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.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Harvest Updates

Pa' que sepa
. So that you know. The harvest at Finca La Paz is over for this year. The yield was a bit less than last year. I was there for the prep of the farm and I have been following weekly updates about picking, processing, weather, dry times, weather, rain, cloud cover, processing, weather, and more weather.

Last year's harvest couldn't have asked for better weather. The rains were so cooperative it was really incredible. This year was a bit rougher. We had a tropical storm hit us just as the largest picking happened. That was an issue because for a couple days we couldn't dry the coffee. Lucky for us the weather passed and the sun came out to dry the coffee. In general, the coffee took a while to dry. This season varied between wet and cold. The town of Los Frios only sits at 1,200 meters, but at our latitude we are stuck with typical high-altitude cool afternoons. Sure it will break 80 degrees most days, but to dry coffee on a raised beds and a patio 85+ for 6 hours is perfect.

On average the coffee took over two weeks to dry. This is good for the green life of the coffee. The natural process was the last one to finish.

This year there will be three different processes and I hope to sell them individually in a three pack of coffees. Washed with a post-fermentation soak, underwater fermentation then fully washed, and full natural.

Like I said the yield is low but the quality should be just fine after a good hand sort.

I am headed down to the DR in two weeks for the pruning and export prep of the coffee. The pruning and the post harvest management are some of the most influential factors that determine next years production. There will be a few different pruning methods used. I will share more as it happens.

When the my coffee is for sale I will share more details.

Now it is time to finish making Sancocho to fend off this sub-zero week here in New York City.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ummm. I feel like I should say something.

So I asked some questions. Some of those questions were answered in a long post. I know I offended the people at dirty Cup and Safe House Coffee and Tea. I know some of their friends were also very upset at how I asked some questions online. The response was warranted. They felt attacked even though it wasn't my intention to attack. Many people have personally approached me to thank me for my post, but few have posted comments of their own. Those at Dirty Cup were mad because I didn't call first. Sorry. But my questions are for everyone, just like the project.

Let me tell you a story. After two years living in a coffee producing community, I left touched forever by the lives that people shared with me. I had close friends of mine die during those two years both in the US and new friends in the DR. I came back inspired to make a difference. It took me a full year before I had the idea to enter the coffee industry, I'm a slow learner. When I did start as a production employee at Batdorf & Bronsons roastery in Atlanta, I bagged coffee for 40 hours a week. I purchased a coffee farm six months into that job. I put up a website and proclaimed to the world that "middle men in coffee make all the money." I was working for a great roastery and had two years experience listening to farmers. After several months of research and talking to all the exporters in the DR, I decided that this one guy, Bent, who might be the best one for the job.

Bent and his wonderful wife, Begonia, and I went out to see their farm and dry mill the first day we met. Halfway to the farm while the SUV Turbo Diesel Mitsubishi pitched back and forth over half paved roads, Bent said to me, "Byron, something on your website really pissed me off". Clearly I was shocked he had read the site and his anger rang clear in his voice, "You said middle men make all the money in coffee." Instantly I knew that my attempt to commiserate with my fellow Dominican farmers had gotten me into a tight situation. "Um yes I did say that," I did my best to maker sure my tone wasn't defensive or aggressive because I wanted to hear his side. He very eloquently told me about the value of middlemen in the coffee equation who bring wet parchment to drying areas. Who is going to pay the insurance on the truck if a middleman doesn't charge a margin? Who is going to pay for the new tires when the bad roads shred them? He mentioned specific examples. I shared prices from my community that intermediaries charge. I had been misinformed about the weight loss in coffee and the prices then made sense. My ideas about how coffee worked were changed forever.

I got in the SUV with words that I had listened to for two years straight, "Middlemen make all the money, us poor farmers are left with the scraps and can't cover our costs." I believed it so much that I posted it on the WORLD wide web. Bent asked me a pointed question and I learned something. Coffee, for me, has been the most humbling series of life experiences.

