You are here

Part One


Spending a week in Colombia, my first time in the beautiful country, was truly a whirlwind with multiple purposes. I skirted the countryside, starting in the town of Gigante in the department of Huila, then passing through Guadalupe, Pitalito, La Plata, and ending in Tambo and Timbio, both in the department of Cauca.

The first goal was to deliver results from the survey on microlots that 122 producers in three states participated in during January and February of 2013. Not only were results delivered, but together we dug deeper to uncover greater meaning in some of the results and continue adjusting research questions as well as the greater research purpose. All told I was able to speak with 101 of the 122 participants in a series of 5 meetings in 5 separate towns. As Nelson Ramirez, Virmax’s Director of technical training who accompanied me the first three days, said, “This is a marathon!” The majority of the survey respondents are not ones from whom Counter Culture purchases coffee. However, seeing the overlap in their responses to the survey will only aid us in understanding our supply chain in addition to the overarching situation facing high quality producers in Colombia.

Part two contains reflections that bring together analysis on this segment of the research. Some of their reactions were more surpising than others. Perhaps most surprising to me was their enthusiasm that they would indeed love to participate in a similar study in the future – they are honored that someone down the supply chain values their day-to-day experience enough to ask detailed questions. In addition, I loved hearing what else they thought would be important to study pertaining to the cultivation of specialty coffee. I am sitting on a ton of information – if anyone is looking for a research project, holler!

The second goal was to spend time with our old friends at Organica, purveyors of La Golondrina coffee. This group is one that has truly ridden the waves of hard times, under the strong leadership of Nelson Melo, and continues to prove themselves as fighters and committed to specialty coffee. Not only did I share the survey results with them but we shared meals, sat in on a board of director’s meeting, and, of course, visited producer’s on their farms.

Lastly, Nelson Melo has been building a relationship with a nearby cooperative over the last three years. He was eager to have Counter Culture make the acquaintance of Federación Campesina de Cauca.

The trip was incredibly full in more ways than one and I am excited to share some of that with you here.

Part Two


What follows are some of the overarching themes uncovered by the five meetings held in Gigante, Guadalupe, Pitalito, La Plata, and Tambo.

Over the course of these meetings I delivered results from the survey on microlots that 122 producers participated in during January and February of 2013. Not only were results delivered, but together we dug deeper to uncover greater meaning in some of the results and to continue adjusting research questions – as well as the greater research purpose. All told, I was able to speak with 101 of the 122 participants.

After sharing the research, each group responded to the following questions:
  1. Why did producers invest such a large amount of their premium money into fertilizer?
  2. Why did producers choose to renovate with variety Colombia more frequently than other varieties?
  3. How are producers overcoming current challenges in producing specialty coffee?
  4. What are they doing on their farms for this harvest that are practices they think will lead to higher quality?
  5. How was the process of being interviewed? And of receiving the results of the study in this way?
  6. If you could study anything else in regard to the production of specialty coffee, what would you want to study?

I hope you'll enjoy some of their answers as much as I did.

Saludos!

Hannah

Thanks for the photos, courtesy of Alejandro Cadena and Nelson Ramirez.

Where We Started

As many of you may recall, we started an inquiry about microlots back in the Winter of 2011 when we spoke with 13 farmers from the Cenfrocafe in Peru about their experiences. While we learned a lot, one of the major challenges with this study was that none of the producers interviewed had repeat success as microlot producers. The common sentiment that microlot premiums were a result of luck was understandable but did not point – from a quality perspective – to how we could encourage other producers with concrete suggestions. And, we knew that producers with repeat microlot premiums exist in other areas where we purchased.

Phase II

While we felt we received valuable feedback from our partners in Peru, we were still looking for more streamlined feedback for producers. Ideally we would have more quantitative metrics in regard to farm and investment practices – as well as greater proof of the positive impacts of microlots. So, with this in mind we hatched a plan with one of our exporting partners, Virmax, in the fall of 2012. As a purveyor of microlot coffees who have built their business model on high-quality, differentiated small lots, they had many of the same questions we did about the repeatability and common characteristics of microlot producers. This time, because of Virmax’s long-established, data-rich microlot program in Colombia, we decided to focus our inquiry there. What made this group different as well was that all producers interviewed were previous recipients of the microlot premium.

Together, we designed the survey instrument (going through about seven iterations) and helped train promotores (technicians) who would be going into the field to interview producers. From January – February of 2013 surveys were administered, and, at the end of February, Kim Elena visited some of the producers interviewed, as well, to gain more of an understanding.

Analysis

The spring found us realizing just how much data we were now sitting on with 122 coffee producers interviewed. Though starting to sift through the data was fascinating, neither one of us had the time or the full expertise to do the analysis required for a study of this scale. So, thanks to a mutually serendipitous meeting, we were able to partner with Ruth Ann Church, a woman who is both a coffee buyer – who also buys from Virmax – and who is currently working on her Master's Degree in Community Sustainability, to assist in the analysis and reporting part of the project. Ruth Ann and I recently did a live webcast moderated by Kim that talked about the research process and further research questions that you can check out anytime.

