When I embarked on Passion for Coffee, a trip to Guatemala last spring, I had a host of expectations: I thought I would learn more about how coffee is grown, I expected to make some new friends, and I thought I would experience a different culture. But I returned with so much more - a deeper understanding of the seed-to-cup journey and a changed view of the entire coffee industry.
My experience is not unique. I discovered, through talking with others who had been on trips to origin, that they had also been impacted by their travels. Each person would never again see the industry in exactly the same way.
My revelation occurred during a trip where 13 women in the coffee industry spent eight days touring Guatemala coffee plantations. The experience was designed by Mireya Asturias Jones of Jones’ Coffee Roasters, a Guatemalan native. She knew that for us to have a meaningful trip, she must expose us not only to the coffee industry, but also to the deep-seated culture of Guatemala. As we learned, you must understand the culture to understand the coffee.
Our time spent on the fincas coffee plantations helped me realize the enormous amount of labor it takes to create the perfect cup of coffee. For instance, at Finca Los Andes, we drove an hour up a cobblestone path to reach the farm from the main road. The heavy precipitation during the rainy seasons requires extensive work to prevent erosion, mudslides and other environmental issues.
Mery Santos was also part of the Guatemala adventure. Mery’s day job is vice president of sales for Identabrew brand, part of the Superior Imaging Group of Seattle, Washington. Born in Venezuela, Mery has a unique appreciation of coffee countries of origin.
“As we began our journey, it was very clear to me that what I considered a small decision on my part to join the group would end with a profound impact on my professional and personal life,” Mery says. She had visited Guatemala many times, but this trip was extraordinary. “Because Mireya is proud of being a Guatemalan, proud of her heritage and a pillar of the international coffee community, she possesses the unique ability to integrate the Mayan coffee culture and the modern Guatemala,” Mery says.
Finca Pastores, a huge nursery that houses 100,000 small coffee plants, each grafted, planted, fertilized and pruned by hand, made a deep impression on Mery. Owner Hans Masch explained that it takes about three years for a healthy coffee plant to fully produce an average of five pounds of cherries, then a minimum of another eight months from harvesting season to produce one pound of roasted coffee that we purchase at our favorite local store. Amazingly, on the average five to six pounds of coffee cherries translates to only about one pound of roasted coffee.
“This trip elevated my knowledge, fortified friendships and nourished new ones. It was a time to meditate, to respect and to value life. I encourage anyone to take a trip to origin - it could change the way you look at what you do,” Mery says.
A New Admiration
John Buckner, director of marketing for S&D Coffee, journeyed to Central America late last summer to learn about coffee from the perspective of two traditionally strong producing countries, but he came away with an important insight. “Until I visited I could not appreciate the hands-on care that goes into raising coffee tree seedlings into trees, tending the trees, pruning the shade, hand harvesting the cherries and processing into green coffee. The people of Guatemala and El Salvador share our passion for drinking coffee, but also treasure the ancient agricultural rituals that go into producing fine green coffee beans. I have a new found admiration for the people of the coffee lands,” he says.
Little did Buckner realize that coffee, necessarily an import for the U.S., is a relied upon economic development engine that provides a living for thousands in Central America. That this can be done while maintaining a healthy balance between the agricultural industry and the environment is further source for amazement.
“I had never visited a developing country and I was struck by the work ethic and wonderful spirit of the people who have very little,” he says. By “very little,” Buckner means just that - 32% of the population earn less than $2 per day. The lack of basic sanitation, education and healthcare has led to high rates of infant mortality, malnutrition, illiteracy and a reduced lifespan for many. His trip to Guatemala and El Salvador was under the direction of the Rainforest Alliance, a non-governmental organization that pursues sustainability in the areas of forestry, agriculture and eco-tourism.
After visiting plantations in Guatemala, he ended his trip with several eventful days in the nearby country of El Salvador, a country of small coffee farms and a very different experience from Guatemala. “The Kawasaki four-wheeler in Guatemala was replaced by two oxen and a horse. All workers were provided with one giant tortilla in the morning, baked in an old fashioned kitchen or cocina,” he says. Despite all this, there was an atmosphere of hope on the plantation.
“I now realize what it takes to raise and harvest exceptional green coffee and the many steps in the chain of events,” he says. Buckner feels that certification plays a critical role in how coffee farms interact with the ecosystem and how the workers are treated. “All of us in the industry have an obligation to tell the story of how coffee is grown and the struggle of working families in many coffee growing countries. I believe that the coffee industry can be a vital factor in enhancing the lives of many in coffee growing countries,” he says.
A New Excitement
Trips to origin have created a new excitement and energy for her work, says Maureen McHugh, vice president of operations for Equator Estate Coffees & Teas. In January 2004, she took her first trip to origin, traveling to Guatemala as part of a tour to learn more about how and where coffee is grown, processed and brought to market. While she learned plenty about coffee trees and processing methods on their first tour, McHugh also witnessed the daily hardships coffee growers face simply to feed themselves and their families. She had known that Guatemala was a very poor country, but actually seeing how people live without the benefit of the daily conveniences brought this reality home.
This first trip to origin sparked her desire to contribute back to the coffee growing community and opportunities soon came. In 2007 and 2008, she traveled to Karnataka, India, and Orosi, Costa Rica.
“Visiting farms changed my perspective because I realized how interconnected we all are in the coffee industry; what I do affects the livelihood of many, many people,” she says. “I have a heightened awareness and a deeper appreciation of the true cost to the producers and the environment of every coffee purchase. Additionally, visiting coffee farms has influenced me to be a more responsible consumer on a daily basis,” McHugh adds.
She encourages members of the coffee industry to visit a country of origin to broaden their horizons both personally and professionally. “For first time travelers, especially women, the idea of traveling internationally may seem intimidating and raise concerns of personal security and or health risks. The truth is, with a few practical precautions like simple vaccinations and careful planning with an experienced tour guide, traveling to origin is relatively easy and a rich and rewarding experience,” McHugh says.
We Are All Connected
Her many trips to origin have impressed upon Margaret Swallow the importance of each step in the value chain. “The great coffee grown on a farm in Central America, eastern Africa, or southern India passes through many hands before it gets to me. Everyone along the value chain has to do their job and then ‘pass it on,’” says Swallow, former executive director of the Coffee Quality Institute, who now works in marketing and leadership consulting. Her frequent travels to countries of origin helped her realize and appreciate the careful handling that goes into the trip coffee travels from the tree to the cup.
Most of Swallow’s current work in the coffee industry consists of volunteering as a member of the IWCA. “Whenever I travel to a producing country with the IWCA, I try to meet some of the women working in the industry. This could involve going to a farm, a trading office, or just visiting a cafe run by a woman. I think it’s important for women in producing countries to know that their work is valued,” she says.
Like the others in this article, Swallow is a strong advocate for visiting country of origin. Because we live in a consuming country, she thinks it is important to really understand and value the amount of work that goes into coffee we drink each day. Those who live in countries of origin can learn about new methods of farming or milling on these trips.
“Visiting an origin country will give you an opportunity to experience another culture and enjoy a great cup of coffee in a local cafe. When you return home, you will have great photos and memories to share with your colleagues that have not yet visited a producing country and hopefully your experience will inspire them to make the trip,” she says.
Without exception, those who have visited countries of origin returned with a new attitude and heightened appreciation of coffee growing. More importantly, these travelers have returned with a better understanding of the seed to cup. I would encourage you to consider a trip to a country of origin as a business investment in yourself. You’ll return a better ambassador for your company and the industry.
Desiree Logsdon is Vice President, Marketing, Bunn-O-Matic Corporation.