Alex Yoder spent his twenties chasing snow around the world. A sponsored snowboarder for Patagonia, he grew apathetic to token acts of environmental activism, like social posts and climate marches.
“They felt hollow," he recalls. “I wanted a tangible role in actual impact and became interested in regenerative organic farming. Starting a coffee company was a rogue move, but something I needed to do.”
Such was the genesis of Overview Coffee, an upstart coffee roaster based in Portland, Oregon.
“To be honest, I didn’t drink coffee before I started the company," he reveals. "I just saw it as an opportunity to bring business and agriculture together and learned to love coffee in the process. The world has a food insecurity problem and a climate crisis. Fixing farming will curb both."
But Yoder didn’t decide to start a coffee business by randomly picking it out of a hat. “Millions of people have an emotional connection to coffee. It tugs at our heartstrings. It’s a daily ritual. A shared religious experience." Yoder hopes these emotions encourage more people to invest their daily cup of coffee towards a climate solution.
The issue, Yoder stresses, comes down to certifications. Agriculture is a massive industry driven by its bottom line. As it has grown, certifications have been diluted in favor of bigger business and making more money. Big companies have found loopholes to grow certified crops in similar ways to the rest of their crops, raising the price through workarounds. This creates confusion with consumers, makes it harder for small farms to enter the market, and continues to harm the planet.
The seed was planted in his work with Patagonia, where Yoder learned a great deal about certifications like the Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade, and USDA Organic. Feeling like the bar could be raised higher, he followed the lead of Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronners, who recently came together to form the Regenerative Organic Certification.
“Regenerative Organic basically takes the best parts of each of the other certs and rolls it into one. It considers farmers’ livelihoods, making sure they earn a living wage. It eliminates the use of pesticides and insecticides, which deplete the health of the soil. And it does away with tilling and monocropping, which allow the soil to regenerate needed nutrients."
Founded in April, 2020, Overview is an eCommerce coffee roaster, shipping to customers across the country with one-time or recurring subscription orders. The team sources from small farms in Africa and South America, imports, tests, roasts, bags and ships, all from their Portland headquarters. Yoder says the biggest challenge has been finding the right coffee farms.
“A lot of farms that are truly organic or regenerative aren’t certified because it costs a lot of money, sometimes up to $10,000. Many of these small farmers only make a few grand each year.”
Because many small farmers lack certifications, Overview targeted agroforestry coffee farms instead, which integrate trees and shrubs to create similar environmental benefits like better soil quality. They are often small farmers who planted coffee in the existing ecosystem instead of logging it first. Of the hundreds of farms in his supplier network, just two fit the bill. Thus, Overview was launched with just two types of coffee, Ethiopia and Honduras. (There are now seven varieties, including the Ethiopia Pocket Coffee pictured at the top of this page.)
“The best case scenario is that we’re roasting beans from coffee that’s grown in the forest," says Yoder, who has become a self-proclaimed agriculture nerd. "Total homeostasis with the ecosystem. This is better than regenerative organic agriculture, but it’s hard to scale. Regenerative organic is the best industrialized approach and in many ways tries to mimic agroforestry. It’s a mix of plants and other species, making it more resilient to climate change and natural hazards."
Yet, Overview faces an uphill battle. Most major coffee farms already employ a single crop style, the worst form of farming. Using a lot of chemicals, single crop farmers may yield more in the short run, but in doing so wreck the ecosystem and deplete the soil health, making their farms far prone to natural disasters.
Having maxed a handful of credit cards to get Overview off the ground, Yoder now has the company in the black, less than a year after it launched its first beans. Growth has been linear, increasing volume and spreading the brand’s message. Today Overview offers six different types of environmentally friendly coffee and is available in a handful of coffee shops across the western US.
“Our plan isn’t to be the next Blue Bottle. We don’t want to be the next specialty coffee darling with dozens of brick and mortar locations that’s bought by a big company like Nestle. We want to help people align their values to the coffee they drink every day. It’s simple."
Unlike many startup founders, Yoder has set pragmatic goals for the next few years.
“I don’t want to become a billion dollar company. I’d rather grow just big enough to pressure bigger brands like Starbucks to change their supply chains. We want to be a thorn in their side and analogous to the climate crisis, we don’t have a lot of time.”
Yoder hopes Overview will grow large enough to impact both the coffee supply chain and the way people buy coffee.
“All coffee is grown in the developing world and is consumed in the developed world. Most people don’t know that coffee is grown on a bush in the mountains and is a cherry with seeds inside that come in a pair. We want to be the bridge. We want to create a connection between the farmers to the coffee drinkers. We started with a subscription because it allows people to turn their values into a routine.”
The numbers in front of Overview are daunting. By some estimates worldwide coffee farming could see a 50% yield decrease by 2050. With this crop scarcity looming and coffee demand booming, prices are likely to skyrocket. Yoder’s solution is to start small and local.
“Instead of trying to explain the complexities of climate change and the global coffee trade to people, I try to help people understand the power of their dollar. In a globalized economy, every purchase we make contributes to the future we create.”