Saturday, May 13, 2017

Premise


All good science and business starts on a premise. In order for me to re-ignite this journal, I need a premise. It has been quite a lot of time since I’ve produced anything on this site. A lot has changed. I’ve changed a lot.

Initially, this site was for relating to the readers coffee origin realities. There were sporadic posts and a few followers. Since then I moved to NYC and was a green buyer for almost three years. The learning curve was brutally steep, but it didn’t break me, there were days it ground me down to pulp only to be reassembled by the rising of the sun the next day. It did give me hemorrhoids and ruined many many a night’s sleep. A few years into the job, a new one walked into my office: Director of Agribusiness who would run two large farms (at the start it was only one farm) in Southern Minas Gerais, Brazil.

In theory, it was perfect for me. A private investment group wanted to bring both farms into the finals of coffee competitions and the farms would be the base of the vertically integrated structure that was in the process of being built. All the ideas and love I had for my tiny farm in the Dominican Republic could be poured into a larger scale operation with someone else’s money. The job was perfect for me.

I was good for them because they needed someone who had coffee agricultural experience, but could also align the base with the top of the vertically integrated structure: farms, export mills, roasting in Brooklyn, and retail in New York City. The attempt to align the base of the company (farms) with the top is admirable. By putting me in Brazil, the hopes for competition-winning coffees from the farms were secured and bringing new ideas to Brazilian production was secured. Not to mention that the board members, who don’t speak Portuguese, needed someone on the ground that could answer a phone call and explain the weather effects on coffee production and resulting profit/loss scenarios. So I think I was good for them.

When I moved here, to Ouro Fino, Brazil, I knew that keeping Finca La Paz running would be difficult. Aside from the distance, chronic crop failure was discouraging and my level of willingness to invest was waning to zero. Eventually it came to zero. Now, once or twice a year I pay them to weed it and it has been on the market for the last three years or so. It is hard to sell something that nobody wants.

The coffee crop in the region has been totally decimated since 2014. Everyone blames leaf rust, but really, I think leaf rust in combination with other fungi are what moved the coffee trees in the region from the ICU to hospice. The main problem being the system of production in Central America. It is a system of extraction, invest little in the crop so that your financial exposure is minimal, harvest all you can and repeat. The results of the system are often coffee trees that are totally emaciated and susceptible to disease. As to why leaf rust happened to all the tiny countries in Central America over the same couple of years, I can only guess that it was some kind of environmental change that knocked these starving coffee trees down for the count. Blaming an easy-to-identify leaf rust fungus (Roya) and saying it was all Roya is what most of the industry has decided to do.

That is essentially what I did in the case of my farm, Finca La Paz, except I called it first anthracnosis then leaf rust induced by a lack of fertilizer and disease control. I started with minimal herbicide and fertilizer because I didn’t want to upset the balance in the soil. Then I got tired, read – didn’t have the account balances to weed the farm manually five times a year. I started using fertilizer and more herbicide. The fertilizer was always a challenge because the farm has no road, and I had no mules. So, Antonio Galvan always let me use his. Of course, the herbicide never seemed to hold the weeds down. I never fertilized more than once or twice a year. We used no agro-chemicals to control the diseases that are common in coffee. I followed the advice of a few coffee buyers, who talk like they know everything, to plant the heirloom variety Typica (i.e. I planted the entire farm twice, only to cup it later and find out it tasted like sweet cardboard). Thankfully there were some other varieties on the farm such as Caturra and Catuai, which I also planted, and they were delicious. There was one more variety on my tiny, little plot: Catimore. This one was so robust and produced so much, one might think it was a superman coffee immune to the barren conditions the other varieties struggled in, and it was amazing, until you drank it. This one tasted like wet cardboard covered in sawdust.

After moving to Brazil and seeing how coffee does best if you don’t starve it and give it some of these agrochemicals that help the plant protect itself from the inside out, I gave it one more try. A truck load of fertilizer—err, “food”—and agrochemicals—err, “medicine,” as I call them. As usual, it didn’t work. Too little too late, another crop failure and my bank accounts did not rebound. Not to say I went bankrupt, but that is indeed what happens when you invest with no return. Accounts go down as you buy “food and medicine” for the coffee trees hoping to “fatten them for the annual slaughter” and then ideally accounts rebound with sales.

