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Getting to Know the Next Generation of Coffee

An investment in young people on International Coffee Day.

by Ashley Rodriguez | October 01, 2021

There’s a day to commemorate everything — lima beans, lost socks, ballpoint pens — and of course, coffee.

October 1 is International Coffee Day, a worldwide celebration of your favorite caffeinated beverage. Every year, the International Coffee Organization (ICO) uses the day to highlight a group of people or a pressing issue in the coffee world. This year’s theme is “Coffee Next’s Generation,” shining a spotlight on the young people who are poised to shape and grow the future of coffee.

To celebrate International Coffee Day, we talked to young people across the coffee supply stream. From roasters to farmers to baristas, we asked folks to share their dreams, ideas, and the hurdles they face as they try to make coffee more accessible, sustainable, and viable for generations to come.

Starting at the farm

In 2018, the ICO reported that the average age of a coffee farmer in Africa is 60. Across coffee-growing countries in Central and South America, many farmers are in their late ‘50s. Young people from coffee-producing regions have grown up witnessing the struggles of their parents and elders: the deflation of coffee prices, the effects of climate change, and the grueling nature of coffee growing.

“It was always my desire to be a coffee grower that could use the skills I acquired as a coffee professional to make the best possible coffee from the land (my wife) Derlin, my daughter, and I know and love,” says Diego Campos, a three-time Colombian barista champion. Diego’ wife, Derlin Roa, is a national Aeropress champion and daughter of Don Elias Roa, owner of Finca Tamana in Huila, Colombia. The couple lived and worked in Melbourne before coming back to Colombia to realize their dream of operating a farm. However, he’s very upfront about the hurdles he knew he’d face. “The 200+ years old coffee model is clearly unfair and does not take into account the care and efforts of the farmers without whom coffee would not exist.”

Coffee farmers made more money 40 years ago than they do now. In the early 1980s, coffee prices hovered around $1.50 per pound. As of this writing, the commodity price for coffee (its value on The New York Stock Exchange) is $1.98 per pound. Neither of these figures has been adjusted for inflation, so what would have been $1.50 in 1981 would be worth $4.53 today. Many coffee farmers have watched their crops be devalued over time, and younger generations are either actively trying to change the way we buy and sell coffee — or abandoning farms altogether.

While in Melbourne, Diego saw how specialty coffee is sold and valued, and hopes to shift some of the value back down to farmers. “We should be investing in the future of coffee, not relying on past models that keep almost 95 percent of the economic value outside of the coffee growing country,” he says.

With the advent of social media and communication platforms like Zoom and WhatsApp, farmers can stay connected to the coffees they sell to roasters. Diego believes this is pivotal to improving the quality of coffee by opening up a direct feedback loop: he can provide more context about the coffee he’s growing and the decisions he makes on the farm, and roasters can use that information to express the inherent flavors of the bean. “The best way to make Colombian coffee,” he says, “is for farmers to work hand-in-hand with roasters to produce a coffee that expresses the natural characteristics of Colombian coffee.”

Investing in education

One of the biggest hurdles facing young people is a lack of access to resources. Information is often passed down and folks who want to learn more can hit roadblocks in their search for knowledge.

“It is important to invest in young farmers because, despite the fact that many young people depend economically on coffee, there’s not a lot of people we can seek advice from,” says Sonia Alejandra Hoyas, a farmer based in the Hulia district of Colombia. “We cannot build a sustainable farm or ensure a fair quality of life for ourselves and our families without more training and awareness. If we had these things, surely we can produce higher-quality coffee.”

Agricultural knowledge and training are important, particularly when we talk about the threat climate change has and will continue to have on coffee growing. Coffee is a seasonal fruit, so the weather has a huge effect on when it can be harvested and what it’ll taste like in the final cup. Over the last few years, coffee has also been affected by diseases such as coffee rust, or roya, a disease that can quickly spread and kill coffee plants. Young farmers need support making decisions on which coffee varietals to plant and how to prevent and mitigate the risk of diseases and climate change.

Sonia also emphasizes the importance of financial literacy and farm management. If younger farmers don’t know how markets work or how to invest in their farm, then it doesn’t matter how good their coffee is — they won’t be able to sustain themselves or the people around them. “Many young people in this area depend totally on the economy that’s built around coffee,” says Sonia, “and we need more information on how to produce different types of coffees, how to make predictions based on international markets, and financial education to better run our farms.”

