Coffee: Uniting Our Worlds

As a chill enters the air here in southern Connecticut, we all clamor for a cup of coffee to warm us up, prepare us for the day, and perhaps keep us going through the afternoons as they grow darker. But did you know that our daily routine connects us to the rainforests and mountains of the equator, where workers pick coffee cherries while birds and monkeys chatter in the distance? And now that we’re more mindful of sustainable and regenerative farming practices, these connections in our daily lives deserve consideration.

The ‘Bean Belt’

Coffee, our beloved and ubiquitous drink, is grown in over 50 countries located around the equator. Known as the “bean belt”, coffee plants flourish within these countries’ mountains and tropical rainforests, where 25 million farmers produce coffee for a living. The countries that export the most coffee are Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia.

As shown in the above map, two species of coffee beans, arabica and robusta, dominate the world’s coffee bean production. Arabica is a more delicate plant that prefers rich soil and grows more slowly, yielding a smoother product that specialty coffee purveyors like Starbucks prefer. Robusta is a less fussy plant that produces more yield with harsh and bitter-tasting beans. It is often used in instant coffee and in ground coffee blends, like Foldgers.

Demand for Sustainability

No matter if growing arabica or robusta beans, coffee producers around the world are evaluating their processes to become more transparent and sustainable, but only those following specific guidelines receive accreditation by global sustainability initiatives.

To receive certification, producers must practice ecological conservation, fair labor practices, and plan for long-term sustainability of the land, as practiced by the Rainforest Alliance. Collaborating with this organization, UTZ regularly audits their producers to ensure compliance with acceptable farming methods, working conditions and transparency through their product tracking system, MultiTrace. Another organization, the Fairtrade Foundation, focuses on decent working conditions and establishes a fair floor for prices. And industry-specific organizations, like the 4C Association, focus on improving the economic, social & environmental conditions for those in the coffee sector.

An example of such a farm is Finca El Ocaso, located in West-Central Colombia, bordering the Andes Mountain range. Avid naturalists and birders, the Patino family ensures the farm’s sustainability so that their business can complement and enrich the biodiverse habitat and its vibrant ecosystem, providing home to 110 identified species of birds and several endangered plant and animal species. Because of their rigorous sustainability practices and ecologically-minded philosophy, the farm has earned certifications from the Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, as well as the 4C Association.

Harvesting a Sustainable Bean

Let’s take a closer look at the journey from coffee cherry to cup with the help of our specialty coffee farm in Colombia.

El Ocaso operates 35 hectares (almost 90 acres) of land, 18 of which are used for growing 30,000 pounds of coffee each year. Though most of their product remains in South America, the farm works with Campesino Specialty Coffee, a purveyor of sustainable and sought-after Colombian arabica coffees, for distribution access to the United States.

The initial harvest at a coffee farm requires years of planning, as seed germination to cultivation can take as long as four years! When the trees flower, the air is filled with a sweet jasmine fragrance. The flowers last only a few days, after which the cherries develop and will ripen for about 9 months.

Harvesting then begins when the cherries are ripe and will continue for several months. Colombia experiences two periods of harvesting: a main harvest and a smaller, “mitica” harvest. At El Ocaso, the mitica occurs between October and December, where they collect 20% of their annual production.

A unique and sustainable attribute of El Ocaso is the careful harvesting of their cherries. The workers pick one cherry at a time, taking up to 12 hours a day in very hot and humid weather on Colombia’s mountainous terrain, as opposed to machines strip-picking the plant, placing the plant’s and soil’s health in jeopardy come the next harvest. At the end of the day, each worker’s haul is carefully weighed and they are paid on the merit of their work, a crucial factor to maintain their sustainability certifications. On the busiest of peak harvest days, the workers can collect up to 11,000 pounds of cherries.

After the main and mitica harvesting seasons, it’s time to evaluate the plants for next year’s harvest. A coffee plant is productive for about five years, and then the trunks are snipped and new coffee plants grow from the trunks. It will take another two years to bear flowers. This process only can happen two times, after which the whole plant comes out of the ground.

Processing and Distribution

After harvest, the cherries are sorted by grade and processed immediately on the farm, starting with depulping the cherry to the bean and then letting the beans dry before fermentation.

Working with Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Company, a partner within the Campesino Specialty Coffee group, El Ocaso broadened its sustainable practices by experimenting with different fermentation and drying processes. During fermentation, naturally occurring microorganisms interact with sugars in the mucilage and many chemical changes take place, which lead to a pleasant, distinct flavor. Once the beans come out of the drying process, they go through a second phase of selection to yield only the best beans for dry-milling and export at Campesino’s warehouse.

