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Dean’s Beans marks 25th with unorthodox business model

  • Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz...

  • Joey Boisvert bags freshly roasted coffee at Dean's Bean Organic Coffee in the Orange Industrial Park. September 20, 2018 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—

  • Dean Cycon of Dean's Beans Organic Coffee sits in his Orange office last week surrounded by souvenirs and accolades from his 25 years selling fair-trade coffee from around the world. Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

  • Brendan Walsh and the rest of the crew roast and bag coffee at Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee in the Orange Industrial Park last week. Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ



Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

ORANGE — It started as an experiment.

Naysayers didn’t think Dean Cycon could turn a profit by paying indigenous farmers in places like Papua New Guinea a living wage while selling their coffee beans at low prices internationally. That was the work of nonprofits.

But he had to try, and it seems he succeeded. Cycon’s company, Dean’s Beans, just turned 25, having seen growth of about 5 percent every single year. It has worked, Cycon says, despite the unorthodox business model.

“Our model is buy high and sell low. That way, ordinary folks can buy fair-trade coffee,” Cycon explained recently, as workers bustled around him, roasting and packaging coffee beans from nine different countries at his Orange operation. At the far end of the roasting room, the wall that faces back at everyone is a giant mural depicting indigenous peoples from around the world, all picking coffee berries harmoniously from one farmland. Cycon himself is in the mural, too.

“The secret of our economics is we don’t waste money. We don’t waste anything, we don’t use distributors,” Cycon added.

On top of that, the many awards Dean’s Beans has won over the years for its practices, including awards from the United Nations and the Oslo Business for Peace Honoree, known as “the Nobel Prize of business,” have helped the company spread its good reputation.

But the “heart” of the model, Cycon said, is the relationships it builds with farmers in Africa, South and Central America, Asia and Oceania. Dean’s Beans is a model of what true “fair trade” should look like, he said.

Each village that supplies the company with coffee beans in return gets a project intended to improve its farmers’ lives. Each of the 12 sites across the globe has a project, many of which Cycon visits personally, specific to that community’s needs.

The newest of such projects is in Sumatra, where workers are being trained in property rights to prevent the encroachment of palm oil plantations on their lands. The plantations are like “an army of orcs from Lord of the Rings,” Cycon said — “squat, furry little palm trees marching into the farmers’ coffee fields.”

Dean’s Beans has started several initiatives to protect the environment and endangered species in Sumatra as well, known as Reclaiming Sumatra. The project includes training mahouts — people who work with elephants — to lead the threatened local elephants back into the forest when they stumble upon villages or farms.

“It’s training in dealing with endangered species, so that when the elephants and tigers and orangutans and the rare rhino are pushed into the farmlands, they don’t need to shoot them or get hunters to come kill them,” Cycon said.

Dean’s Beans is more than just a business, it’s part of the “social movement” of fair trade, Cycon said, and it always has been.

Cycon has been many things, a lawyer, a traveler, an activist and even a Hollywood pirate — not a real pirate, but an extra in Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean.” He insists, though, that he is not a businessman.

“We’ve learned a lot about running a business,” Cycon said. “But I’m a social justice community advocate.”

In the 1980s Cycon was working as an environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights attorney, based out of Providence, R.I. Preparing for and giving a lecture on deforestation and its effect on indigenous workers led to a realization for Cycon.

“I quickly realized that about 80 percent of coffee farmers around the world are indigenous peoples,” Cycon said. “But there were simply no charitable organizations in the coffee world.”

Cycon “clicked” with Bill Fishbein, a coffee maker and fair trade proponent, and in 1988 they founded Coffee Kids, a coffee company that looked to develop the small communities that supplied its beans. But the efforts to help the indigenous people in Latin America didn’t go as far as Cycon wanted.

“It was a charity, but it wasn’t a change. It was about maintenance, keeping everything going rather than improving things,” Cycon said. “In an industry like coffee, for centuries the wealth has been made off of poor workers’ backs. Instead of going around and lecturing companies on how they should treat the workers, I decided to be a model, and I founded Dean’s Beans in 1993 as an experiment.”

Dean’s Beans is “100 percent organic, 100 percent fair trade,” spends $10,000s every year on development projects in small villages and has increasing competition from small, local coffee roasters. It’s something that people don’t think would work, but it does, Cycon said.

Last year the business roasted 556,000 pounds of beans in Orange.

Money is put into improving the lives of indigenous farmers rather than “wasteful” advertising, Cycon said, leading to strong and steady working relationships between the farmers and the company. The dozens of different roasts are sold all across the country, Cycon said, and the company also has a strong relationship with local businesses like the Black Sheep Deli in Amherst, a customer of Dean’s Beans for two decades now.

Cycon said that the company doesn’t want to just help people abroad, but people in Orange too, which is why he bought the property off R.W. Moore Drive in 1999 when the operation got too big for his New Salem home.

“At the time, Orange had the highest unemployment, the lowest rate of educational success,” Cycon said. “We wanted to be a model for how local businesses should be run too.”

Cycon employs 13 “fantastic” people, who have helped Dean’s Beans become “probably the most internationally awarded coffee company out there,” he said. Last week, the company won the Boston’s Best and Brightest Award for its treatment of employees.

“It is a special place,” said Charlsie Gorski, Dean’s Beans office manager and employee of 15 years.

While the indigenous farmers supplying Dean’s Beans are working hard harvesting coffee cherries around the world, the workers in Orange are working hard to convert the crop into brewable coffee beans, Gorski said.

“The roasters get started early in the morning and I’ll let them know what exactly we’ll need for the day as far as orders,” she said. “At the end of the day if there’s even one bag (of beans) left over, we know there was a mistake somewhere, and we’ll find it.”

Cycon hopes that the farmers supplying Dean’s Beans and the workers in Orange will one day collectively own the company, although he said it would be a legal challenge to restructure the company that way. He is sure, however, that his company won’t be bought out by a larger, international corporation, something he is adamant about and proud of.

At 65 years old, Cycon is starting to think about retirement, but added that he thinks he has “5 more years of shelf life” left in him.

“I’m going to stay at Dean’s Beans until these legs can’t climb those mountains in the coffee lands,” Cycon said.

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.