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Hannah Popish talked with Ben Guiles, who works with Counter Culture in Philadelphia in Wholesale Technical Services, about his recent use of the company Green Fund. The Green Fund has existed since 2011 and is a fund wherein employees are able to apply up to $500 in matching funds for a sustainability-related initiative of their choosing. At its inception Green Buyer and Sustainability Manager Kim Elena Ionescu said the following:  “We hope that this Green Fund, like other life-enhancing benefits such as comprehensive health care coverage and matching 401(k) investments, contributes to a healthier workplace, a better work/life balance for our employees, and ultimately, a more successful and sustainable business.” To date we have had a wide range of topics covered, including applications related to physical fitness, home gardens, and green home appliances.

As a recent Green Fund approval, Ben and Hannah took a moment to discuss his latest endeavor—building his second bike from the ground up.

Hannah: 
Why build a bike instead of purchasing a new one?

Ben:
In addition to satisfying the unique requirements I placed upon my new ride, building this bike myself has been a very gratifying process, and I recommend it to anyone. A bicycle may seem intimidatingly mechanical, but its bits are very straightforward in principle and they’re mostly all out in the open, inviting even the slightly curious to understand its workings, and pick up a wrench. So the joy of owning a bicycle can actually extend beyond simply riding it. By understanding how it works, and building or maintaining one on your own, you strengthen your sense of independence, and feel a connection to a tangible object in our universe.


Hannah: 
What’s the most sustainable thing about bike riding?


Ben: 
Bike advocates rightly like to talk about the intersection of sustainability with bike riding: you use less fossil fuel, you spend less money, you become a fitter, healthier person, etc. All of this is completely true and wonderful about a lifestyle filled with bike rides. But what is often overlooked and left unsaid in the conversation is joy. Joy is such a crucial facet of riding a bicycle, and so essential to the long-term sustainability of cycling as a lifestyle. [Yet] how often is sustainability viewed in terms of deprivation?

Cycling brings me a deep abiding joy, which may be counterintuitive to an outsider. I glide past gridlock, face in the wind like a dog hanging his head out the car window, and even on those sweaty uphills I feel that great sense of independence, accomplishment, and freedom that comes with overcoming an obstacle under one’s own power. A bike opens up the entire city and surrounding area to me, unbeholden to public transit schedules and delays, or parking, gas costs, and (most) traffic.

So living sustainably actually has everything to do with joy, and relatively little to do with deprivation. The fact that Counter Culture’s coffee is threefold sustainable and some of the yummiest, most-joy-inducing out there is no accident; one aspect is essential to the other. Such is also the case for a sustainable approach to cycling as a lifestyle.


Hannah: 
If you could tell someone who was nervous about bike riding—I’m asking for a friend—one thing about taking the plunge, what would you tell them?


Ben: 
Tell your *ahem* friend that she is not alone in being a little anxious about leaving the comfort of a metal box while traveling the roads. You can also tell her that a little caution and respect for the risks of cycling—particularly bike commuting—are a healthy thing to adopt and be ever mindful of. However, cycling is a pretty vast universe, with many levels of risk, challenge, and exertion left completely up to your—sorry, “her”—preference and degree of comfort. Stick to trails until you get the hang of it. Learn to ride in traffic on quieter streets, with friends who aren’t new to it. Know the laws in your state and obey them. Be courteous to drivers, even when they aren’t. Get tips from local bike-advocacy organizations. Use lights. Wear a helmet. (Seriously. Do it.)
But you asked me to say *one* thing, so I’ll boil it down to this: like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, you choose your own adventure.
La Voz Women's Compost ProjectCooperatives that are concerned both with the environment and with the quality of their coffee are aware of the need for organic compost. Organic compost can be expensive to buy, however, it is relatively easy to make your own if you have some initial capital, especially when you have a willing and able labor force within your cooperative.