I only posted questions because I thought they would help me and others understand the mission. It would be totally wrong for me to say I'm doing anything different. I write a column in Barista Magazine about my farm to educate baristas about the realities of origin life. I keep a blog. I've given talks in coffee shops about processing coffee. I've hosted cuppings of my coffees to show the differences in processes. Dirty Cup and Safe House Coffee are doing similar things. This isn't about being right and wrong.

Coffee is a great teacher. I didn't post answers because I don't know what is best for Linares. The last thing I would do is tell Dirty Cup how to run a project. I know a bit about coffee from diverse experiences. I sincerely thought good questions would only strengthen the entire concept. If my intention was slander, would I have sent it to Hunt directly after I posted it? If I intended to slander, why didn't I put links up elsewhere? I was happy to leave it up on a site that only gets about 1 visit a day. On that last Monday when it went up I was in a training over Skype with someone in Brazil, so I couldn't respond to Hunt's attempts to contact me until 4pm. I did post something, but it was never published. So I had to put something where it would be published.

People strongly recommended posting something to make sure my voice was heard as I intended it, which is very different from the voice of the anonymous comment below.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Coffeeland Honduras Coffee Documentary

I would never do this if I didn't feel strongly. At the very least I'm posting this in a place that gets very little traffic and largely abandon by me, the author.

After hearing about this buzz, I have decided to look into it myself and make my own opinion. I took the time to watch the video and google the title of the project. The basic information was repeated a few times on high traffic coffee blogs. Let me make one thing very clear, I adore Hunt and his crew they are dedicated and passionate coffee professionals that I know personally.

If you are reading this and know nothing about my experience, which is totally expected, let me tell you that over the last 7 years I have been working in a remote, rural town in the Dominican Republic who's history mirrors Linares'. Hit by a hurricane that destroyed the coffee - Check. No electricity- Check. Small farmers who have moved away from coffee - Check. Need for literacy work - Check.

I started working in Los Frios in 2003 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the agroforesty sector. After three months of intensive language, cultural and technical training, I could identify types of shade used in coffee, I knew the basics of inter-cropping, I could speak conversational Spanish. I spent the first year (365 days) learning cycle of planting, politics, why the community used slash-and-burn methods, and economics of the community through building relationships around my work in fruit tree nurseries.

It was only after 9-12 months of living in Los Frios before I could start to stand up in meetings and know who the players were, what was important and what the people actually wanted. Since then, I have purchased a small coffee farm in Los Frios from an old friend and have been in the process of converting it from an avocado farm back to coffee. I have done it fully self-funded. I have, from the beginning, tried to make it a sustainable business because all my experience has taught me that community work is about positively effecting people’s lives through sustainable businesses and practices.

1) A poor community will never say no. Never ever. I have years of non-profit experience and not only in the DR. Walk up to any poor community say, do you want this? They will say, Yes.

2) Agronomos son plaga. Even if the wonderful people from Safehouse were traditionally trained agronomists from Central America, could they add real value to this one town? Probably not. Traditionally trained agronomist that speak Spanish talk all about production and disease resistance. Quality is an afterthought only valid when the price is rewarding quality. Then try to apply agrochemical techniques in such a remote setting, using mules to carry N-P-K and herbicides. . . Will local agronomists know the techniques to building appropriate fertilizer locally?

3) Can you make change in 10 days? It depends on how small of a unit you use to measure the change. If the unit is very small and not dependent on being positive or negative, then yes.

4) Camera Equipment for 6k? I have friends who are professional photographers and friends who make short films they shoot in HD. Neither one asks for help paying for equipment except from Credit Card Companies, but that is not my point. My point is that they have made it clear to me at one can rent an HD Video camera or lenses for international travel because both have offered to shoot something on my farm. Neither was going to ask for donations to a non-profit to cover something that can be rented at a fraction of the retail cost.

