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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
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

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