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 kickstart.com 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.