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Theta Ridge Coffee


Empowering the Farmer: The Root of Fair Trade and Sustainability

by Krystell Maya Guzman


Beginning the Educational Process

Lying on the grass in front of the warehouse, shading themselves under random coffee plants, they awaited our arrival. Curious and eager to learn, they marveled over our obvious visual differences: Jim Reynolds, Vice President of Peet's Coffee, has his puffy gray hair situated on either side of his head and Ruth Watson Reynolds, Jim's wife, has her long golden hair. I was a much more familiar spectacle, with similar coloring, although perhaps younger than they had expected. We immediately unlocked the door to the warehouse that holds the large dehulling machinery and began transforming it into our classroom.

A little uneasy, the participants sat dispersed, far away from the front. Waiting and watching, they took out small notebooks from their morrales (beautifully hand woven shoulder bags of all shapes and colors). I first asked them to move closer so that we could all see, and they quickly scooted closer. I introduced Jim, Ruth, and myself and proceeded to present the relationship that we were about to initiate between them, the producers, and us, the purchasers. "Our mission," I began, "can be likened to the growth of a new coffee plant. As a team we'll pick the best seeds to plant, while using the right elements. Our next activity was to learn about the process of coffee from the experts. We divided our group of 30 into groups of five. Eager to meet new people and learn from one another, they insisted I form the groups so as to avoid them getting together with the people from their same community. Once in our groups, I asked them to teach us city people who drink coffee, the origins of this marvelous beverage. We taped large white pieces of paper to the walls of the warehouse and I handed each group a set of markers. I asked them to draw the process of coffee, from the seedling to the transplant, through to the harvest, and finally the sale. They were a little hesitant, surely no one had asked them to draw since they were children. Standing in front of the blank white paper, they debated in their native Tzeltal language for quite some time until one began. Soon we had coffee trees, boxes with dots in them to replicate seedling Mariposas (small plants with their first butterfly leaf formation), and little stick men working next to plants and patios. A representative from each group was chosen amongst them to stand up and explain their masterpiece. Attentively, we listened as each team leader explained how the seed passes through each stage until it is ready to be sold. Some presenters were nervous and paused frequently, stuttering slightly, while others were confident and direct. Yet all were playing an important role in the understanding and maintaining a sustainable farm, the first step towards adopting uniform quality control standards for the organization.

Next came the introduction into the documentation process involved in keeping track of one's coffee. We focused on organic certification, reviewing the many critical details involved. Most importantly, I wanted to emphasize the importance of keeping track of one's beans in order to improve quality, fight disease, increase production, and obtain organic certification. I then introduced a series of forms for keeping track of their cultivation activities, the amount of coffee harvested, and a sales log. It was a crash course in book keeping.

A crucial part of helping to educate the farmer is making sure the communication is clear. The exchange of so much information combined with the difference in languages was demanding at times, but we paused frequently for translation into Tzeltal. Together we searched for solutions for those who could not read or write and agreed that everybody could find a family member to assist them in completing the task.

Hands On Experience

Prior to the seminar, each participant brought a sample of their own green coffee of which we roasted half and used the remaining for the next activity. We created the image of Jim in his company's laboratory receiving samples from all over the world for tasting. Using actual samples shipped to Jim, we talked about the look of clean coffee, free of imperfections, as a first step to getting buyers interested in tasting the coffee. After pointing out typical defects, each participant was asked to take out their sample and clean it according to the examples. They quickly went about spreading themselves throughout the warehouse, using old sacks, campaign posters, shirts, and any other surface they could invent to spread out their coffee and meticulously remove any defective beans. As I walked around, they would show me what they were separating out as good and bad. Once cleaned, small plastic bags with cards were handed out to place and label their samples.

As the last few people were finishing their sorting, Jim began to fire up the sample roaster. Many had already gravitated over to him to satisfy their curiosity about this machine in action. As everybody stood around commenting amongst themselves in Tzeltal, Jim began explaining about the roasting process. Then we furnished a cupping table made from the shipping encasement of the sample roaster with a few extra boards on top. A few others were commissioned to start a fire outside to heat up the water as the cups were being neatly arranged on the tasting table. One coffee from each of the attending communities was put on the table, as well as another Chiapanecan, Guatemalan, and Kenyan coffee from a U.S. importer for comparison.

Gathered around the cupping table, we explained the importance of the tasting process. First, Jim and I demonstrated how to discover the fragrance of the grounds by smelling each cup. Then we convinced them to follow our lead around the table. After the first person stepped forward, all 30 quickly followed in one long line, taking turns going around the table. Jim poured the water into the cups in order to use the spoons to levitate the grounds and smell the aroma. Using over-sized mugs Jim demonstrated how to slurp the coffee, swish it around, and spit it out, as everyone followed. They were unsure as to weather or not they were doing it properly until we assured them that there is no right or wrong way to taste. Most were taken aback by the bitterness of the coffee that dramatically differed from the local brown sugarwater that they drink as coffee. However, they were happy to find out how coffees are tested around the world.

We returned to our seats to tackle the last and most complicated phase of the seminar, the economics of the coffee market. I asked the producers how coffee is used, "We don't know. We grow the coffee but we don't know what happens to it after that," they responded.



Continued on next page...

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