5) Rings of service. The entire trailer on rings of the desire to serve both the small town on the Linares and Griffin Georgia. But I have to ask, what does a documentary shot over 10 days provide as service to Linares?

6) Hurricanes are bad. They destroy things. But to say those robust people that Hunt describes couldn't rebuild is simply insulting. Ten people died in Los Frios when Hurricane George hit the Dominican Republic. Many coffee farms were leveled, especially those that didn't have any soil conservation methods in place. Then in '99/'00 the coffee price fell through the floor. That is why people didn't replant coffee in Los Frios or, I would imagine, Linares. What is the percent increase in labor cost in the last five years? Has that question been asked? That is one of the major factors killing coffee production, in some Central American countries, the labor cost goes up 7% each year. How much as the Honduran Lempira lost against the US dollar in the last 5 years? What are the government programs supporting coffee farmers? Who are the people who can get the coffee produced from those 22 families to the dry mill assuming you can wet mill it on site? Blaming it all on the hurricane shows me how much investigation has been done in this project.

7) I don't know shit. I have a fraction of the experience of many of the greats in this coffee industry. But I have been on both sides of the equation. Listening to a community plead for support ($). And I have been a farmer trying to reestablish a coffee farm in these terrible financial times. I have spent hours upon hours in meetings with co-ops. Once we figure out what the fundamentals in the business are, then we can all make progress. But coffee is business pure and simple.

8) Coffeeland Honduras is an honorable project when properly managed and well funded. But to create a 10K project that promises so much for a 10 day trip is hard for me to swallow. 10k could fund a bilingual person six months living in that same community working with the farmers to see how much coffee they need to plant to make money. That person could even write a cost of production for coffee to see if coffee is even viable. All the sudden it becomes business like. Then it becomes personal. Twenty-two families is not a small number. Pull them away from food crops to plant a cash crop? I would never do that. That is me. I went and purchased a farm because I don't believe that any family should follow me until I showed them that it works. Poor families are risk adverse. Any change is risk. Why will they follow a roaster/retailer's advice?

9) Show that its broken. I think if Coffeeland Honduras is done well, it would show with lucid detail why coffee in Central America doesn't work. The battle cry to bring back the life like their grandparents used to have is nice, but not possible from my perspective.

In conclusion, this is personal for me and that probably rings through loud and clear in this post. I have very strong opinions on how development should work in rural agricultural communities. I feel that - no hay mal que por bien no venga - all things bad started with good intentions. Positive intention doesn't mean positive results. I guess the kicker for me is the camera. Once the documentary is released who takes that camera home to shoot videos to support what brand? Dirty Cup/Safe House Coffee, they ultimately take it all home on the community’s coin. I also started to form a non-profit called Young Tree Community to run the development aspects of my work in the Dominican Republic. I never formally finalized the organization because my help decided to work elsewhere. I feel a dual model of non-profit and for profit can work beautifully if managed transparently in different ways. In the end, I don't see a quality documentary fitting under the umbrella of a non-profit, but I'm not a lawyer. Maybe I look at things in too black and white a manner. Maybe I totally missed the point. Or maybe I have a point and felt like I should share it with an impressionable community. So that is what I did.

Fundamentally, I would like to see this project be taken through to fruition, but not by these methods.

New Everything

Hello world,

Last I posted something it was July and I had just returned from Uganda and Ethiopia. Then I was to start as a Sales Rep for Dallis Bros Coffee. At the end of my training they offered me a job as their Coffee Director to buy green coffee, manage quality control and direct training for the company. Truly my dream job.

So I said yes, moved to Brooklyn, starting commuting to Queens five days a week and generally adjusting to a new everything. I've gone to the Dominican Republic to prep the micro-wet mill for the harvest and to Kenya on a coffee buying trip and also to Texas to participate in the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative.
So far I love it. I work with genuine real people that I really really enjoy. I work for a company that I believe in, and who has a mission I fully support.

