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Spring Greens

I meant to post this the other day for Earth Day, or better yet, a few weeks ago after Earth Hour at the end of March. Of course, everyone turned out their lights at the allotted time then, so the planet has been rescued and we can all breathe a sigh of relief as we all get back in our cars and switch our screens on again….

Excuse the sarcasm. I just don’t get Earth Day. Isn’t every day Earth Day? It’s not like we go anywhere else often, is it?

I am on a bit of a Green coffee kick nowadays, however. I don’t mean Green coffee as in, raw coffee, although I do have some large sacks of that in the basement at the moment. Nor do I mean the likes of Nescafe Green Blend. Despite that still being the most commented on post on this blog, I haven’t actually seen many anti-oxident filled, weight-loss marketed, gimicky and green-washed coffee products in quite a while. Maybe they haven’t reached Canada yet. This is a very good thing.

What I mean this time, is environmentally-friendly coffee, if that isn’t an oxymoron. I’ve already written a great deal about organic and/or sustainably produced coffee, and there are very many issues with it. In brief, organic coffee is far more difficult and more risky for impoverished farmers to grow – sometimes is it not worth the investment of time, labour and resources to grow a crop that may well be eaten by pests before it can be harvested. Then there are the high-end buyers who refuse to buy organic coffee under the impression that using chemical fertilizers optimises the quality of the beans….

Of course, the farmer-friendly alternative involves cutting down the cloudforests and destroying the biodiversity in the tropics, just to grow a cash crop.

In summary then, it is very very difficult to grown coffee in an environmentally-friendly way. But given that millions of people’s livelihoods depend on those crops, can we not just consume it better?

I am trying to do my bit. My last post was ranting and raving about how wasteful Keurig k-cups and other coffee pods are. Getting rid of them would be a start. I am soon going to launch the first ‘green’, trike-drawn coffee cart in Regina (not actually green, more, PURPLE) – it’ll be the only food truck downtown that doesn’t have an engine too.

DSCF8234

I am also selling reusable travel mugs, and CupCuffs – very stylish, reusable sleeves for your takeaway coffees that don’t involve cutting down trees to make cardboard disposable ones. (FYI, they’re made in Canada too, not sewn by small Korean children and shipped around the world).

I also saw this the other day:

http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/citi-bike-coffee-program-launches-dumbo-article-1.1764063

I’d love to see that in Regina – it may be a while yet though…

Recent studies claiming that arabica coffee could be wiped out by climate change in as little as 80 years were widely reported, but the one that stuck with me most poignantly was this:

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/30/latin-america-climate-change-coffee-crops-rust-fungus-threat-hemileaia-vastatrix

Mainly because it highlights the devastation in my beloved Nicaragua. I can as flippant as I like about Earth Hour and associated first-world hand-wringing, but this – this is serious.

So what can we do? Not stop drinking the coffee. Stopping drinking coffee just makes it worse – the farmers still have to sell it to someone! The whole globalised market is not suddenly going to disappear over night, no matter how much I dislike Starbucks/Nestle/Keurig/insert-latest-fashionable-boycott-here. Instead, do as the farmers tell us:

Coffee picker Myra Carmen Chavarría in Atuna Uno was amazed when I told her that I spent £2 or more every day on a cappuccino. “If you love coffee in your country that much, you need to help us survive to grow it for you!”

Simple really: pay more for it, or lose it. Paying a higher price for coffee won’t cure climate change, but it will certainly help the farmers cope with that climate change better. Or, start learning to love Robusta coffee that is more resilient to climate change and disease – and tastes far worse.

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Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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A healthy earth grows great coffee!

 

True indeed, but it seems a healthy earth does not always make the most efficient or most profitable coffee.

 

I met a Costa Rican guy, Luis, visiting a coffee farm in Nicaragua back in January. He was quite shocked at the conditions there, saying “I don’t remember coffee farms ever being like this, even when I was young.” From what I’ve seen so far, he was right. Costa Rican coffee farms are so different, making meaningful comparisons very difficult indeed. However, this week I visited Cafe Cristina, my first small-scale farm in this country, and 100% organic. This was about as similar to Nicaraguan farms as I think I am likely to find, but still very different.

 

"Borrowed" from their website, but I love this!

"Borrowed" from their website, but I love this!

The farm is owned by Ernie and Linda Carmen, and by a twist of fate, it is the same Ernesto Carmen who I met briefly at the conference in Ohio back in November, although I didn’t know this when I first contacted them. I remember cornering the poor guy at the conference and asking if I could come and visit, and he said he’d have to check with his wife! That made me smile. His wife was lovely and extremely welcoming, and showed me round their farm.

