In 2003, a missions group from Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church traveled to Nicaragua to help build a medical clinic roof. A handful of them opted to take a side journey, a jarring two-hour trek up a mountainside to the remote El Porvenir. The name means "the future."
There, they met a group of 257 former Sandinista, Contra and Somoza fighters who had settled after the war onto an old coffee plantation in the high-shade canopy. The 43 families lived with no running water or electricity, with only a single timeworn blue tractor for transport. Together, bonded by poverty and a need to farm the land, they eked out a spartan livelihood.
But they faced an imminent threat: a North American buyer who had taken their entire last year's crop had not paid them. The farmers had no way to pay for their next season.
The local volunteers, including a doctor, a businessman and a contractor, flew home to Mount Pleasant eager to help. They opted to pitch in their own money, $20,000 worth, to buy the next year's harvest from the farmers, who worked together as the El Porvenir Coffee Cooperative.
Al Jenkins, John Royall, Dr. Keeling Warburton and other church volunteers would buy, store and distribute the coffee. They'd also pay the farmers a fair wage.
"Send us this year's crop," they said. And the farmers did. All 10,000 pounds of it.
The Mount Pleasant group stored the green coffee beans in a giant metal container on coffee roaster Francisco Davila's Mount Pleasant property, an unglamorous start to selling the farmers' organic, hand-harvested beans grown beneath a rainforest canopy.
"I didn't even know what 10,000 pounds of coffee looked like," says Jenkins, an original partner. With so much coffee - and so little idea of what to do with it - Royall connected with Little River Roasting in Spartanburg and Coastal Coffee Roaster in Summerville, still their main roasters today. They called their new entity Their-Bucks Coffee and sold brown bags of coffee at Piggly Wiggly stores and Royall Ace Hardware in Mount Pleasant.
That first year, they sold the entire harvest.
They bought the farmers' coffee crop year after year. With reliable income to plant more, the harvest grew. So did demand for the organic coffee, due to its quality and partly to the farmers' compelling story.
Buyers, including Bucknell University, Boy Scouts and local schools, began purchasing coffee to sell for fundraisers. Roasters from Oregon to Iowa to South Carolina bought unroasted beans wholesale.
Retail outlets sold bags of freshly roasted coffee, eventually in the forest green bags with the 43 Families Coffee label people know today that feature the farmers' story and the words: "The most rewarding coffee on Earth ..."
The self-sustaining model eliminates middle men that often mistreat farmers and take a bulk of their income. "We basically cut that out so they could keep the money themselves," Royall says.
Today, Their-Bucks Coffee sells most of the coffee beans wholesale nationwide. Locally, bags of 43 Families Coffee is sold at Royall Ace Hardware, Sweetgrass Hardware, Boone Hall Farms and DwellSmart. Their-Bucks is searching for a chain to replace retail sales at Piggly Wiggly stores.
"There is a market out there," says Elizabeth Amory, an attorney and longtime Their-Bucks volunteer. "We're in a great position of having sold out this year."
In November, the Mount Pleasant volunteers returned to El Porvenir to visit the farmers and investigate other cooperatives in the area. They might partner with a second one to meet the demand, and to help another group of people gain a fair and steady income.
"Nobody is getting anything for free," Royall says. "They are the hardest-working people you'll see."
The El Porvenir families have used their steady income to plant more, improve water access and build a school and privacy room for when medical and dental missions come.
Meanwhile, the Mount Pleasant volunteers are awaiting this year's shipment in the next month. It will top 40,000 pounds. Selling four times as much Their-Bucks Coffee as when they started, this year marks the earliest Their-Bucks has sold out before the next year's shipment.
"Our initial plan was to find a market for them," says Steve Humphreys, a local banker who was in the first group to visit El Porvenir. "I think we've done that."
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.