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Coffee producers gathered in Honduras for our inaugural Pro Series: Organic Agriculture and Quality Experimentation.
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."
 
Coffee producers gathered in Honduras for our inaugural Pro Series: Organic Agriculture and Quality Experimentation.
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?"
 
Coffee producers gathered in Honduras for our inaugural Pro Series: Organic Agriculture and Quality Experimentation.
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.
Coffee producers gathered in Honduras for our inaugural Pro Series: Organic Agriculture and Quality Experimentation.
 
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.
 
- Meister
 
See the full set on Flickr for Tim's notes on each photo from his trip to Buziraguhindwa, Burundi, June 2011.
Hello all!
 
The lush mountains of northern Peru.
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.
 
Farmers and their families from the Cenfrocafe cooperative contribute coffee to our Valle del Santuario offering.
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?"
 
Kim Elena at the white board showing cupping score valuations and other data.
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.
 
A view up the hill in the valley of San Ignacio, Peru.
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!
 
Saludos,
Kim Elena
Dear Friends and valued customers,
 
Over the past several months the cost of the coffee we purchase has increased by more than 60 percent.
The world of coffee has changed. Over the past several months the cost of the coffee we purchase has increased by more than 60 percent. There are many factors contributing to the increased cost, including supply challenges and increased demand. We feel as though coffee prices will remain at this level or higher for quite some time.
 
In response to substantially higher coffee costs, we are raising the prices of our 12 oz blends, effective today. Thank you for understanding that this price increase means that we can continue to maintain the superior standard of our products and services.
 
Earlier this year, our Director of Coffee and co-owner, Peter Giuliano, and our Graphic Designer, Katy Meehan, collaborated on a comic titled "So What's the Deal with the Coffee Market?" to illustrate these changes and the opportunity it presents. If you would like more information about the current state of the coffee market or have other questions, please feel free to write to us or give us a call at 888-238-5282.
 
Best,
Brett
POSTED IN: coffee knowledge
 
See the full set on Flickr for Tim's notes on each photo from his trip to El Salvador in March-April 2011.
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.
 
Our Finca Nueva Armenia coffee logo features a mountain view rather than an illustration, as with some of our coffees.
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).
 
Jorge Recinos looks for Maragojipe variety coffee beans at Finca Nueva Armenia. Photo by Jeff MacArthur.
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!
 
abrazos,
Kim Elena
So What's the Deal With the Coffee Market? Our Director of Coffee and co-owner Peter Giuliano and Graphic Designer Katy Meehan explain.
When Peter G. and Katy Meehan, our talented new graphic designer, decided to collaborate on a project to communicate the changes afoot in the global coffee market to the specialty coffee community, we had no idea about the magical results they would achieve.
 
Aptly called a "comic service announcement" by our friends at Sprudge.com, the Counter Culture Comics debut, "So What's the Deal With the Coffee Market?" is available online as part of our Flickr stream. Click here for a slideshow.
 
Although originally intended for an audience of coffee professionals, we thought it might be of interest to everyone.
 
Best,
Mark
POSTED IN: coffee knowledge
 
 
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.
 

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