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Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. When I was naught but a wee coffee-driven person, I made my first foray into the world of coffee-producer relationships with a trip to Peru in September of 2006. In those heady days, Counter Culture Coffee had one satellite regional training center, the commodity market price for coffee hovered somewhere around $1.10, the US housing market was strong, and I had bleached blond hair. Ahhh, memories. Since then, I have spent more time here than in most other coffee-producing countries, and both Peter and Rich have made trips to Peru within the past year, as well.

Our attention owes, in large part, to the unparalleled relationship we have built with the Cenfrocafe co-operative and the five communities of coffee growers behind our Valle del Santuario, and in part to the great mystery and potential of Peruvian coffee. It takes time to explore Peru, especially when you’re bumping over dirt roads in a white Toyota station wagon, the unofficial national vehicle, but you always discover something amazing. This year, for the first time, I am visiting the growers of Valle del Santuario during the dry season and what a difference it makes! Slogs up muddy mountain paths that seemed interminable on my last trip are transformed into pleasant, if challenging, hikes, and the chilly nights contrast nicely with warm, sunny days.

Seeing the differences between the rainy season and the dry season reminds me how dramatic weather can be. In North Carolina, we certainly know heat (especially in August), and in other parts of our country, we know a breed of cold that most Peruvians couldn’t fathom. Rain and drought, though, are another story. Even in the dry season, the valleys of tiny farms around the Tabaconas Namballe National Sanctuary (to which our coffee owes its name) are lush with vegetation. Shade trees cover the hillsides, and you would be hard-pressed to walk from one farm to another without crossing at least one small stream. On the other hand, the areas below San Ignacio like the city of Jaén, home to the Cenfrocafe co-operative, feel like deserts at this time of year.

Growers know better than anyone that weather patterns are changing. They want to plan for the future of their farms just as we try to project into the future for the benefit of our businesses. Photo by Kim Elena Bullock. On one of this week’s many long, winding drives through the Andes, I commented on the apparent drought to the co-op manager, Teodomiro. He pointed to blackened patches of hillside and explained that when it gets too dry for people to bear, they begin to burn their land because they believe (and have believed for who knows how many generations) that their sacrifice will bring the rain. And when the rainy season finally does arrive, it settles in for weeks or months and washes chunks of the hillside away in landslides. Last year’s rainy season was especially fierce and the mountains are striped with bare earth, but every year, growers tell me, the rain carries some part of their mountains away. I can’t help but think of the Appalachian Mountains, which I remember learning in grade school were once taller than the Andes. Whether time and rain could ever make Appalachians out of the Andes probably depends on geological factors that I don’t understand at all, and, meanwhile, I realize that climate change could alter this environment just as dramatically and within our lifetimes.

Growers know better than anyone that weather patterns are changing. They want to plan for the future of their farms just as we try to project into the future for the benefit of our businesses, and, unfortunately, I can’t assuage their fears or answer their questions. I am conscious of how often I say, “I don’t know” and “It depends” in response to questions that are too big for me, Counter Culture, or the relationship we have forged over the past four years to answer with any level of honesty. What if the climate does get warmer and I can’t grow coffee on my land? I don’t know. Or, by far the most commonly-asked question: is the commodity market price going to go up or down? I don’t know.

Even those questions that don’t depend on worldwide climatic or economic shifts aren’t simple, so when my answer isn’t, “I don’t know,” it’s probably “It depends.” What is the best variety of coffee to grow? It depends. How can I produce a microlot and get a higher price for my coffee? It depends. I could give short or easy answers to these growers but they wouldn’t be true, and these growers would figure me out after a year or two. And I doubt I would get invited back. The more time I spend doing this work, and the longer we work with the same growers, the more I understand that the truth – and gratification – lies precisely in that maddening complexity that it’s so tempting to simplify.

On that Peru trip of 2006, I was awed by eating guinea pig for breakfast, by the long drives, and by the party that the coffee-growing community threw upon our arrival. Four years later, I revel in strategic discussions that remind me as much of the way Counter Culture works with our customers as they do of the first-year, getting-to-know-you celebrations that take place every year for coffee buyers across Peru and the rest of the world. I guess you could say our producer relationship is growing up (and so fast! sniff). I am proud, obviously, that we’ve gotten here. But, at the same time, in the spirit of keeping the romance alive, I freely admit that I still love a community-wide party and that fried guinea pig in the morning still makes for a heck of a wake-up call.

Kim Elena
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