My dream for Los Frios, where Finca La Paz is located, was for it to be the model where specialty coffee would do all the things that people in the industry say it can. That as a model, it would make coffee farming viable for lots of families and that I would later install a mill to add value on the coffee processing side. As one of my good friends once said after a self-induced, rather humiliating experience, “Byron, at least we know you aren’t afraid to fail.” Well, after a few years of trying and failing, I can sleep well knowing that the failure was limited to my bank accounts and that, because I resisted being the advice giver, it did not bring down other farmers. I can still picture where I wanted to install the wet mill in Los Fríos, collect water, create biogas. I can see farmers bringing coffee cherry in to the mill on horseback and trucks, see myself sample roasting daily deliveries. I wanted that picturesque life: revitalizing the old coffee production tradition that Los Fríos had all but lost. What I wanted was a little cash-cow to share around, what I got was a mean goat.

Needless to say, that dream has died. During the coffee harvest, there were anywhere from 100-200 truckloads of wet parchment coffee headed down from that mountain top community. Now there are 2-3. My old friends there tell me that most farmers don’t even have coffee to drink, let alone sell. And everyone in the DR drinks coffee.

Back to the premise: I need something in my life that will continue to give things I do meaning. When Finca La Paz was the center of my attention, I was more than willing to send the equivalent of a mortgage to a bank account in the Dominican Republic. Antonio Galvan seemed to know my account balance and usually requested what was left after paying my basic bills. The farms I manage here in Brazil have been another dead-vertical learning curve. Just getting the accounting in order and the cost structure of what it costs us to produce a bag of coffee has taken about four years. We are only about three years behind schedule here. I can feel the learning curve mellowing. Much like the brutal struggle of trying to climb a mountain, towards the top the grade lessens so that there can be a summit. And, just like mountains, there are false summits and deceiving grades. I’ve been seeing a mechanical, motor-less therapist for the last four years. It is my mountain bike. Lately I’ve been spending about 6-10 hours a week on it. I need a lot of therapy. Between adding Portuguese to the languages that I speak, along with learning about and building all the systems that the farms totally lacked, suffering some of the worst weather in 2014 that Brazil has ever seen, and managing the labor within the incredibly complex set of corresponding laws, this has undeniably been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Now I speak Portuguese, understand production and weather in the Brazilian context, and I know more about labor laws on farms than many Brazilians. So now what? As I’m a glutton for suffering, I fear that if I lose my therapist, I will lose my mind.

My wife and I want kids but aren’t sure kids are in the cards. In that space, people in their mid-thirties need something to keep them going. Our lives are better than ever. The ease and totally engrossing technology and media that is streamed into our apartment leaves me entertained but merely fills the empty. It is so easy for me to have no balance between media consumption and production. Like a fat kid ridding in a golf cart on a Twinkie factory tour, my mind would be totally happy just consuming my way through life. But every proverbial Twinkie this fatty, Byron, consumes only fills the empty. Like the yellow gelatinous lard that lays under the skin, that Twinkie fills the empty and doesn’t make the world a better place. Twinkies are supposed to make the world a better place and so am I. A Twinkie is a treat. But treats aren’t main courses. You need to eat your rice, beans, meat and veggies first. The media Twinkie we consume has been “weaponized” as some say.

A fair portion of the rice and beans I eat are turned into suffer scores on my bike (yes, it is an actual number score based on how hard you made your heart beat over the course of a ride). What has spurred me to turn to writing is this premise: I need to make the world a better place, it can’t be just me. My job here in Brazil and cycling don’t satisfy my ambition. At best, my job is like being the mayor of two very small cities. Fazenda Monte Verde has over 55 people living on it about half of which are staff and the rest are their families. Santa Izabel has six families on it, there is one staff member per household and another 25 show up every day for work. My goal to make the living/workplace a utopia for coffee production is a slow grind. I’ve made progress for sure as I’ve seen staff buy cars for themselves and people learn new skills while providing for their families. That can be satisfying, but there is this itching for more. Cycling has been mostly a solo sport for me. I started riding with a group here in Ouro Fino, but after only a couple months, I realized that they were not the clique for me. Only now have I found a few like-minded cyclists that I can call friends.

Most married people in their mid-thirties turn towards kids. Not everyone can have them. Maybe the real premise is just that: a hedge against not having kids and a foil to the self-indulgent life in which I have what I want, I do what I want, can buy the toys I want, and wake up to an all-you-can-eat Twinkie-media buffet every time I open my computer. In short, a premise that takes from the empty and adds to the unity.