Similar to the first phase of research, much of what we heard about good practices was no surprise. However, the data did begin to point to what microlot producers may have in common with one another, both in their farm practices and in their use of the extra income from the premium.

In particular, the data showed the group of farmers that had 3 microlot years in a row as opposed to 1 or 2 microlot premium years were more likely to fertilize based on soil analysis, use family members for coffee picking, prune intentionally, plant the Colombia variety, and use three specific drying practices (sliding roof, parabolic patio with beds, and patios with net floors). In addition, they are more likely to invest the premium back into on-farm costs, such as fertilizer, than in family needs.

While the data points to some interesting results, there is still more to understand. In particular, understanding exactly which practices are strongly correlated with – not just happening alongside external factors we may not have controlled. An example here is that yes, those who sold microlots 3 years in a row seem to plant more Colombia variety when they are renovating. However, we also know as an aside that Colombia variety does not necessarily result in flavors that we would reward for quality. Thus, we will continue to refine, to filter results through what we know, experience and continue to expect. And, hopefully get still closer to sharing pertinent feedback with producing partners.

The open-ended questions allowed us to get at the experiential side, and we were pleased to continue to understand producers’ motivations, challenges, and higher level perceived community impacts of the microlot premiums. I'm Colombia now sharing the results and hoping to gain still more analysis based on producers’ reactions to the research.

What’s Next

I don’t think either one of us could have imagined that when we embarked on this "microlot question" in 2011 we would be here now – with a lot more information and still more questions. Ideally, what we have put forth over the last two years encourages others within the coffee industry to ask the questions they have always wanted to ask, to find answers that will ultimately be of benefit to those throughout the supply chain. We are also more than happy to be available for others who have questions about the process, about how to create their own mini-research project, or about our findings in general. 
Read on for the full report!

Thanks,
Hannah
This December marked our second year supporting the NC Choices Annual Carolina Meat Conference with a coffee donation. The conference is the first statewide one in the country dedicated to local and niche meat supply chain development. We felt strongly about supporting this conference as much of the work they do to make their supply chain sustainable, from farmer to consumer, parallels the work that we do within the coffee industry.

Sarah Blacklin, Program Coordinator at NC Choices had this to say about the contribution:

Unlike other conferences, the vast majority of participants (over 70%) at the Carolina Meat Conference are farmers, prospective farmers, and professionals in the meat industry (chefs, butchers, processors). We want them to know that we match their commitment with the food we offer by serving top quality coffee with stewardship and integrity.

At Counter Culture we feel fortunate when we can align, across sectors, with other small scale sustainable agriculture ventures that are intentional and supportive in nature. Thanks for another opportunity for involvement, NC Choices!

We even got some shout-outs in participant evaluations of the conference:
  • Excellent programming, outstanding speakers. I've gone every year to the meat conference and always learn something new. Thank you for the really good coffee and snacks.
  • Good coffee – thanks y'all.
  • Thanks for some strong coffee in the morning.
Feel free to read more about NC Choices and the Meat Conference! As always, if you think your organization is one aligned with our efforts and you would like our support, feel free to reach out to us here.

Thanks,
Hannah
Our production of roasted coffee has continued to increase, which is truly great. As a result, the needs for the infrastructure necessary to process all of the coffee have also increased. Here at our headquarters in Durham, this has meant added personnel and added technology on our production floor. Thomas Nickles, our IT manager, is always looking toward green and sustainable options for growth. Most recently, he began to explore what it would take to do more with less – employing the services of NComputing. Here’s what he has to say:

"After finding some greener laser printer alternatives and moving all our our main infrastructure to the cloud, I wanted to significantly reduce the amount of physical computers needed on the production floor for both sustainable and logistical reasons. I didn't just want to keep adding desktop computers wherever needed.

"So, when I was doing some local volunteering for the Obama campaign and saw they were using this great technology from NComputing that enabled them to get many workstations out of a single desktop, I thought that was perfect for Counter Culture but needed to test it a bunch for the wear and tear of our production floor. I've been super-pleased with the results of this technology plus our operational and managerial IT costs for roasting and production have been significantly reduced."

So, what does this look like? With NComputing's vSpace virtualization hardware and software, we can now have many workstations running from a single desktop. Each one of these green workstations runs on less than 10 percent of the electricity used by a normal PC. In Durham, we'll be able to reduce the amount of actual desktop PCs needed by 75 percent. Normal PCs are being replaced by this newfangled excitement as we speak!

-Hannah
Counter Culture Coffee recently joined forces with Chapel Hill, NC's HOPE Gardens for their fall fundraiser.
 
Initially conceived as an agricultural education space for the University and Chapel Hill community that would produce seeds for marginalized farming communities abroad, HOPE Gardens quickly developed into a community space with a local purpose. In the fall of 2008, students from UNC's HOPE (Homeless Outreach Poverty Eradication) committee of the Campus Y developed HOPE Gardens as a tool for social justice right here in our community: a transitional employment program for homeless individuals and an inclusive community garden, each meant to facilitate relationships and dialogue among the student, homeless, low-income, and broader Chapel Hill communities in a side-by-side work environment.
 
