Baristas have it kind of easy when it comes to peer-to-peer knowledge sharing: Most folks can get to a local TNT or barista jam by hopping on a subway car or putting their bike pedals to the metal. But what about coffee producers? What kind of opportunities exist for farm owners and crop managers to gather in a room and share ideas, ask each other questions, and maybe even commiserate a little?
Hopefully, that sort of thing just got at little easier – at least for a select group of producers in Central America.
Last week, our Sustainability & Producer Relations Manager, Kim Elena Bullock, traveled to Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras, to host the first-ever "Origin Pro Series," which she describes as a kind of "grower's summit on soil fertility and quality experiments."
Kim Elena said the idea sprung from a kind of intellectual match-making that she and Tim Hill, our Coffee Buyer & Quality Manager, had long been trying to arrange between two of their most experimental and quality-obsessed producing partners: Aida Batlle of Finca Mauritania in El Salvador, and Roberto Salazar of the Honduran farm Finca Pashapa.
"Aida wanted to learn about Roberto's organic composting success, and Roberto expressed interest in Aida's quality systems," Kim Elena said. "And, the farms lie less than four hours from one another by road!"
The relative geographic closeness of the two farms, as well as both growers' enthusiasm for learning more from one another, got Bullock thinking: "It occurred to me that other growers and co-ops would also benefit from Roberto's knowledge of soil amendments and Aida's experience with quality experimentation. So what if we got a group of Central American producers whom we know to be capable of creating great-quality coffee into a room to talk about the issues that we hear the most questions about, namely, organic agriculture practices and quality development?"
Kim Elena and Tim, along with Counter Intelligence manager Lydia Iannetti, developed a two-day curriculum geared toward providing a group of Counter Culture's Central American producing partners – from growers to co-op leaders – a chance to learn from one another in person, rather than having to hear anecdotes or conduct isolated research on their own.
"We buyers, who visit farms regularly, see certain farmers excel at different areas of coffee growing and processing, and we do our best to cross-pollinate and share best practices between them," Kim Elena said. "[Our] lack of personal experience on … topics where we find ourselves giving advice definitely limits the extent to which we can address concerns; other growers with years of successes and failures can much more effectively help their peers find answers to these questions."
Kim Elena & Co. decided to focus this inaugural program on two prominent issues facing small farmers and co-ops: organic soil fertility and the risk-reward balance of conducing quality-based experiments. Kim Elena explains, "We are unusual among quality-focused coffee companies for our commitment to organic certification, and one of the most common issues that certified organic farms face, especially small farms, is the availability of certified farm inputs that will help them to maintain consistent yields and fertile soil.
Our second topic – quality experiments – complements our dedication to sustainability with our pursuit of new, different, interesting flavors in coffee. We want growers to experiment with varieties, processes and lot separation and offer price incentives to encourage that experimentation, but many growers find it intimidating because it's a risk, and they have only heard tell of these experiments, never seen them or met growers that have succeeded at producing exceptional results."
Around 20 growers and co-op representatives from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala took part in the first incarnation of this program, which has an open-ended future. "I feel confident that in addition to encouraging practices that increase productivity and improve quality, this event demonstrates Counter Culture’s commitment to our partners and will in turn strengthen their commitment to us as a buyer," said Kim Elena. "It's not the only event to bring producers together to share experiences – from Let's Talk Coffee to Ramacafe to EAFCA, there are plenty of grower-focused conferences – but it is unique for its focus on only two topics, intimate class size, and single-language presentation."
Check back for Kim Elena's full report on the program.