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.


Hunt Slade said...


While I know that your post comes from a most passionate place in your heart, I am frankly quite surprised that your concerns about our project did not warrant a phone call or at least an email, especially after reading of your adoration (your words) for myself and my team. You have made wild and unfounded assumptions, presumptions and accusations, and while I detest debate for debate’s sake, that is not the case here. I have a responsibility to our organization, the families of Linares and the integrity of the work to answer these points you have made.

Kickstarter is a website (a for-profit business) that facilitates micro-philanthropy for creative endeavors; one that allows people to find creative projects that are meaningful to them and support them, even if that financial support is but one dollar. The pricing and use of the money within our proposed budget is clearly notated, comparison shopped and completely devoid of payment for the hundreds if not thousands of hours we will spend of our own valuable time taking the documentary through to completion, not to mention the cost and labor of distribution. Who are any of us to diminish the worth of creative endeavors, even more so those particular ones that shine a light where there has been very little?

Since your thoughts were very well organized, I will remain with your numerical structure.

Hunt Slade said...

1) Of the 22 families of Linares, only 3 of them have asked us to come and help them get their farms productive again. The village has been burned by well-meaning North Americans a number of times in the past that have come in and taught them to grow big-ticket culinary ingredients in a couple of weeks. When the fad of those ingredients faded and the market shifted, they were left with crops that they could not even give away (eggplant and avocado to name a couple). It is wise for them to be wary until we have proven ourselves and we are in no rush to "convince" them of our commitment. If it takes five years to gain their trust, or if they do not choose to go back to coffee at all, so be it. The over-arching mission of doing substantial good in the field of our expertise is worth it to us to go work with the three families that are open at this time, taking the time to build feet-on-the-ground relationships with them. After all, we have as much to learn from them as they do from us, if not more.

2) We are not agronomists and have never claimed to be. What we are is a team with over 70 combined years in the non-profit sector - I have over a decade myself. We know how to stretch a dollar (or Lempira) until it screams, we know how to find people that already have the skill set and experience to get a thing done, we have an extensive network already extant in Honduras, we are learning machines and one would be hard-pressed to find harder workers. Isaac Newton himself admitted that his advances in the sciences were due to what he called "standing on the shoulders of giants". We would be foolish to believe that armed with only a library card and a fire in the belly, we could go and do all of this work ourselves (much less in only ten days, but that is for a later point) and that is why we have spent much of the last year cultivating relationships at IHCAFE, the University of Georgia, the mayor of nearby Gualaco, exporters in San Pedro Sula and many more.

3) We made it plainly clear on both our Kickstarter and dirtyCup pages that the Feb ten day trip is only the first of many quarterly trips that will continue for the duration of the seven to ten year commitment we are making to the village of Linares in this effort. I expect that the relationships we gain will be rich and fulfilling for everyone and last a lifetime. I'm not at all sure why you seem to have missed that very important time frame while you read all that we have proposed.

Hunt Slade said...

3) We made it plainly clear on both our Kickstarter and dirtyCup pages that the Feb ten day trip is only the first of many quarterly trips that will continue for the duration of the seven to ten year commitment we are making to the village of Linares in this effort. I expect that the relationships we gain will be rich and fulfilling for everyone and last a lifetime. I'm not at all sure why you seem to have missed that very important time frame while you read all that we have proposed.

4) If this were going to be a one-time trip, then yes, renting gear would be a good plan, but as I just covered, we need gear that is consistent, constantly available, and built to handle years in the mountains. You wouldn’t prefer your coffee to be represented by how it tastes from a discount store $30 “espresso machine”, and we feel the same about the tools needed to present the importance and quality of our work.

Hunt Slade said...

5) What good can a documentary do? How about Woodstock, Anne Frank Remembered, King: A Filmed Record, Buena Vista Social Club, Encounters at the End of the World, or even An Inconvenient Truth? One may not agree with all of the content covered in these works but what one cannot do is deny the revelatory power of digging deeply in subjects for the purpose of exposing previously unknown information to the consciousness of the public.

