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.

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