“The selection and subsequent steps of depulping, washing and drying coffee cherries constitutes one of the most arduous, meticulous and personalized jobs in the whole coffee production chain.”

Colombian Coffee Growers Federation

At the roaster, the dried beans will be examined before roasting to determine final grading. Whether at a large commercial facility or a small specialty roaster like Blanchard’s, the beans will undergo a final transformation that will then lead to its distribution to the United States…for our enjoyment!

The Dirt to Dinner Team: Giving Thanks

Every day, we take for granted that we can just walk into a grocery store and pick out exactly what we want to eat. Do we want chicken, beef, or tofu for dinner? All year, we can drink coconut water, count on fresh strawberries, and be assured of 20 different types of coffee. This is thanks to the entire supply chain: from farmers, farm workers, food processors, truck drivers, food companies, to our local grocery store and its employees who stock the shelves so we can find precisely what is on our shopping list, no matter the time of year.

Lucy is Thankful for the Grocery Store

In the ‘60s, my sisters and I knew exactly where our food came from. There was a very small market called Waytonka in our Minnesota town. It had wooden floors, ceiling fans, the butcher in the back, and penny candy in the front. Aside from the candy, we ate what was local: milk and eggs were delivered to the back door by Meyer Brothers Dairy, ‘Your Lake Minnetonka Neighbor’.

In Minnesota, canned vegetables were a winter staple. As a result, our parents had a large vegetable garden and our job was to plant, grow and harvest. A lot of our childhood was spent on a small family farm while our parents traveled. We would help feed the hogs, milk the cows, and ride horses. If we wanted chicken for dinner, we went to the barn, found a plump one, cut off its head, plucked it and got it ready for the oven.

Today, I am thankful for the grocery store. Though the days of trotting out to the barn are memories that will last a lifetime, I am thankful for human ingenuity that enables me to pick up my hemp hearts to put on my Greek yogurt, buy Norwegian salmon to have for dinner, and yes, boneless skinless chicken breasts that are ready to be grilled, from a store less than 5 miles down the road.

…And Concern for the Earth

I am thankful that people are starting to ask questions about our food and changing the industry for the better. Questions like ‘is the food grown sustainably?” or “are the animals treated with compassion?” and “how transparent is the company or farm to the consumer?” quickly come to mind. I am thankful that we have new technologies like smart sensors, big data, and precision farming that address these issues. Today, with new businesses like Herddogg and iDecisionSciences, and websites like Crowd Cow and McDonalds, people are learning how their food is grown.

Hayley is Thankful for Healthy Foods

I am thankful for the healing power of foods. There is no question that what we choose to eat affects our health, and researchers have provided an abundance of studies proving just that. For instance, studies have shown that foods like blueberries, broccoli, avocado and chia seeds can help reduce inflammation to combat chronic illnesses.

Of particular interest to my family and me is diet related to brain health. My grandmother battled Alzheimer’s and dementia for years, but because she adhered to the MIND diet later in life, we are confident that it brought her more years with us. And for that, we are grateful. The diet has been found to slow and potentially reverse the effects of dementia, and is something I’m already trying to implement into my daily life.

Along the lines of healthful foods, our industry is constantly creating food innovations that provide us with nutrient-rich products. Two products that quickly come to mind are Tagatose, an alternative sweetener with micronutrients, and genetically-modified Golden Rice, which has the potential to save thousands of lives.

One last consideration is plant breeding technologies as a means of healthful foods. With food technologies like GMO, CRISPR, and synthetic biology, we cannot overlook how genetic engineering can increase the healthfulness of our foods.

I am excited about the prospects of genetic engineering to make our food healthier, more nutritious, and sustainable. 

Hillary is Thankful for Choices

Before joining Dirt to Dinner, I thought I knew what “organic” meant and what GMO technology is, especially as a self-proclaimed “foodie”. But over two years later, I can say without hesitance that I knew very little about our food system and that I now choose to not be scared into buying particular products based on misinformation.

No other circumstance brought this into light for me than the birth of my daughter last September. Prior to her arrival, we were a family of three – my husband, our four-year-old son, and me. Adding a fourth into our family excited all of us, but her birth brought much fear as complications arose during delivery, leading to her immediate transfer to a large hospital via ambulance.