 

 

They have about 12 hectares, of which 7-8 are coffee, and one is their house and their coffee mill. The rest they are trying to turn back into natural forest. They have had the farm for thirty years, but Linda says there has been coffee on that land for at least 80 years already. They can grow between 10 000 and 20 000 pounds of coffee a year, depending on… Well, pretty much everything. The harvest varies dramatically, which I think is a result of the production methods employed. All the rest of the

I still do not really understand how this works...

I still do not really understand how this works...

processing is done on site, using machines some of which Ernie built himself! The most impressive was a machine that removed the muscelage from the beans, but without washing them and wasting all the water. It’s a vertical drum, with smooth, hard spikes in it that spin very fast. Amazingly this gets the goo off the beans without actually damaging them. Clever! I told him he should patent it but he said it wasn’t worth it. Linda also roasts coffee herself, for their own crop and other peoples. She says that roasting is the only way you can make money from coffee, it is not possible to survive just by selling it green and unprocessed. (Similarities with Nicaragua come in here…)

 

Very green - but look at the colour of the sky! We were in a cloud for most of the day.

Very green - but look at the colour of the sky! We were in a cloud for most of the day.

What makes this farm stand out though is the sheer level of ‘organicness’ that Linda and Ernie employ. Such is their dedication to the environment, that they are determined to remain organic, even when this decreases the size of their crop, increases the cost of production, and according to some buyers, adversely affects the quality. Their crop is shaded by banana trees and other tall, typical trees covered in natural lichen, supporting bromeliads and epiphytes which in turn become homes for all manner of insects, birds, small furry things and endangered frogs. The coffee is not monoculture either – there are other plants growing in amongst the coffee bushes, like citrus trees and yukka, and legumes that fix the nitrogen in the soil. And Linda’s favourite, Reina de la Noche, and beautiful white flower which is actually slightly hallucinogenic which leeches something useful into the soil, and acts as an early warning system if there are African bees around – they apparently love the scent in produces at night.

 

 

Growing all this means that taking care of the coffee crop is a year round job, and they employ six people permenantly to look after it all. This task involves weeding the coffee and pulling up all the vines which grow around it that can strangle the plants, checking the bushes for fungus and leaf rust, pruning both the coffee and the shade plants, and checking the traps set for the broca weevils. Neither vines, fungus nor broca can be dealt with any other way, because Linda refuses to use any artificial fungicides, herbicides or insecticides. All this is heavily affected by the weather – too much rain (like this year) means that fungi and weeds grow faster, and this year, the coffee has started flowering already, but at the same time, there are still fruit on the bushes that needs to ripen.

Coffee Flowers - pretty but which really shouldn´t be growing right now

Coffee Flowers - pretty but which really shouldn´t be growing right now

 So Linda has the tough choice of continuing to harvest and risk damaging the flowers and next years crop, or wasting the fruit that hasn´t yet ripened.

 

All the coffee fruit is composted using happy worms, like on most other farms. But, as Linda points out, just using this for fertilizer adds nothing new to the soil, and you have to replace what is lost when you pick the coffee, or when it rains etc etc. They buy in complicated trace elements – all natural, not artificial – at great expense. These are then mixed into their fruit compost. Typically the companies that produce these want to sell to artificial fertiliser companies in big batches, so getting hold of these in small lots is pricey and difficult. Not only that, but Linda and Ernie have to know exactly what the soil needs, on a microscopic level, so a vast knowledge of soil chemistry is required as well.

 

Is it all worth it? Does all this work produce coffee of higher quality? Are they making any more money? The answer, sadly, seems to be No. Linda said they had survived some pretty tough times, and that you can’t get by just farming coffee, even if they took the easier, non-organic options. In Nicaragua, the farmers in the cooperative were paid an extra premium for growing coffee organically, but then the coop had an organic certification. Linda does not. Why should she shell out thousands of dollars to get a certificate telling her something she already knows?

 

Yum.

Yum.

Worse still, all this organic production doesn’t actually do much for the quality. In Britain, if coffee on the shelf in a supermarket has a Certified Organic stamp on it, you can expect to pay about 50p more for it. And people do, because nowadays, customers seem to want organic products. If it’s organic, it must taste better!! This does not trickle down to the farmer. I noticed that Linda’s bags of coffee (they pack on site as well) had no mention of the organic credentials, which surprised me. They’ve put all this work in, why not market it? It turns out that organic coffee is often shunned by the buyers. A Japanese buyer once visited Cafe Cristina, and refused to buy the coffee as soon as he found out it was organic – using chemicals apparently brings out the optimal qualities! This is yet another example of the buyers creating their own market: consumers seem to want organic, and producers want to grow it – but the buyers, the middle men are apparently getting in the way of normal supply and demand! All done in the name of “quality”. And who decides what quality is? The buyers! Craziness.