When I was 27 what I craved was genesis. I wanted to create something so that years later I could look back and see something that didn’t exist before my hands made it. Finca La Paz was that dream for me. Now, at 37, what I crave is unity. I want to see individual elements come together in the context of safe consultation to create a better spot to live into. I can’t create a better world, but maybe I can create a better spot in the physical and digital worlds where unity can rule.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Built to roam

In favor of friction

In a recent podcast, the lack of friction in our online transactions was cited as a problem. They cited one click purchasing from Amazon. People need a certain level of friction to gain satisfaction. It reminded me of the pre-made cake mix story. The first launch of the product was a powder that had everything, just add water and “ta-dah!” you had a cake. The product flopped. It was only when the designers removed the powdered milk and eggs from the cake mix became a success. People wanted to be able to say they made a cake, which requires more effort than adding water, you know. So, they break a few eggs, add milk—it is just that kind of friction that creates satisfaction in our day-to-day lives.

I could be described as an adrenaline junkie by looking at my past sports life: water skiing, cycling, rock climbing, now I’m back cycling, shaved legs and mountains. When I was a kid, I loved water skiing. Slalom water skiing is terrific fun when the conditions are right. Anyone who has spent time on a boat knows them: the wind is calm, there are no other boats and the still water looks like a solid sheet of glass. Then begins the work of cutting back and forth over the wake, trying to create large rooster tail, difficult but an utter pleasure. Holding on to the rope, you cut out from the wake trying to go fast, yet on the turn you attempt to create slack in the rope and cut hard back towards the middle. At this point your ski generates G-forces—like it was a fighter jet—the pressure generated throws you back towards the wake with so much speed and force the wake becomes a jump. When I think back to when I had the ski under me, the most visceral pleasant feeling wasn’t from the water when it was pure glass, but just those tiny little wind disturbed ripples over flat water. This gave the water life. The little laps of water jumping into the boot of the ski and the subtle vibration of the ski gave the water the pleasant friction I can still feel today.

Tomorrow is the Paris-Roubaix, or Hell of the North as people like to call it. Almost 260km and over 50kms of it cobbles. Any bike race commonly known as Hell of the North, is going to have a certain level of brutality. Of the cobbles, there are sections that are fast and smooth and there are sections that are bone-rattling. Here where I live in Ouro Fino, Minas Gerais (Brazil), I ride cobbles on every ride. Not because I chose the chattering road, but because the center of town, where I live, was built with cobbles. Cobbles and gravel, like lake water, conjure up that pleasant friction at certain moments. Back in 1998, one of my bicycle mentors, Brian Kee, took me on a ride around Athens, Georgia (USA) that involved a few miles of gravel roads. At first I was shocked, but idolizing Brian and wanting to impress him I rode on behind him and tried to find my rhythm. Eventually I found it. The vibrations went from awkward and inhibiting to a satisfying hum under my hands, feet and butt. Hitting pavement after those gravel roads was bliss, but only bliss in contrast. Same but different. Not better versus worse.

Now I find this same bliss on all kinds of roads that surround this tiny town I call home. Sometimes the moving over imperfect dirt roads with my mountain bike. The roads are often hard-packed but a touch lose and somewhat flat and these imperfections push back on my forward momentum providing a small sense of completion. Those feelings compounded with some of the long, dragging and nearly equally-satisfying climbs satiate a deep hunger. Brutally rough dirt roads or sloppy mud fests are much less satisfying, but do provide an important contrast. The desire to roam, to cover ground, to explore, to find treasure satisfies some nomadic craving that I’ve always had.

When I was a kid I loved the time we spent on Trinity Lake in California. This was long before I could water ski. My best buddy Max and I would go off and explore tiny little islands and coves, looking for signs of life. Often we would only come upon a sun-faded empty Budweiser beer can and a few lizards. Regardless of the find, the goal was to scramble over the mud to firm land and to inspect new terrain.

Friction has always been a part of this desire to roam that propels us forward. With no friction, we can’t move forward. Really, try walking on ice. As a rock climber, friction ruled all of those climbing sessions. Boat Rock is a climbing area near Atlanta. Climbers tend not to like it because of the climbing style it requires. Often at Boat Rock you will be wrestling for balance on nearly bald granite boulders with a few sharp crystals to hold onto. Improper foot work means you go home with bloody knees, or worse a bloody face. That was always my greatest worry at Boat Rock, hands slip and face slams the rock. Never happened, us humans are good a protecting our vital organs.