This spring, La Voz que Clama en el Desierto, a cooperative out of San Juan de la Laguna in Guatemala that we have worked with for the last four years, applied for funding through our Seeds initiative and was one of the two projects that was selected and approved. Counter Culture and La Voz split the costs of the project down the middle with Counter Culture’s funds covering the majority of the material inputs and La Voz’s segment covering a lot of the labor needs.

Not only did the project focus on compost creation from start to finish (delivery of materials, mixing materials, distributing ready made compost, storing compost for later use) it also had a unique focus on female cooperative members. In total, 60 women received the completed compost to spread on their coffee parcels. Over 35 hectares were fertilized. While there isn’t a direct correlation between solid agricultural practices and cup quality, it bears noting that this year was the first year we sold La Voz’s coffee as a single origin and we have high hopes that this trend will continue in the coming years.

Each year we open the window for Seeds applications once in the spring and once in the fall, ready to support initiatives at the community level that work toward sustainable agriculture and food security efforts at origin. The next cycle for Seeds applicants will begin mid-September and we anticipate more noteworthy applicants and initiatives ahead and producers and producer groups are encouraged to apply here.

In partnership for inspiring work at origin,

Hannah Popish
Chelsea in her beekeeping gearChelsea Thoumsin, our local customer service representative in Philadelphia, wrote to us excited about the success she has had with beekeeping—a hobby that she has continued to fund in part with support from Counter Culture’s Green Fund. Here is some buzz around the hobby in Chelsea’s own words:

This is my second year beekeeping. Last year, I helped Paul, bee enthusiast and coffee fan, with his two Langstroth hives in the suburbs and learned a lot as an "apprentice." Back in April, we moved one of the hives—we shall call it the Western hive from here on out—from the suburbs of Berwyn, approximately 20 miles away, to Center City, Philadelphia.

Since the Western hive was basically a full hive already with probably 30,000 bees post-winter, they had relatively little issue starting up in their new habitat. I'm sure the first couple weeks were really confusing, as bees have a little GPS system in their heads and are very much creatures of habit when it comes to favorite food and water sources. Reorienting is serious work. I remember LOTS of bees just flying around in circles during these first weeks trying to reprogram their paths. The human equivalent would be if one were to be blindfolded and dropped off without Google Maps or even a compass. Go ahead! Find your way home.

It's been almost four months since the hives were set up, and it's still hard for me to believe that they're up and running on a balcony in a relatively small space. I like to call it "EXTREME URBAN BEEKEEPING" (mostly in jest). A few weeks ago, I was able to harvest about three gallons of honey from the Western hive. The sales of that honey, along with the awesome Green Fund money supply, has practically covered all beekeeping expenses up to this point.

After my latest inspection or biweekly check-in on the general health of the bees, I decided to make a split with the Western hive. This hive is so strong and healthy that I would love to keep that going. I ordered more materials and built out another hive last week. I took five or so frames of brood (baby bees), food, some nurse bees, and the Western queen, put them into the new hive body and let them go from there. The Western hive will make another queen, and they'll be good to go before wintertime. That's the plan, anyway.

Andrew of Farm51 has been a really great friend and bee-resource, as well. We have helped each other a lot in the bee-scape of things.
Chelsea's bees from the Western hive
It feels really great to have such good support in doing this. Even though I've done all I could with my Green Fund dollars, I really don't think I could have gotten this far this easily without the fund. For reference, one hive's materials from start to finish usually ends up being about $500. As you gain more experience, you can trim some of the fat off this cost, but the woodenware and shipping of goods alone is usually a couple hundred bucks.

If you have any questions at all about what I'm up to with the bees, please reach out. I'm learning more all the time, and it's fascinating to see these ladies—and gents, can't forget the drones—work so hard for the greater purpose of their bee-community.
Bryan Duggan and WaterRx Water FiltrationThere have been some notable changes around our company in regard to water filtration. To gain a better understanding of the new facets of filtration and its impact on our facilities and our customers, Hannah Popish, Coffee Buyer’s Agent, sat down with Bryan Duggan, Technical Department Manager and lead mastermind of the new system.