 

 

Linda has got buyers in and done blind taste tests, without telling them the coffee is organic, or that is is de-muscelaged in Ernie’s machine rather than being washed in the traditional way. In these tastings, their coffee came out top quality, on par with more conventionally produced stuff. Which proves that being organic does not actually detract from the quality, but also, that cupping and quality perception is completely biased and subjective! I for one will continuing buying organic, despite what the “experts” say. And I really hope Linda and Ernie continue with their permaculture attempts – I wish them a lot of luck!

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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Selva Negra

My first visit to Selva Negra – a completely organic farm north of Matagalpa, set up and run by a German couple, Eddy and Mausi Kuhl. The farm produces around 5000 sacks of award winning, shade grown arabica coffee every year. There are 150 permenant workers there, all housed on site, paid $100 a month, given three meals a day and there´s even a school for the 64 children on the farm, and three baseball teams!
Eddy and Mausi took over in 1975, and reserved a third of the land to natural forest, a third for coffee, and the rest to farm buildings which house the workers and pasture for cattle, pigs and chickens. Eddy has written book, “Nicaragua y su cafe” – i’ve got to try and find that on Amazon! I met Eddy very briefly (as my guidebook says, they are both happy to give you a tour but only they are not busy, which is not often!). He seemed very enthusiastic when I said I was a student of coffee, and everyone else I’ve met says he never stops talking, so he could prove very handy for this project!

The coffee is processed at a ‘beneficio’ or mill which is attached to the main farm house. However, this roaster is very small, and they only roast a little for domestic sales – you can buy bags of their coffee in the souvenir shop or at the Coffee Museum in Matagalpa for instance. (and yes, i bought some!) 80% of the main crop is exported to the States, and the other 20% to Spain – this is all exported green (unroasted) however.

Unsurprisingly, the farm is certified organic, and also has the Rainforest Alliance stamp. In 1995 it won a “Semper Virens” award (‘always green’) from the International Ecological Summit. The only stamp they don’t carry is FairTrade – but they don’t need it. They are SCAA members, the coffee obviously commands a very steep price, even during the coffee crisis, and the workers are looked after very well indeed. This may be one example where I will agree with the Cup of Excellence people, it is quality coffee which makes money just by being high quality. However, this is also a large, private farm set in near-perfect coffee growing area. What they do here couldn’t necessary be done on tiny farms within community owned cooperatives.

The green credentials are extremely impressive however. The biggest polluter in coffee production, particularly in wet processing like this is waste water which is used to wash the coffee cherries off the beans. The water gets extremely acidic with the fruit juices and on most farms, is pumped into the nearest river. Here, however, it goes through a two-tank pressurised purification system that uses the porous volcanic rocks to filter the water. These tanks allow the juice to ferment until biogas can be collected – this is used for cooking on the farm. The remaining water makes its way round the farm in over 1km of PVC piping, and evertually makes it to their hydroelectric plant, which also uses natural streams and a lake to power the turbine and provide electricity to all the farm buildings.

Biogas and/or methane is also collected from an anaerobic digestor. All other organic waste, including human waste from the compost toilets, cattle manure and chicken waste/bedding is added to these digestors. Once the gases have been collected, the solid waste joins the decomposing coffee cherries as worm food in the delightfully enormous worm farm, and comes out again a few weeks later as perfect compost.

No part of the coffee plant is wasted, as even the husks (parchment) are burnt under the huge grills in the kitchen – apparently coffee-smoked meat tastes fantastic, and I can well believe it! (the restaurant on site serves authentic German smoked sausage from the farms pigs – i wonder if they were coffee smoked too? They were exceptionally good!) The ashes from these grills are then mixed with water, until they can be used as liquid fertiliser on the crops again.

Other plants are also used throughout the farm as natural, sustainable ways of crop protection. Banana trees shade the coffee and feed both the workers and the cows, tall, strong yucca plants provide windbreaks and protect against landslides, a special type of moss is grown specifically on slopes to avoid soil erosion in heavy rains (and trust me, there is a lot of heavy rain in those mountains!!) They even grow eucalyptus trees, then shred the leaves, mix them with water and spray it on the coffee plants as a natural insect repellant. Finally, the very clever red bottles trap the ‘brocas’ (coffee weevils) – but even they die drunk and happy.

I came away from this first trip mightily, mightily impressed (and soaking wet). I think my two companions for the day, Dean and Julie, were a little taken aback with quite how geeky and excited i got by it all, but they both said the found it interesting too so I am not quite mad. However, I now have a million questions for Eddy and Mausi, the main ones being, how on earth did they design all these green processes?? And more importantly, does any of this ecological wonderfulness actually affect the flavour and quality of the coffee? I did ask, and was told by our guide for the day, Manuel, that it would be possible for me to come pick coffee there when the harvest begins properly in a week or so. I’m not entirely sure if he was taking me seriously, however. I have every intention of going back up there on Monday though, so we shall see!

 
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Posted by on November 8, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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