In her following weeks of recovery in the neonatal ICU, I was visited by nutritionists, lactation consultants, and other certified pediatric and maternity professionals. I was alarmed at the variance of information when it came to my diet as a nursing mom. My favorite recommendation was “eat non-GMO oatmeal every morning for good milk production”…as if there’s a GMO version of oats???

When I finally focused on what was best for my baby girl and me, my choices became much easier…as they were backed by science.

It’s wonderful to see options of organic and conventional produce at our market, but what matters most to me is that I buy fresh foods that will provide my family with the most nutrients. My go-to is conventional produce, but if the organic raspberries look better, or the store only has Pink Lady apples grown organically, I’m happy to get those. But it’s amazing to have a choice – and to choose healthy. Because of these choices, my one-year-old daughter is happy and thriving. And I’m grateful to always be learning more about our food system.

Garland is Thankful for Perspective

One of the benefits that comes with growing older is a richer sense of perspective on things. Despite all the problems that we deal with every day, and the clatter of so many angry and questioning voices around us from so many directions, the bigger picture starts to come into a lot sharper focus. Now don’t get me wrong…I still see all the challenges and issues that confront our modern food system. I grow annoyed and sometimes angry at the lack of vision and understanding that gets in the way of using science and technology intelligently and responsibly to solve all those problems, and more.

But when I sit with my family and celebrate the incredible bounty that nature makes available to us, all the usual worries and frustration give way to something a good deal more optimistic about the food future. I’m thankful for the people who are working every day to make that system work better.

The men and women pioneering new and better ways of growing crops and animals sustainably and in line with the values that define us all as a society.

The scientists and engineers developing technologies to deliver safer, more wholesome food, and more varieties and with greater abundance for us all. The field workers and merchants and plant workers and food technicians and dietitians and researchers and logistics experts and countless others who make an incredibly complex supply chain work, and work well, on a global scale.

You’ve made food plentiful, available and more affordable than ever before, and that is no small accomplishment. Thanks to you, as I sit at the Thanksgiving table this year, I can celebrate not just the bounty on the table before the four generations of the West family seated around me. I can sleep well this night no doubt having eaten far too much, and talked and laughed and remembered far more than I probably ever have before. I can be thankful because I have faith that our food system will rise to whatever challenge is put before it. That future West generations will have the ability to enjoy what I’m enjoying today.

Now if you could only help me figure out a way to do something about the belly that seems to grow larger every year…

D2D is Thankful for our Dinner Plates

The Dirt to Dinner team is thankful for each and every piece of food on our plates and the journey it took to get there. While we all eat multiple times a day, we rarely stop and think about just how it got there. We take this convenience for granted and expect it without question every time we go food shopping.

But this way of thinking often causes distance from the growers and producers – creating a food disconnect. It is not anyone’s fault by any means; it is simply far too easy to overlook the time, resources and love that goes into growing the food that sustains us. So now we can take the time to be thankful for all the men and women who are a part of our global food system.

From the seeds cultivated over hundreds of years to produce our crops, to the farmers who plant and plan and harvest, to the animals providing our nutrition, for the packers at the processing plants who prepare the food for our purchase, to the drivers who take the food to the store, and the grocery staff who helps to close the supply chain loop for us…we thank you all this Thanksgiving for your hard work and dedication to our health.

Our Agricultural Extension Service: From Gardening to Food Safety

Have you ever visited, or even heard of your local agriculture extension program? Extension services provide an amazing array of resources, instruction, and assistance to people everywhere – from those living in the inner city to the most rural locale –to educate about food and farming and to help bridge the distance between dirt and dinner.

The United States’ Cooperative Extension system is a vast network of offices and resources specializing in all things ag, from helping you plan your seasonal veggie garden to providing assistance to large farm producers. These services are available nationwide at the county level and you can find your local office here. What’s remarkable about the system is that it’s backed by local colleges and universities to provide current information and in-depth research for the county’s specific location.

In this post, we take a look at how one state’s extension service works to fulfill the ambitions laid out in legislation dating back more than a full century. We spoke with Dr. Gary Bates, director of the The University of Tennessee’s Beef and Forage Center and professor of plant sciences at the UT Institute of Agriculture in Knoxville.

The program is a huge undertaking

Over 400 agents, working in offices, fields, and homes across Tennessee’s 95 counties, backed by university researchers, scientists and scholars. Education and support to 71,000 families, over 200,000 children and nearly a quarter-million people engaged in farming and food production. Practical help and instruction for more than a half-million state citizens, to the benefit of all 4.3 million Tennesseans.

