Can Coffee Ever Be Sustainable? What We’ve Learned from Running a Small, Sustainable Blue Mountain Coffee Farm

Can Coffee Ever Be Sustainable? What We’ve Learned from Running a Small, Sustainable Blue Mountain Coffee Farm

 At Rocksteady Coffee, we think about sustainability differently than other coffee growers. Loosely speaking, we think of sustainable coffee and agriculture as meeting today’s needs without compromising the future of our land, community, or the business. 

Our approach isn’t because we’re unique in our concerns about the future of agriculture or the planet: these are the most pressing topics of our lifetimes. The truth is this: we have been afforded the option to do so. Unlike 99% of the world’s producers, we at Rocksteady Coffee have the benefit of selling our coffee as a product; most coffee growing regions around the world are traded as commodities and are subject to the volatility that it entails.

At Rocksteady Coffee, we’ve had the benefit of thinking about sustainability from the beginning of our operations, rather than trying to work backward to force it into an already delicately balanced operation. To meet increasing demand for coffee, production systems are taking on more risks with planting density, irrigation, and using mechanized processes. Farmers have to work toward economies of scale simply to subsist. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of coffee growing regions, farmers are earning less than they did thirty years ago. 

Today, we want to tell you more about what sustainability means to us, how we’re putting our plans into action, and why we’re afforded a unique opportunity that we just can’t turn down. You can get all the details on our production processes in this article or even see them for yourself on a farm visit.

Sustainability from Day Zero

Before we purchased our first parcel of land back in 2013, preserving the land for the next generations was at the forefront of our minds. Our present-day farm had already served as a coffee farm in the past, but the land required rejuvenation to not only be revived for coffee production but to protect it for decades to come. 

In fact, we requested a full analysis and list of recommendations from the CIB as part of our journey to becoming a certified Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee farm.

Photo of rejuvenation exercise of the derelict farm - now Rocksteady Coffee Farm in 2013

We want to share how we’re tackling some of coffee production’s most pressing problems. Our solutions aren’t for everyone: we are a small producer and we don’t need to deal with the harsh realities of selling a commodity. 

However, there are some takeaways that we can share that better inform everyone in the coffee value chain, including our stockists and our shared customers.

We’re Committed to Being Stewards of Our Land

There’s no denying the impact of the global growth of coffee production: it’s contributing to issues like deforestation, erosion, and water waste. These are the by-products of the economies of scale: you can’t trade coffee as a commodity and chase growth at all costs without having a detrimental impact on the environment.

As we already mentioned, Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee isn’t a commodity, but we are still intimately connected to the environment. Our work can be part of revitalizing and protecting the environment while providing a steady, reliable income for our communities.

Here’s how we have approached environmental sustainability and land stewardship

  • Protecting our forests: Deforestation isn’t just an Amazonian problem; we have felt the sting of it in Jamaica, too, particularly in the lowlands. Rocksteady Farm was already a coffee farm in its past life, so we didn’t engage in further forestry destruction to bring our farm to life. Additionally, the trees in the Blue Mountains are vitally important to us because we grow coffee the traditional way: under the canopy of trees.
  • Preventing erosion: Our farmers complete the never-ending weeding process by hand and organic methods. We do not use Roundup, which is admittedly very effective for killing weeds but also causes the soil to dry out and ultimately leads to erosion. Additionally, because we also leave mature trees in place and strategically plant trees for our canopy, we’re also able to aid soil health and stability over the long-term.
  • Managing water waste: We take multiple approaches to protecting our water supplies and avoiding water waste. If you’re familiar with our production processes, you know we semi-wash our beans by hand, which dramatically limits water waste. We also use a dry well system for our coffee pulper and a separate dry well system for wastewater to ensure we never mix the two.

We’re Committed to Social Good

It’s hard to think of a place or a commodity where farmers aren’t in crisis and in all honesty, the Blue Mountains are no different. Making a living in agriculture will only get harder as the effects of climate change continue to take hold. As farmers scramble to find ways to simply cover costs and avoid sinking deeper into debt, something will have to give.

Strong farmers make way from strong food chains, and both of these build better, more resilient communities.

At Rocksteady, we have the option to avoid some of the more difficult choices our peers make. It all comes back to our coffee falling outside the realms of commodity trading.

As a result, we pay our farmers a living wage. More importantly, we offer it year round. Few farmers anywhere in the world can make a year-round living wage from agriculture alone. Our farmers do. In addition to their wages, we also pay performance-based compensation and other incentives.

So when you’re stocking Rocksteady Coffee, you’re stocking one of the few products in the world where you can guarantee the people who brought you that product are able to easily provide for their families.

We’re Committed to Forward-Thinking Governance

Where will Rocksteady Coffee be in ten years? Or twenty? Those are questions our team is concerned with right now.

Realistically, Rocksteady Coffee as an organization will look different in five years time, particularly as we work hard to maintain the solid foundations we’ve built. How do we know we will be different? Jamaican agriculture faces a real challenge from a lack of support from both banks and private equity, which limits our ability to invest in the future of our farmers, community, and the environment. To meet our goals, we need to go outside of Jamaica to work with investors in Canada and the UK, and by pursuing that route, our corporate structure may need to change to achieve certain milestones.

Even still, there are decisions we’re making today to protect our business, our customers, and the promise of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.

The biggest among these is never mixing our beans with coffee outside of our protected zone. We sell -- and will always sell -- 100% Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.

This commitment seems small, but all of the factors we’ve discussed here have tested our fellow farmers. Most major producers of Blue Mountain coffee now mix their coffee cherries with other Jamaican coffees. The knock-on effects are huge and aren’t limited to quality or customer experience. By mixing Blue Mountain beans with commodity coffee beans, those producers pay their farmers less and less for their Blue Mountain coffee cherries. And as farmers find it increasingly difficult to survive, they put the entirety of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee at risk.

What We’ve Learned & Where We’re Going

Our journey towards being the kind of coffee producer we want to see in the world has only just begun. 

We aren’t perfect, even with the structural advantages of producing Blue Mountain coffee. But we do our best, and we’re learning along the way.

What’s coming next for Rocksteady Coffee’s sustainability journey?

Here are a few projects that we have our eye on:

    • Making the transition to renewable energy: As production grows, so will the energy we need. Although we have access to the main grid, we intend to explore ways to generate solar power and use water wheel technology via one of our three waterfalls.
    • Adding new, stable jobs through roasting: We will be setting up our own micro roastery and manufacturing plant in 2023-2024. Not only will we have more options for innovation in roasting, but we will be able to create good jobs by adding four new staff members.
  • Donating our profits: As we grow, we are vetting non-profit partners to share a portion of our profits. We’re vetting organizations with blue ocean missions centered around biodiversity.

  • Be Part of Our Journey


    Earning an income from coffee growing is getting harder every year. It is getting harder every year for coffee farmers who are engaged in growing and selling the coffee cherries at the farm gate to provide the basics for their families. And earning a stable, reliable year-round income? It is almost unheard of.

    We’re not perfect: there’s more that we can do to uplift our community, protect our environment, and create a sustainable business. But we’ve been given a rare chance to start and for us, it’s an easy decision.

    In the meantime, we’d like to invite you along on our journey. By stocking our coffee, you’re promoting the best in coffee to your customers and sharing with them the distinctive notes of a sustainable, ethical gourmet coffee. There’s richness and depth in Rocksteady Coffee, and it’s not just in our flavor profile.

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