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Dining A La King: Mexico's Café Justo shows how coffee economics transcend borders

Just over a mile south of the U.S./Mexico border in the city of Agua Prieta is a roasting machine.

Nearby are the sacks of green coffee that get fed into the roaster.

In the next room, the coffee bearing the label Café Justo is packaged and shipped north, where folks at churches around Arizona and the U.S. sip on the coffee.

The money flows back to Agua Prieta, Mexico, and then to the tip of Mexico, where 40 farm families in Chiapas grow beans to be sold as Café Justo coffee. In Veracruz, and El Aguila, new cooperatives have 35 families each.

Café Justo, whose name incorporates justice and equality, is a coffee exporter that was intended to cut out the middlemen that made it difficult for families to make enough money to survive when prices dropped in 1990.

Daniel Cifuentes, founder and director of Café Justo, grew up raising that coffee. He came to the border town just south of Douglas, Ariz., 19 years ago. Unlike some, he didn’t cross into the U.S. After meeting Mark Adams of Frontera de Christo, a Christian group that works at border issues in a variety of ways, he formed a coffee company to help families like his.

“Our vision is to reduce the amount of migration to the United States,” he told a group of us one morning in late February. “We believe this is the best way to convince young families to stay in Mexico.”

In ways that few of us think about in the morning haze, the economics of coffee for many people in this world are the difference between sending a child to school and even staying in the community where you were born.

When prices dropped from 1,500 pesos for a 110-pound bag of beans to 350, the farmers of Chiapas stopped investing in their land and struggled to survive. With a small loan, Cifuentes was able to buy a roaster, grinder and computer. Two workers labored in a small apartment on the outskirts of Agua Prieta, a city which currently has about 80,000 people. They were hoping to sell 10 sacks, those 50-kilogram bags of beans, in the first year.

They sold more than 400.

By selling direct, Café Justo could assure farmers got a higher price, not just a commodity price. The cooperative does that for its farmers the way some companies such as Equal Exchange and even coffee businesses such as The Electric Brew and Refinery Coffee Company in Goshen also do. Zen Cafe does that in South Bend.

Brew owner and roaster Myron Bontrager bought 1,000 pounds of beans from Cafe Justo after learning about it from someone who had visited. “I think anything tastes better if you buy it directly from the producer,” he said. He likes buying direct and helping growers. Getting the green beans from Mexico to Indiana was more difficult and expensive than buying from an importer, but he liked roasting and selling the coffee as a medium roast, “a good solid coffee,” he said.

He preaches to his employees and customers about being in the relationship business, and buying from Café Justo created, at least for a bit, a relationship that helped others. “The money is about the community,” he said of what the co-op is doing.

Our morning cup involves simple economics. We want coffee in the U.S. and need others to grow it for us, roast it for us and get it to us. We gather around cups of coffee, clutching them as we seek caffeine and companionship.

What Starbucks does, what McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts do, matter to those farmers. But what consumers do individually matters too.

Because of about 70 churches and customers in every state and Canada, who order from Café Justo, more than 100 families make a living. Of every pound, $1.50 or so goes to the family and $3 helps Café Justo with the overhead. Across Mexico and Central America, there are other cooperatives that buy, roast and ship coffee to help families.

Café Justo’s coffee is good. It’s not as good as some specialty coffees. Café Justo sells robusta beans in addition to the preferred Arabica. Robusta often becomes what Maxwell House or Folger’s use for their ground coffees. The buyers from Peet’s or Intelligentsia may pass by even the best Arabica beans that Café Justo farmers sell. Yet the quality is decent, and in the right hands, with the right roast, it’s a fine cup of coffee.

Maybe it tastes better when you know the story. Maybe you know that it matters. That’s the way it often works.

Now, Cifuentes and the other eight employees of Café Justo are working to open a cafe. “The new dream is Café Justo y Mas,” where the young people of Agua Prieta could gather. “We want this to be a place that captures the attention of young people,” Cifuentes said.

Café Justo y Mas is likely to have music and espresso and be a place to gather in a city where the cartels are moving drugs, where people live in the shadow of a wall and border patrol enforcement. A place where factories that make window blinds or seat belts ring the city, rather than one north of the border, because the owners can pay lower wages due to NAFTA..

The opportunities in Agua Prieta aren’t as vast as they are even a few miles north. Café Justo is trying to make a difference. It’s connecting farmers with what we drink from our cup. And in the simplest of ways, that matters.

I’m hungry. Let’s eat. 

Marshall V. King is food columnist for Flavor 574 and community editor for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at 574-296-5805,, and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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