On Finca La Paz, we are on our third picking and the harvest is already past its peak. I plan on heading down there for the usual pruning and export prep trip in late January.

I just felt the need to post this because the next post is more of a rant. I don't know if it is the New York attitude that has seeped into me or the fact that I just disagree so strongly. Regardless I just think it needed to be said.

Monday, July 19, 2010

You just can't describe Africa. . .

I've been told that my many people. You just have to be there to smell the red dirt. You just have to spend time there to understand it. Africa is different. People usually describe it as a positive trait, it is special. The people that tell me usually roll their eyes back "oh my gosh" in this , it was so amazing face. Some friends have lived there for a few years as a Peace Corps Volunteers, others friends for 6 months with 4H. They all have educated opinions.

So, when I arrived I was really stoked to see if I would tap into this vibe that is so beyond words that all my educated friends can't seem to share it verbally. I was only there for 3 weeks. I only visited two countries of East Africa: Uganda and Ethiopia. Therefore my opinion is rather near sighted, but I do want to put in to writing the vibe that I sensed.

I'm about as Irish as I am black. Really. If you have seen me before you would know that the only dark skin I have is called a freckle. If you haven't, here is me:We (United States People) like to refer back to our "roots". We like to say yes I'm Irish. Yet we have never been to the island and don't know why they are fighting in the North. We like to say, I'm 1/4 German, 1/4 English and 1/2 French because we can. On my first trip to Europe, I went to Italy. I saw a sculpture that is 5X older than our country. I saw ruins that were even older than that. Our desire to have roots pushes us to refer all the way back to our Pre-British colony roots. I know that my mom's family can be traced back to the Mayflower and through that, I'm related to George Washington. And yet, when people ask me about the red hairs on my chin and pale skin, I say, "I'm 1/2 Irish, 1/4 English, 1/4 German".

In our individualist society, in the USA we love to pride ourselves in how each one of us is exceptional. And we are. Everyone is. Our search for our tribe is what, I think, drives us to look way back into our genealogical history to find our origin.

In Uganda, there are about 20 tribes and about 25 million people. Each tribe has its own language, customs and culture. Seeing as how there are Muslims and Christians living there in more or less unity leads me to believe it can be done here in the USA. But the fact that they are a country is more a recognition of the need for a political boarder to manage the rich resources, than a unifying bond behind the 20 different tribes. When I was in Kasese, Uganda I towered over most of the local men. It was a nice change. But that is a tribe known for being small.

Ethiopia has about 84 tribes and about 80 million people. It seemed to be similar. As we drove from the Oromia region, where the only nice buildings between the huts and shacks were Mosques, it was clear this was a Muslim state. The terrain changed and we crossed a river into Kaffa, now there were more women showing hair and much fewer Mosques. There were Orthodox Churches and Protestant Churches everywhere. When one crosses that river the language, culture, religion and terrain changed noticeably.

What did I find common in both countries? OUR roots. Really. What struck me when looking at the faces of Ugandan and Ethiopian people was that I saw myself. Remember I'm white. But something about the unspoken of human structure of society and how it plays out into different tribes fighting over certain resources and sometimes over nothing. Now we are all fancy an call them countries but really we are just tribes. So many people seemed to say with their faces, we've seen this before. And even the designs of logos, and buildings struck me as so classic and timeless. See the match box below and the Tonic Water above. Those are from big companies but even the small companies often had beautiful logos that could last centuries.

When leaving Kaffa, I was thinking that if people knew their history here they might actually know it for a few hundred, if not, thousand years. Working the same plot as their fathers. Dealing with the same challenges. Probably the same neighbors too. Some scientists say Ethiopia was the birth place of humanity. Where we decided to stand up and grow opposable thumbs.

In my near sighted view, this vibe that we sense in Africa is us resonating with ourselves, our true roots. Maybe its been 10,000 years since us whities headed north from Ethiopia, but I'm sure it happened. It was enlightening to see it again.