In essence, HOPE Gardens creates a community space that fosters relationships, educates the community, and addresses barriers to food access through shared efforts in sustainable agriculture. Counter Culture was pleased to be able to support with a such an important initiative in one of our local communities by donating a Farmhouse subscription to their fundraising raffle.
 
On November 17, some 57 individuals gathered at Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe to support HOPE Gardens for their fall fundraiser. The three-course meal, which was prepared and served entirely by volunteers with Vimala's guidance, included local grass-fed beef, pumpkin soup, and sweet potato custard. After the dinner, Alice Ammerman from the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention spoke about the importance of emphasizing social justice through food equity and read the poem that she wrote for HOPE Gardens' ribbon cutting in 2009. The evening concluded with the raffle and live jazz performed by UNC students.
 
In total, the event raised over $2,500 to support programs such as HOPE Garden's free cooking classes and sponsored plots.
 
If you think your organization might be a good fit for Counter Culture's partnership, and you are located close to one of our eight Training Centers, don't hesitate to get in touch here.
 
Thanks,
Hannah
As we say in our Direct Trade report, Cenfrocafe is truly a model among cooperatives, and they are a joy to visit and learn from each time. This visit included all of the usual elements – from producer meetings to meeting with cooperative leadership, cupping, and, in general, hearing about highlights and challenges currently facing the group.
 
Cenfrocafe has grown by almost 30% this year in its volumes. The coffee we received from this group and sell as Valle del Santuario and La Frontera has been exceptional this year. Our hope is to continue to hone in on even greater volumes of this quality coffee. Already on the larger side with 2,680 members, they have 240 more members going through the one-year trial period. They are, after 12 years of operation, getting to be a well-oiled machine. In addition to the business of coffee, they are intentionally working on helping producers with diversification efforts, health resources, and continued integration of youth and women in the cooperative. Of course, they still have kinks to work out in stabilizing volumes, lot separation, and best representing the needs of cooperative members.
 
Leaf rust is beginning to prove challenging, and some producers have lost up to 3,000 trees or more as a result. Conversations about how to prevent and renovate are serious. And, continuing to have the conversation about producing quality coffee alongside conversations about protection and disease resistant varieties is inevitable. The hope is that Cenfrocafe can continue to take a proactive role in regard to producers' needs for prevention training and on-farm investments.
 
Coffee quality this year was lagging in July and August at the beginning of the harvest, but they had higher hopes as they saw great improvements in October. I believe our coffee this year reflects that change. And, it again emphasizes the benefits of being by the cooperative's side – as true partners – not just for one harvest or one great run, but through the ups and downs.
 
I hope you'll enjoy these photos of my last week in Peru!
 
Abrazos,
Hannah
 
From the embed above, click [full screen] and [show info] for Hannah's annotated notes on each photo. You can also view Hannah's trip report on Flickr.
 
Bilal Sarwari works with adolescents in psychiatric crisis through therapeutic gardeningOur own Emily Davis in Atlanta made a fruitful connection with a local partner, Bilal Sarwari, who works with adolescents in psychiatric crisis through therapeutic gardening. The group is located in Decatur and, as Bilal says, the "program has been a great source of stress relief for our clients, and we even have adult clients who come down from our other facilities [who] volunteer."
 
Here's a little bit more from Bilal about exactly how our Atlanta Training Center's coffee grounds help:
 
Coffee grounds are essentially prepped for use in sustainable agriculture: they are wet (bacteria and fungi need water to grow), they are ground (provides increased surface area for microorganisms to attach), natural deoderizers, and rich in nitrogen (seeds contain a great deal of DNA per capita and DNA consists of nitrogen base pairs). Essentially, coffee grounds make great compost and worms love it – and I love earthworms.
 
Secondly, your coffee grounds provide a natural defense against ants. After two years of hard work, our soil is rich and loose. Ants love to build their colonies in our garden beds. Last year, I read an article from that suggested using coffee grounds against ants. I tried it on an ant pile and two days later the ants were gone. I was amazed. Now the gardens smell like finely-roasted beans, and I don't have to worry about the health effects of dangerous pesticides on our clients' growing bodies.
 
Our hope is that other local groups close to our various training centers feel similarly inspired to use our excess coffee grounds. The possibilities are endless!
 
Thanks, Bilal, for truly multiplying the good that can come from what has previously been considered a waste product.

Learn more about our transparency efforts in our 2013 Transparency Report.
The closing event of our Sustainable Summer campaign last Friday and the long Labor Day weekend have me looking ahead to fall, and it's around this time each year that I begin to reflect on the progress we have made and what we can accomplish before the year's end. Our progress has also been much on my mind as I've reviewed the Sustainability Annual Report for 2012, which we publish today in conjunction with the Direct Trade Transparency Report. Readers of our three reports and six scorecards of the past years (hello, fellow sustainability nerds!) will see some changes to the format of this year's report, which highlights some of our more significant accomplishments and adds context to some of our statistics. I hope you enjoy this year's reports and can learn from our experiences, and as always, thanks.
 
Sincerely,
Kim Elena
 

Pages

FAQ