In this case, the “undertaking” is the University of Tennessee’s Extension Services program – the outreach program of the school’s Institute of Agriculture. Its mission: to improve people’s quality of life and solve problems through the application of research and evidence-based knowledge about agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, 4-H youth development, and community development.

Behind the somewhat cool institutional language, the real message is far more compelling.

“Our extension services seek to answer real-life questions,” according to Dr. Gary Bates, director of the University’s Beef and Forage Center and associate professor of plant and soil science. It’s learning for the real world, not just a classroom or a course exam or even a dinner-table discussion.

“Our approach is to look at three sectors in what we do,” Dr. Bates explains. “There’s the ag side – the producers. Then there is the average person, the homeowner, and consumer — urban, suburban and rural. Then there is the 4-H.”

Why does the 4-H get such special attention?  “Here in Tennessee, we have one of the larger 4-H groups in the country, roughly 180,000 kids. Sustainability is all about the future, and those kids are our future.”

Through the extension program, young people learn not just basic agronomics or animal husbandry or sustainable farming practices but also a host of other demanding subjects. “A lot of science goes into feeding the world,” Dr. Bates says.

“Just look at what science has done in our lifetime to boost corn yields. We’re feeding a bigger, hungrier world thanks to science. Think about the importance of plant breeding, how we can use drones to be more productive, how to turn precision agriculture and big data into practical improvements in how we farm. We help kids understand all that, and how important and exciting career in agriculture and food can be for them.”

“Farming isn’t Jim-Bob in a pair of overalls today, if it ever really was,” Dr. Bates notes. “If you are interested in science, agriculture is one of the best fields you can go into. What we do helps kids see that.”

Teaching Life Skills

But that is far from the sole focus of the extension service, he adds quickly.

“Our programs help develop those young people, and not just to farm. We want people to know that their food didn’t just spring up magically from the ground, or just appear on a grocery shelf or a restaurant plate from thin air,” Bates says. “But we use agriculture to teach life skills. How to care for animals and plants and other living things. How to be responsible.  How to work with others, and to listen and communicate with people, including public speaking. And a whole lot more.”

That philosophy is nothing new. It’s been part of the extension service program since the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.  Even then, the Act’s objectives went beyond education for rural Americans in agricultural production to home economics, leadership and other skills contributing to an improved quality of life.

Dr. Bates notes that commercial producers represent only about 2 percent of the state population.

“You would be surprised at how many other kinds of agriculture are out there – home gardens and small part-time operations, local food businesses like restaurants and sidewalk markets, and that kind of thing,” he says. “And beyond that, there’s one really important thing to keep in mind: everybody eats.”

Dr. Bates also emphasizes the importance of extension services to people in making the best use of food, not just producing it.

We help people learn how to set up and manage a home budget, how to prepare food safely, how to plan out a wholesome, nutritious meals for the whole family, how to manage your time wisely… pretty much anything we can think of that will help people and families live better lives.” 

Through the extension services, local operations offer instruction in small-acreage agricultural production for home gardeners and part-time producers.  They sponsor farmers’ markets and local community gardens. They provide courses in food preparation and nutrition, and even advice on budgeting and managing small business operations.

“It’s a continuous education process,” Dr. Bates explains. “It can’t stand still, or stop thinking about new ways to help people.  We’re constantly evaluating what we do and how effective it is, and how we can do it better. Above all, what we are doing is helping the entire local community to have locally produced food and to use it safely and wisely.”

What Lies Ahead

What are the biggest challenges? What issues are you wrestling with today?

As with every industry, keeping pace with technology presents its issues. “There are new systems, new equipment, new management programs, new everything, it seems some days. We have to stay on top of all that, and be prepared to help people understand it and what it can do for them as producers –and consumers.”

The fast pace can create a new sense of urgency, too, Dr. Bates notes. “People want answers faster. They want help faster. They want results faster. That keeps us on our toes, to say the least. We have to be responsive, and we work really hard to do that.”

He also points to complications arising from the cyber age. “There’s tons of data out there. We want to use the science and research generated by the University to accomplish something in the real world, to make things actually work better or deliver more.”

Then there is social media, he adds. “How do we use it to help consumers learn about food and where to find it and how to prepare it and so on. Our extension agents are clamoring for help in understanding how to make the best use of social media.”

Healthy Ag, Healthy Economy

Why is that ambitious goal of promoting the general welfare of the state population the role of the extension services?

Dr. Bates has a quick answer to the question: “Why shouldn’t it be?”

