I have never felt such love for an airport as I felt upon setting foot in Managua Thursday morning after our plane spent NINE HOURS on the tarmac between the gate and the runway in Houston, TX, caught in a the earliest snowstorm the city has seen since 1944. Thankfully, no one faked a heart condition to get off the plane or attacked a flight attendant over peanuts, and we arrived in one very relieved piece. I was tired and achy, but I was also excited to be back in Nicaragua and eager to get to Matagalpa, so I grabbed my backpack, walked out to the highway, and caught the first north-bound bus that passed. Giff Laube, the manager of Finca Esperanza Verde, met me in town and immediately started to fill me in on what's been going on with our grower partners here in Matagalpa.
As some of you know from personal experience visiting this group of coffee farmers over the years, they have struggled with issues that range from the viability of organic agriculture to their membership to the payments received – or more specifically, not received – from the co-op that exports their coffee. By January 2008, they had reached a point of no return in their frustration over these payments and approached Counter Culture, their buyer of five years, about selling coffee to us through some other means than co-op.
[Note: the use of the term "co-op" can be confusing because in a system like this one, there are various tiers of co-op that build upon one another. For the purposes of explanation, when I use the term, I will be referring to the export co-op, which is organized for the purpose of marketing and exporting the coffee of many small farmer co-ops, including the one from which Counter Culture Coffee has purchased coffee for our Café San Ramón for the past five years.]
While we understood their frustrations and wanted to support their decision, we felt hesitant to encourage them to leave the co-op because we knew that doing so would require a lot of work by every member, unity among them, and trust in their buyer. We discussed the actions that they would have to undertake over the course of the year. They felt confident that they could do it, so we promised to support them along the way and to see how we could make the new arrangement work for us, as well as for them.
Now, it's December. The harvest is in full swing and 11 of the growers, plus Finca Esperanza Verde, have done the legwork necessary to sell coffee to Counter Culture through a system that we all hope will lead to more transparency in the chain, better quality in the cup and more money paid to the growers. Giff and Javier Martinez, one of the founders of the co-op's organic program, are the architects of the new system, and they have put a ton of time and energy into keeping the group on track this year. Seriously, none of this could have happened without their leadership. So, as soon as they requested that Counter Culture visit before the end of 2008 to discuss some of the challenges they're facing, I was itching to talk things over in person. Since I have been here, I have visited a few farms and cupped early coffee samples from some of the growers at the mill, but the thrust of the trip is different from most of my origin trips in that I really came here to sit down and, as Giff says, "talk turkey." What is the group's plan for organic certification? How much will it cost? What are their costs, and how can we make sure that more money reaches them this year than in years past? Where is their financing coming from?
After an initial group meeting, coordination (between Counter Culture Coffee in Nicaragua, the mill in Nicaragua, Counter Culture stateside, and the importing company stateside – go team!) some strategizing and a second group meeting this morning, things look good. We've overcome many obstacles in securing access to credit for the farmers, reestablishing Counter Culture Coffee's coffee quality standards, and setting prices that will deliver more money to the farmers than ever before. It feels good, and I am excited to be returning here soon – in less than a month, in fact – to see how things are going. This is a big step for a group of farmers who describe themselves as poor and marginalized, and I am both proud of them and proud that Counter Culture is a part of it. Our mutual dedication to seeing if this new model works, and helping to make it work, is a great example of what it means to have real relationships with coffee growers. In order for a long-term relationship to work, both parties must allow for change, assess the ups and downs of prior years, and support each other through challenges. I believe that at the end of this year, our relationship with the growers of Café San Ramón will be stronger than ever and the coffee will taste better than ever, as well, which is inspiring!
Finally, in deference to the season, Felices Fiestas! (Happy Holidays!) It feels funny to hear American Christmas carols on the radio in tropical Nicaragua, but, then again, North Carolina is rarely a winter wonderland around this time of year. Not to mention, I love Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You," regardless of the season. I don't want a lot for Christmas …
P.S. The first photo shows the dry mill, Beneficio La Pita, where the growers are tendering their coffee this year; the second is Javier and the third is Carmen, who is the head cupper at La Pita. She has worked with Counter Culture coffees since the beginning and has great affection for us – note the apron – and I have enormous respect for her as a person and as one of the best cuppers in Nicaragua! We are so lucky to work with such great people every step of the way.