Under a canopy of oak trees, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a greenhouse hums traditional Honduran music—a prelude of what is to come.
This greenhouse is the home of Yonah coffee, a facility in Habersham with over 1,000 coffee plants that is owned and operated by Dr. Richard Stafford of Georgia State’s Communication Department.
Stafford named his company “Yonah” after the Cherokee word for bear. The mountain was so named because of its resemblance to a sleeping bear.
“No one has grown coffee commercially in the U.S. other than Hawaii, so we thought that naming it after the mountains would give it a sense of location and belonging to Georgia,” Stafford explained.
Stafford’s passion for helping people is what led him to bring the tropical coffee plant to the rolling hills of the Peach State.
“Yonah coffee started originally as a way to obtain immigration papers for a young man named Kevin Arita in Norcross,” Stafford said.
Kevin Candelario Arita was a former student of Stafford. She immigrated to the United States at the age of 10. In 2011, while in Honduras in search of Arita’s birth certificate, Stafford collected 1,000 coffee beans on a whim from the Honduran mountain city of Santa Rosa. When Kevin needed an employer for his work visa, the coffee beans came into play.
“We started it [Yonah coffee] because his family had a 150 year history of growing coffee in the mountains of Honduras,” Stafford said.
But the production of coffee from those coffee beans was not as simple as their journey to Georgia.
“It’s extremely difficult to get coffee plants to make beans,” Stafford said. “You have to have the right humidity, sunlight and watering. The first crop takes about four years.”
Adjustments had to be made in the Yonah greenhouse to create an environment similar to that of Central America to accommodate the plant. To keep the atmosphere humid throughout the year, the greenhouse is heated with natural gas. For eight months out of the year, the sides are taken off the plants to give the beans the feeling of growing outside.
The challenges of producing coffee beans has not discouraged Stafford, though. He compared the special care with which he must accommodate the coffee plants to his experiences with Arita.
“I’ve discovered that growing coffee is just like assimilating immigrants into a new culture,” Stafford said.
Yonah coffee is now available in 20 stores throughout Georgia, the closest location to Georgia State being Tweeds clothing shop on Marietta Street. The coffee beans on sale now are imported from the same area in Santa Rosa, Honduras as the original coffee beans.
The company’s first Georgia-grown coffee beans will be available for purchase November 2014. In the spring, the company will move on to its next adventure: growing cacao plants for chocolate.