Speaking of vital organs, sex is just another example of that pleasant friction. No need to explain this one here.

In my climbing days, October was known as “Rock-tober” because the fall in temperatures meant our hands were less sweaty. It meant there was enough friction to climb outside on bulbous rocks and make use of those little crevices and features so that we could move over stone, so that we could satiate that need to roam even though we would just come back to the start via rope or walk-off.

Intentional driving has never worked to satisfy my craving to roam, though I know it works for other people.

I am one of those people who picks out and plays music even when I’m just driving for three minutes. But when climbing, cycling or roaming in general, music is not an option. Something deep in me needs that quiet. As it is for most people, my best ideas come when I’m not being bombarded by questions from staff, responding to emails, reviewing accounting reports or struggling to find my spreadsheet mistakes. Most of my working hours are filled with those pressures. So it’s no wonder that cycling 6-10 hours a week is so vital to my mental state, needless to say my body reaps the benefits as well.


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As the pressure of my work load leaves me with the proverbial shaky knees, a desire to roam, to make a pilgrimage, to see the ground pass under me only builds. As a productivity-obsessed American, there is a constant question, “what is the point of roaming?” I don’t know the answer to that, I just know that it satisfies something deep in my soul. To roam is to be human, we were built for it.  

Sunday, March 13, 2011

How quickly things change.

I almost called Sarah Allen, editor at Barista Magazine, to add a section to my article before it went to print. I decided not to because it would only add confusion.

When I wrote that last article in Harvest Journal, it was true. The process of writing it forced me to really look at how I am managing the farm. I was able to look at different angles of farm management. I've been watching the yields on the farm grow. I've had the chance to visit dozens of farms in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. There are so many different ways to manage a farm. In the end there are two major over ruling drivers: the environment and money. If money was not an issue, farm owners wouldn't use herbicide. Farm owners could pay pickers well. Farm owners could give the land and their tree exactly what they need.

However that isn't the case. Farm labor is expensive and getting more expensive every year. I talk about this in the article. I also talk about how I tend to use manual methods in my cleanings and almost never use herbicide. That was totally true. The last few cleanings we have done literally drained my bank account. Proper manual methods are so expensive. Am I willing to spend that amount over the next few years while the trees develop?

The answer turned out to be no. It became a numbers decision. I wasn't willing to continue to pay the going rate for the manual cleanings 4 times a year. In one of the first article I wrote for Barista Magazine, I mentioned that I planted about 14,000 trees. We did. Because we chose to clean with machete most of those tree were chopped down by people cleaning. Now we planted even more coffee and I'm not willing to lose that investment of labor, time and money.

By writing that article, I made myself look hard at the way I spend money on the far. After much thought and looking at numbers of cleaning costs and current production vs anticipated production, I decided that I need to look at agrochemicals in a different way. In a way that they can help me maintain my investment in the farm. So instead of avoiding herbicide I will use it more often. Instead of only sparsely using organic fertilizer I will increase my production of organic fertilizer drastically and also use chemical fertilizer once a year.

For a brief moment it feels like I lied in the article. But when I use my mature side I realize I'm oversimplifying the situation. I didn't lie. It was the true when I wrote it. Now I've decided to embrace the use of agrochemicals as an economic management tool while committing myself to the production of organic compost to maintain or even increase the micro-biotic and fungal health of the soil.

Hence, Antonio is currently finishing the coral on the farm to hold at least one work animal full time. One animal can produce about 30kg of manure a day. I really need about 60kg of manure a day to fertilize the farm as I want but a factoria de estiercol (shit factory) on the farm is the most efficient way to make sure it is used on the farm. The compost bin for coffee cherry, which has been underutilized, is now being used as it was intended.

Barista Magazine Scribblings


Here are a couple thousand of my words. I try to cover planting coffee from two different perspectives: 1) large scale 2) smaller scale. Page 66-71.

If you have 15 min, give it a read and let me know what you think.

I'm working on a longer post to say how things have changed on Finca La Paz since writing that article.
The photos are of my last trip where I did some pruning, export prep and general catchup on the farm.