H: What made you realize it was time for a change in regard to how we manage water filtration at our headquarters?
B: Well, we changed filtration here because we started working with WateRx in New York. We were looking for a better option to recommend for our customers (cafes), and a great coffee shop called REX told us about these WateRX. All the units are really customizable so the water qualities can be exactly as you want them to be. The three units we have here are made so that we can change the makeup of the filters internally and thus the taste of the water pretty easily.

H: What can you tell us about WateRx and why did you decide to use them?
B: WaterRx is a company based out of Cincinnati, Ohio, and they are a national water filtration brand. We decided to go with them because the filters are super reliable, they need very little service and upkeep and they last significantly longer than any other filters we’ve used in the past. This ties into the green aspect of the filter—the medium, meaning the filtration material, is all natural minerals and rocks. Once you need a filter change you can dump it outside with no issue and no disturbance to the natural environment. We were really sold when we realized how durable the filtration is and it’s unique ability to process large volumes of water—the filters never break!

H: Can you give us a breakdown of how the filtration works?
B: First, water enters through the top of the unit and then there are three layers of medium (made up of rocks, sand, salt, and resin) that remove unwanted items from the water. Unwanted items include bacteria, rust, dirt, chlorine, arsenic, mercury, odor, and color.

H: What is the key takeaway for people who don’t know much of anything about water, water filtration, and its impact on coffee and the environment?
B: Number one would be that properly filtered water makes your coffee taste better. Second and equally important is that adequately filtered water makes your machines last longer. Sustainably speaking, the tanks we are using now only have to be recharged 50,000 gallons, or every 12-18 months, and can be reused. Our previous filters only lasted 3-6 months and had to be thrown away. 

H: What does “adequately filtered water” mean exactly?
B: The simple answer is that it is water that is free of chlorides, arsenic and anything harmful. The water also has a balanced hardness. We have used the set of parameters that La Marzocco recommends for our water.

H: What else do you want us to know about the filters?
B: The big filter that we use in the coffee and tech departments track the amount of water used. The tracking means that you can check on averages used and you can decide if you need to reduce your usage and it allows you to know your carbon impact. Also, this makes it easier to know when you need to “recharge” the system, meaning, swap out the old filtration material.

H: Who currently uses this filtration?
B: A handful of our accounts are already implementing the new filtration: Open City in Washington DC, OK Café in Astoria, NY, Brunswick in Brooklyn, and Big Bear in Washington DC. In terms of our training centers they are in place in NY, Atlanta, Washington DC, and Durham and we are recommending the filtration for all new accounts in those areas.

H: What’s next in the world of water filtration?
B: We will continue to develop our water parameters so that we can make the water taste as delicious as possible for our coffees. As we calibrate we will move this filtration into all of our TCs. WateRx is a great partner to continue to work with!

This spring, Counter Culture embarked on an exciting new partnership with six students and a professor at Duke's Nicholas School for the Environment. After discussing research questions casually with Professor Shapiro-Garza for a couple of months, we decided to go all in and work jointly on a master's project that will explore resiliency and issues facing smallholder coffee farmers as they adapt to climate change.

The students have been gearing up for the fieldwork segment of the project which will involve spending time in Colombia, Guatemala, and Peru. In preparation for the fieldwork, the students visited our roastery, co-designed survey tools that will be used to interview people at different levels: from individual households to the farmer cooperative, to key stakeholders in the communities and regions. They have also done literature reviews to help them understand the (admittedly massive) scope of this issue. In addition, Professor Shapiro-Garza and I had extensive conversations with coffee industry actors including certification agency Rainforest Alliance and social lender Root Capital.

We couldn't be more excited to follow along on their journey—which starts right now—and we'd like to invite you to follow along, as well: Facebook and Twitter. We will also periodically post blog entries on our website.

Photo: (left to right) Joanna Furguiele, Brenda Lara, Saira Haider, Martín Ramírez, Mike Younis, and Claire Fox. (Photo credit: Professor Shapiro-Garza).

All the best,
Hannah

 

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