru, he has lived there ever since. His experience with a private nonprofit convinced him that Honduras’ widespread poverty, of which the American-bound caravans are only a symptom, can be addressed with steady employment.

“Don’t get me wrong, a nonprofit building a community a water tower is a good and noble thing,” Durrette says. But if people don’t have long term employment and the income that comes with it, they won’t be able to maintain community improvement, he continues. Countless projects built by nonprofits like Durrette’s former employer are simply falling apart because Hondurans can’t afford to maintain them.

Durrette decided to open a business that would employ Hondurans, so he turned to one of the country’s most valuable resources — its awe-inspiring natural beauty. Durrette notes that there are caves, a giant natural lake, 20 waterfalls and two national parks, Cerro-Azul Meambar and Santa Barbara Mountain, all within one hour of his front door at the lodge.

D&D was an existing business when Durrette took it over in 2011. He rebranded it as a brewery, lodge and restaurant, focusing on a clientele of overland travelers and backpackers. Over time, the customer base expanded, Durrette explains. Now 40 percent of his customers are Hondurans, members of a small-yet-growing middle class.

Many of these young professionals come to D&D from the city of San Pedro Sula, 44 miles away, often depicted as a hotbed of Honduran crime.

“I’ve lived in this country 10 years and I’ve never been robbed,” Durrette maintains. “I’ve never had a single issue.”

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2018 Honduras Crime and Safety Report, the country has had one of the world’s highest murder rates since 2010, though it has decreased over the last eight years.

“Most resort areas and tourist destinations have lower levels of crime and violence than other areas of the country, though still high by international standards,” the report reads. It goes on to single out San Pedro Sula as an area where tourists have been the targets of armed robberies. 

To battle the negative image that reports like this give to Honduras, Durrette created the hashtag #therealhonduras to highlight the country’s natural landscapes and friendly people. He feels the country’s crime rate continues to be overstated, both by xenophobic right-wing American media outlets and by asylees seeking refuge and desperate to be admitted across the border.

A coffee plant on Ventura’s farm (Photo by Nahun Rodriguez)

Durrette stresses that his controversial viewpoint isn’t meant to trivialize the plight of those in the caravan.

“The reason why you are a refugee shouldn’t matter,” he says. “It’s a shame that they have to say they fear for their lives because of violence, when in reality they fear for their future because they have lost hope, and often don’t have enough to eat.”

“Homicides have fallen dramatically in Honduras,” reads a headline in the Dec. 14 edition of the Los Angeles Times. It’s just one of several reports about reduced crime that bolster Durrette’s assertion that Honduras is a safe vacation destination. His business currently employs 14 people in a country where full-time jobs are scarce. Much of the population — reports put the percentage between 80 and 85 — work under the table, Durrette says. Many of those people work in the coffee trade.

“Most of the people that work for me are women,” he continues. “They’re supporting their entire families in a traditionally male-dominated, highly machista society. They’re taking a man out to eat. It flips the society on its head.”

As an employer, D&D may have had a positive ripple effect on the local economy, Durrette allows, but it’s not enough. He points to former D&D employees who saved up only to resign and head north. It distresses Durrette that people are still abandoning their homes and families in Honduras, as his motivation for providing well-paying jobs in the first place was to afford them the opportunity to stay. “It breaks my heart when I see the images of all these people going north.”

By 2014, Durrette realized he could do more to help. Though coffee comprises close to 10 percent of the economy, and it’s estimated that as many as 1.2 to 1.5 million people out of a population of nine million Hondurans work in the industry in some capacity, Durrette knew little about the crop except that local farmers were not getting a fair price.

“There are acres and acres of coffee plantations, but these farmers weren’t making any money,” Durrette says. “It didn’t make any sense.”

In the meantime, Durrette met Hohler, who stayed at the lodge as a guest. Hohler shared Durrette’s views on economic inequality in the coffee business, so the two decided to launch Farmers First. Compared to the lodge, the coffee company is more likely to affect meaningful change, Durrette maintains.

“Farmers First has a lot more potential in the long term to be able to employ more Hondurans,” he says.

As the company expands to work with more farmers, Durrette believes there will be more partners from Honduras than Peru because he feels the need is greater in Honduras.

Results from the company’s two initial Honduran farmers thus far are encouraging, Hohler says. In her inaugural growing season with Farmers First, Santos has garnered a 62-percent boost in income after receiving her bonus.

She’s currently constructing a brand new home on her farm. After his bonus, Ventura has netted a 118-percent boost in income. He now plans to send his son Ronmel to college, and he purchased a motorized depulping machine, which increases his farm’s efficiency.

Ana Santos on her farm. (Photo by Nahun Rodriguez)

Without Farmers First’s bonuses, the farmers would not be able to stay in business, Durrette says.

“In my area, the price that farmers are receiving is 2,300 lempiras for a 200-pound load,” Durrette continues. “That works out to be about 66 U.S. cents per pound. That’s an insult to these farmers.”

To illustrate his point about the crippling effects of low coffee prices on the community, Durrette points to an unusual example – fireworks.

“I love Christmastime in Honduras, but it’s a mess because it sounds like World War III,” he explains. Like many Latin Americans, Hondurans love to set off fireworks night and day throughout the holiday season.

“This year, there was barely a peep,” Durrette remembers. When he went to town on Christmas day, he discovered stands packed with unsold sparklers and firecrackers. The low coffee prices have percolated through the local economy, so no one had any money to enjoy non-essentials like the traditional Yuletide sky show. Coffee prices countrywide are plummeting so low that people are refusing to harvest the crop.

Here in Charlotte, Hohler remains undaunted, even though he realizes that Farmers First is just one small company trying to alleviate a complex socio-economic problem.

“We’re going to keep growing, making more noise and helping as many people as possible,” Hohler says.

So far, he and Durrette are reaching receptive ears in Charlotte. At International House, Causwell finds that local business leaders are receptive to solutions to Honduras’ woes when she stresses an economic approach.

“The U.S. economy cannot function on its own,” she says. “It needs markets to sell goods, and natural resources to make its goods. We’re all connected.”

Durrette suggests that the connection should go even further to create a win-win situation, where alleviating poverty would also create opportunities for entrepreneurs.

“Imagine we had a multi-million dollar fund, a grant to Americans and Hondurans to start up businesses in Honduras,” he says.

The businesses would bolster the Honduran economy, make a profit for investors and help bring people out of the poverty prompting the exodus for the U.S. border. In the meantime, our reaction to the caravans speaks directly to our own country’s agriculture roots, Hohler says.

“This is about who is picking our crops, and whether we’re taking care of them,” Hohler states. “We can no longer argue that we should only take care of our own, and ignore others on the wrong side of the border. These people are our own.”

Click on the slideshow below to see more photos from the farms that supply Farmers First’s coffee. 

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