Bridging the gap

When Frankie Volkema found out that many coffee farmers were in their 50s and 60s, she decided she wanted to bring attention to the next generation of growers. “During our Q grading course, we learned that there weren't enough young farmers and that young people didn’t want to take over their parents' farms and that was causing a shortage of that young talent. So we wanted to do something about that and use the fact that I'm a Q grader to help.”

Frankie started Joven Coffee, a sister brand to Schuil Coffee and Sparrows Coffee, which are based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At 13, Frankie became the world’s youngest Q grader, a rigorous coffee certification program that requires participants to ace 19 coffee tasting exams to pass. Now, at 15, Frankie uses her age to highlight young farmers and sources coffees under the Joven brand, featuring farmers who are all under the age of 35.

“We went into the Q grading class thinking that we just wanted to learn a lot about coffee,” she says. “But once we learned there weren’t enough young farmers, it seemed like an issue we had the resources to take on.”

Frankie and her dad use Joven (which means “young” in Spanish) as a way to invest in young farmers and build a market for their coffees as new farmers learn and build their quality. “The next generation looks at coffee farming as more of a subsistence living. And that's been true particularly in the commercial segment,” says Tim Volkema, Frankie’s dad. “But if you can get them trained up to practice better sorting, coffee drying, and get their quality scores up, that has a huge effect on the price that they'll earn for their coffee, which makes a big difference in their lifestyle.”

The issue of age and the future of coffee farming was already apparent to folks who worked in coffee-producing countries, so part of Joven’s mission was to make it an important issue for consumers. Many farming cooperatives had youth programs, but when the Volkemas reached out to importers to ask specifically for coffees produced by young people, they were told they were one of the first people to ever ask. “There is a huge disparity between the awareness level at origin and consuming countries,” Tim says. “It's a new issue for us in the US, but where coffee is grown, they're acutely aware of this farmer shortage and they're working on it, but they just didn't have a lot of interest from buyers.”

Joven’s mission is to provide a way to put the spotlight directly on a huge problem facing the future of the coffee industry — and making it accessible for consumers. “We’ve already seen so much positive change,” Frankie says. “People approach me saying, ‘Oh, I love your mission. I had no idea about the issues facing young farmers. I've been buying your coffee and looking at other young coffee farmers and now I'm just really invested in it.’”

A coffee industry for everyone

Coffee is one of the world’s most popular drinks—and more and more young people are harnessing the power of coffee to empower themselves and to make more inclusive spaces for others.

Cam’s Coffee, based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, initially started as a way for then 8-year-old Cam Myers, who suffers from a Traumatic Brain Injury, to build his confidence by serving coffee. Now, the brand roasts and sells coffee across the United States, with Cam still at the helm — alongside his mom, Latasha Lewis — and hopes to highlight disability inclusion and open new pathways to build meaningful careers.

“I feel like coffee is everywhere,” says Cam, who is now 13. “That makes it a perfect way to share information or support something. Because I am young, I think about how I want my future to be and the future for other people with disabilities.”

Cam’s Coffee works with organizations like Project E3 to develop community-based employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Being young means that Cam can bring bigger-picture ideas to his business and take steps to realize a future that is more equitable and diverse. “Young people have more access and more information at their fingertips than any other generation,” says Cam. “Many of them are well informed and passionate about the cause they care about. Many of them are breaking from their family's traditions or standards and creating unique paths for themselves. This gives them a unique view of the world which translates to coffee.”

The goal of Cam’s Coffee, according to Cam, is to “bring disability inclusion to the forefront of our conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion in our industry.” And what better way to highlight diversity than to think about it in the context of coffee? Coffee is a widely recognizable beverage. Coffee shops exist in every city or town, and can be a nexus for community-building and organizing, which is at the center of the disability justice and empowerment work that Cam’s Coffee continues to champion.

From growing coffee to handing you your morning cup, young people are everywhere, encouraging all of us to imagine a better future. Young people are the key to a more equitable and sustainable future, and we hope this inspires you to think big about what’s possible in the next ten, twenty, fifty years for the growth of coffee.