See the full set on Flickr for Tim's notes on each photo from his trip to Buziraguhindwa, Burundi, June 2011.
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Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - 5:49pm
Thursday, June 2, 2011 - 8:03am
I recently got back from a week in Peru and Ecuador, where I had my fill of winding Andean roads and guinea pig lunches while working on relationships old and new: in Peru, with the Cenfrocafe co-operative and the growers of Valle del Santuario, and in Ecuador exploring a potential new partnership. I would guess that 90 percent of you guys are now wondering what's up in Ecuador, since that's a coffee-producing country we've not visited before, but that story will have to wait, because first and more important is the relationship we began four years ago in San Ignacio, Peru, with the five communities of Valle del Santuario.
We arrived at the warehouse in San Ignacio at sunset after a full day in the community of Alto Ihuamaca, and I was surprised to see Renán Neira and two other men comfortably settled on milk crates full of beer bottles playing cards.
"Where were you today?" I asked Renán, who is one of Alto Ihuamaca's representatives in the co-op and usually a fixture at meetings, "I saw your motorbike pass by this morning and I talked to your wife at the meeting, but you never showed up."
"Well," he explained, "With the harvest, you know, I had other responsibilities to attend to today."
"I see," I responded, looking at the card game and raising an eyebrow.
Renán smiled sheepishly as he said, "We finished early. Also, I thought the meeting might be … difficult."
It was neither the first nor the last time during my days in Peru that a member of the co-op's leadership made such a reference – I heard that "things are complicated" for the growers and "they want to talk to you" – to avoid stating outright that growers want a higher price for their coffee this year.
"What do you mean, difficult? You mean because the growers want a higher price?" I asked Renán.
"Yes," he said, looking relieved that I had understood his implied meaning.
"They did ask for more money, but that didn't make the meeting difficult," I commented, "it's what made the meeting good – I mean, that's why I'm here, right? That's why we have meetings."
"True. So it was good?"
"Absolutely. I only wish that everyone could have been there."
"Next time, Elena, next time," he laughed, clasping my hand in an interminable handshake, "and how soon will you be back?"
While I always strive to be optimistic, I wasn't exaggerating or sugar-coating the truth when I told Renán that our meeting was good. In fact, it was probably the best grower meeting I have ever attended, for reasons that I could never have predicted when I stood up in front of this group for the first time and collected votes for a coffee name four years ago. I admit that endless co-op meetings and price negotiations don't make for good stories, the way we usually tell them. Where's the new-relationship magic? Where's the adventure? That said, I always want my trip reports to give a behind-the-scenes look at life on the ground in the communities where we work and right now, growers are having a lot of meetings to talk about price: with their neighbors, with their co-ops and on my visit, with their buyer.
This idyllic little valley may seem remote to me after a two-day journey, but the Peruvian coffee market figured out that this area produced good coffee long before Cenfrocafe's coffee started winning awards. Competition from the local market (multi-national companies with representatives in and around San Ignacio) has only gotten tougher since we started working with these five communities and even since my last visit nine months ago, the commodity futures price for coffee has risen almost 50 percent! So what does such an increase mean to the growers and to our partnership? That's exactly what I aimed to find out.
"Last year's price wasn't as good as the price the year before," said Segundo Llacsahuanga, and other growers nodded their heads in agreement.
"It feels like we are working harder to produce better coffee than anyone else but the price isn't different," explained Soledad Cruz, the group's secretary.
It can be maddening to hear complaints like this because blame for the current situation should rest on the volatile, unreliable international market that for years we – growers and buyers – agreed had no bearing on the real costs of coffee production and great quality. Unfortunately, blaming the market gets you nowhere in negotiation – it's like blaming the weather or something.
Conversations about money are challenging whenever emotion is involved and, in a long-term relationship, emotion plays a role pretty much all of the time. But the point of a relationship isn't to make things easy, it's to make things better. Thankfully, most of the growers took advantage of the opportunity provided by my visit to share their experiences. We spent almost four hours brainstorming around the ways we could structure a contract – including a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of different pricing structures to Counter Culture, the growers and the co-op that supports us – and somewhere in the middle of it I realized that this meeting, boring by many standards, was one of the most meaningful, riveting, powerful experiences I have had in my coffee career so far because I could see the progress we have made in the years of this relationship reflected in the way that growers talk and puzzle, thoughtfully and deliberately, through the implications of different pricing strategies. And while the answer isn't easy, the discussion is.
