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Teenage prodigy from Grand Rapids wants to save the coffee industry

14-year-old Frankie Volkema has spent years hanging around her dad's coffee businesses. Her new coffee line could help secure the industry's future.

KENTWOOD, Mich. — She hasn't even started her freshman year at Grand Rapids Christian High School yet, but already Frankie Volkema's passion and ambition are having a real world impact.

Frankie is the daughter of Tim Volkema, the CEO and owner of both Schuil Coffee Company and Sparrows Coffee, and her growing interest in the coffee industry revealed an unusual talent.

"I had hired a Q grader to teach me about coffee when I first came into the business and so she was just around," Tim said. He then asked Frankie if she wanted to try.

"She was just picking out all these flavors and it was quite amazing. So she had an aptitude for it," he said.

A Q grader is a professional coffee taster who can grade a coffee's quality, thereby determining what price coffee farmers will be able to sell it for. It requires certification which both Tim and Frankie have earned through taking classes and tests. Frankie is the world's youngest Q grader.

"I like to be treated like any other Q grader, not just like a little kid," Frankie said.

"But I think being the youngest Q grader in the world is really exciting and a really cool thing and I’m glad that I can share that with other people."

Frankie is also using her skill to create a better future for the coffee industry. During a trip to Colombia, the Volkemas learned about a problem that has a lot of people worried.

Credit: Provided
Frankie Volkema is interviewed by media during a trip to Colombia.

"We heard this issue over and over again about the aging farmer population is a problem. The aging farmer population needs to be addressed," Tim said.

Coffee is mostly farmed in Latin America, Africa, and Asia where a severe talent shortage could affect the industry. Most farmers in those areas are 55 or older and not as many young people are interested in coffee farming because it can be a low-paying job.

"You can make a good living but you have to make better coffee," Tim said.

"You can do that if you have the right drying practices, the right shade, set up for the trees. There’s things you can do as a farmer to make your coffee better and thereby more expensive."

That's where Frankie's skill as a Q grader and her new line of coffee come in. It's called Joven, which is Spanish for "youth." Joven will feature coffees that score 84 points or higher and are produced by farmers under the age of 35. The brand is designed to celebrate young farmers who are producing great coffee.

"We’re trying to make the coffee industry a little more appealing and be able to provide high prices so that they can make a career out of their coffee farming," Frankie said.

"This one young farmer was telling me how excited she was because she had never had someone so interested in her coffee before."

Credit: Brian Kelly Photography & Film

Currently Joven features two varieties; one made in Colombia and one in the African nation of Burundi. They are sold in 12-ounce bags both at Schuil Coffee on 29th Street in Kentwood and online at Joven's website.

"It’s really important that there’s organizations out there helping people improve their coffee and it’s also important that there’s roasters like us who are willing to pay that higher price," Tim said.

"We need people to sort of come alongside us on this. Just because we put out coffee doesn’t mean people are going to buy it, and if they don’t buy then we don’t buy more green coffee from young farmers."

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