6) We came to know of Linares through a friend that has been working throughout Honduras for the better part of 15 years. He has been connecting medical, educational, spiritual and labor resources to various parts of the country for that time. We are entering a network of resources that already flows strongly. We may not be rich but we are resourceful and what labor they need, we will supply. Remember, we bring with us decades of relationships and connections in the non-profit sector. Our initial job is to establish the work plan and connect the right people that have the right skill sets with the exact place in the effort in which they fit. We have neither need nor desire to get the credit, so we have no problem letting others help where they already want to. A wise woman once told me, "if you don't care who gets the credit, you can really get some things accomplished." She may have stolen that line from someone else, but it meant a whole lot to me coming from her.

Hunt Slade said...

7) I won't venture to guess all that you have been through in your work at origin and I'm sure that it has been difficult beyond the telling of it. In fact, I have considered you to be a giant on whose shoulders others may stand because your work in Los Frios. Your work has shown many in the industry that getting involved at origin is possible even if you are not a large company. You have done your groundwork and we are continuing to do ours.

8) I won't address the use of the money again - a moot point. However, I must point out a gross assumption on your part. We will not be "pull(ing) them away from food crops to plant a cash crop." You don't know this about me, but I spent the first fifteen years of my life in either vegetable gardens or greenhouses. I plowed, fertilized, sowed, weeded, tended, mended, harvested, put up, cross-pollinated, grafted, cloned, rooted, re-potted, rebuilt, raked the snow off of the greenhouses, shored up the bracing and refueled the heaters at four in the morning all of those years because that's what my family did. That's what you do and then go to school or work because you need to eat. Both, not either-or. Enough said.

Hunt Slade said...

9) When I said that we would like to see the families of Linares "regain the lives their grandparents had," I meant it in the sense of being financially solvent and preferably profitable in doing the work that they knew and enjoyed. It was also a statement that we are not going in there to turn them into some kind of Americanized, utterly yield-focused coffee factory.

In the end, you commentary on the whole affair has come off as bitter and grousing and I do not think that it has anything to do with me, my team or the project at hand. I am sorry that it has been so difficult for you over the years on the farm, but I hope that it serves as a bolstering statement that your persistence, your commitment, your passion for the people you work with both stateside and in DR has inspired us, in great part, to push forward in our efforts at origin. I think that if you knew the whole of it, you would find many in the industry that feel the same way. Thank you for your concerns but next time, if you have questions that require clarification, please feel free to call.


Hunt Slade
Safehouse Coffee & Tea

Anonymous said...

You sound bitter and unhappy. Why exactly are you down there doing what you do? Sounds like you're looking for praise. If you know these guys so well, why not just call them and talk to them about it instead of posting such a blind opinion?

Mine's not a high horse......

Thompson Owen said...

Hunt - I read Byron's post fairly thoroughly and skimmed through your reponse after reading the first bit. Honestly, I have cups getting cold on the table and too much going on. But you should re-read his post when you are in a different frame of mind. He makes very, very valid points. -Tom

Unknown said...

As a young barista in the industry and having only 4 years of experience, I can say from a personal perspective, there isn't enough information for me to feel comfortable sending money for a 10 day project. I don't want to sound like I am not supporting the cause, I think that helping anyone out of general concern is one of the purist things that we can do, and the feeling we receive from helping someone else is outstanding. I just know that 10k seems a bit steep for a camera, lighting equipment and 10 days in a country that doesn't run on American economic standards. I purchased an HD video camera around 2 years ago, fully customizable (which I later found was the same camera used in The Perfect Cappuccino), and the sound, visual effects and overall quality were fantastic. It did not cost me 6 thousand dollars to get it. Not even close. I love everyone at Safehouse and I am for everyone there accomplishing the goals they have set for themselves, but I cannot jump on board with such little information presented. I didn't hear a business plan, logistics plan, or financial outline for the 10 day trip... that might be a good start. I would want to know where my money is going specifically. I love you guys, and Byron, I miss you. I hope that all turns out the way you wanted. I know nothing of farming coffee, or fruit, or the work that is involved but my point is... if I am just a kid in the coffee industry who doesn't know a whole lot, and I see some holes in this plan, what will the people who do know a whole lot think?

Gabe W.