"So what is the solution this year? Can we decide?" At the end of four hours, a chorus of growers pushed for resolution.
"I know that part of me wants to make a decision today because it would feel good to resolve things before I leave," I said, "but it's only May and we have time, so we should use it. I can talk to my team at Counter Culture about what makes sense for us and you can talk to your families and the growers that are not here about what you want to do, and then we can both talk to the co-op because they are really good at understanding both their members and their buyers."
"We understand," said Soledad, "And we agree. The most important thing is to keep selling coffee to you." And as we left the meeting and moved on to farm visits and lunch (yup, guinea pig), I could hear and feel the buzz between growers about the opportunities this year presents and I felt just as excited as I did on my first visit … just a different kind of excited!
Thursday, April 14, 2011 - 8:31pm
See the full set on Flickr for Tim's notes on each photo from his trip to El Salvador in March-April 2011.
Thursday, March 17, 2011 - 3:36pm
Though only a month has passed since our return, it already seems like forever ago that Jeff and I traveled to Guatemala to spend time with Jorge and Javier Recinos of Finca Nueva Armenia in Huehuetenango. As unbelievable as it might seem, Counter Culture had never seen this farm — home to one of our longest coffee-purchasing relationships — during the peak of the coffee harvest!
Even before the season began, I had mentally reserved a week for total Finca Nueva Armenia immersion, and I count myself blessed to have shared this trip with Jeff McArthur, Counter Culture roaster, cupper, and logistics guru — not to mention talented photographer. In addition to the typical responsibilities of a first-time coffee person at origin, we tasked Jeff with documenting the inimitable beauty of Finca Nueva Armenia and the quirky Recinos family. With his characteristic attention to detail, Jeff snapped more than 800 photographs while we were there, then winnowed them down to a manageable and beautiful set, which he posted to Flickr, complete with descriptions! Then, with his characteristic humility, he didn't promote these great photos around the office, so I’m taking it upon myself to crow over his skills.
Recent references to the theme of this year’s TED conference — The Rediscovery of Wonder — brought this trip, family and farm to mind immediately. First, because Finca Nueva Armenia is awe-inspiring. Have you ever wondered why we use a stylized photograph as the coffee’s icon on our packaging? I have wondered, and increasingly I think that it’s because, even with all of our powers of imagination combined, we could not dream up an icon so beautiful or dramatic as the scenery at this farm. Four years have passed since my first visit to Finca Nueva Armenia and I have seen a lot of farms and met a lot of people since then, which makes it all the more intriguing that I feel more star-struck now than I did on that first visit to this corner of Guatemala.
Though this was Jeff’s first trip to origin, I was the one gasping and marveling at the landscape like a good gringo tourist as the mountains and valleys of Finca Nueva Armenia spread out in front of us.
If it’s a little bit hard to believe that the farm is real. The same goes for warm and good-natured Recinos brothers. If I didn’t know them, I wouldn’t believe that coffee farmers like Jorge and Javier still existed. That’s a strange thing to say, I know, because it's not like these guys are churning their own butter: they drive cars, watch reality television, have university degrees, and have traveled to Botswana (that’s a story for another time). And yet, I can’t help feeling like they belong in another era because they lack the cynicism that sometimes seems entrenched in modern-day society (in Guatemala as in the US).
These 30-something twins speak reverently of the beauty of the land their great-grandfather purchased at the beginning of last century, and they marvel at the health and strength of the towering bourbon-variety coffee trees their grandfather planted there in the 1940s. They recognize that neighboring farms look, feel, and produce coffee very different from theirs. They know that if Finca Nueva Armenia had no shade, more plants per foot, and plentiful agrochemical fertilizers, the two of them could make more money. But, as inheritors of generations of tradition and preservers of a style of agriculture that almost doesn't exist in coffee, they've chosen to keep the old ways and make them work in this new world.
With all of that in mind, my hope for each of you is that when Finca Nueva Armenia's coffee arrives next month, you can taste it with a hint of that sense of wonder I feel!
Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 5:00am
See the full set on Flickr for Jeff's notes on each photo from his trip to Finca Nueva Armenia in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, in January 2011.
Monday, January 31, 2011 - 8:50pm
Thursday, January 27, 2011 - 6:37pm