“We’ve built our programs around the simple idea that if our state economy is going to be healthy, we have to have a healthy agricultural sector…we want everybody in the state to be able to benefit from that.  Not just the men and women who produce agricultural products…we teach people how to get the most from that system, in how they choose the right foods, how they preserve food and avoid waste, how they prepare safe meals for their families, and on and on and on. We teach everyone how important it is to make the system truly sustainable.”

So extension services are about far more than helping farmers make more money?

‘We’re working to make sure our ag sector thrives, and that it is profitable, sure, but also that it is sustainable,” he adds. “When we do that, we give our agricultural system real stability – and make sure it stays a cornerstone of a healthy state economy.  Those aren’t just words we say, either.  We’ve got people in 95 counties working to make sure it’s a lot more than just talk.”

Thoughts from a Bystander

Whether we’re a farmer, manufacturer, or consumer, extension programs, like the University of Tennessee’s, help us produce more of the food people need and want, profitably and sustainably. They help us develop new and better crops and more alternatives for meeting our food needs. They help us feed our families with better, safer, more nutritious foods. And they help us waste less. They help us make the best use of our natural resources, and preserves and protect them for future generations.

Like they say again and again across the extension service network, we’re all in this together.

Land Degradation: The History Lesson We Are Still Learning

Michael Doane is a guest columnist for Dirt to Dinner and will be sharing a series of articles on how restoring our lands is the best tool for sustainable food systems.

Michael is the Global Managing Director for Sustainable Food and Water for The Nature Conservancy. Michael started farming at a young age and is a partner in his family’s cattle and row crop farming operation located in Kansas. He combines his passion for agriculture with his love for nature in leading one of The Nature Conservancy’s top global priorities to provide food and water sustainably.

A Step Back in Time

After a recent day of working on our family farm in Kansas, I sat down with my grandmother for a visit. I asked her to recount the days of her youth, coming of age in the same rural setting we still call home. She shared several stories, but one included imagery still so clear for her that it brought a history lesson to life for me. She told me of how her mother would hang wet bedsheets up in one room of the house where the family would huddle to protect themselves from the dust storms severe enough to penetrate the dwelling as well as their lungs.

During Grandma’s childhood, farmers and communities across the U.S. plains discovered that just one generation of soil mismanagement could ruin a landscape and destroy livelihoods.

History Repeats Itself

While the Dust Bowl era is often seen as an anomalous, historical and uniquely American experience, the reality is unfortunately different. Agricultural lands around the world continue to slowly degrade. In fact, by the most credible estimates, up to 52% of global agricultural lands are now moderately to severely degraded, with 12 million hectares (30 million acres) per year degrading to the point they are abandoned by the land manager. To put this in context, the global area of abandoned land considered unworthy of the investments required to keep them productive is roughly equivalent to the total cropland under cultivation by farmers in Iowa.

This destruction of productive land is what pushes agriculture to convert additional native habitats at an alarming rate and the pressures are only increasing as we grapple with the task of ensuring ample food supplies for the next generation.

Perhaps the most important factor in biodiversity conservation worldwide is rooted in addressing the land degradation and abandonment problem.

Soil as a Living Ecosystem

This deterioration of previously healthy soils is often subtle and, while the biology can be complex, the concept is simple: soils are living ecosystems and the way we manage the soils can increase or decrease their health and home. For an official definition and glossary of terms on land degradation, read through this helpful Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) website. In short, the most valuable element of land is the topsoil – the top layer of land that supports the growth of biological life – plants, animals, insects and microbes. Land becomes “degraded” when the functional condition of the topsoil is compromised.

This can happen in different ways. The topsoil can erode, which means it is physically removed from the land by wind or water. Just as importantly, the topsoil can die, which implies it was or is alive. It happens somewhat slowly but, as soils lose their health, plant productivity declines and they are considered degraded. Plant growth and vigor is easily observable and hence it can be a good proxy for soil health. As plant biomass declines, especially when droughts or floods occur, the topsoil can spiral down quickly – losing both its structure and life. This rapid deterioration is what resulted in the Dust Bowl history my grandmother recalls so clearly.

Learning from the Past

But it wasn’t always this way. Prior to this trying time in U.S. history, the landscape across Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and Nebraska had formed rich, biodiverse and healthy grasslands in a semi-arid landscape. Nature worked its magic over thousands of years with diverse plants occupying the land, grazed by enormous bison herds with the intermittent presence of naturally occurring fires and droughts. Despite dry conditions, the continuous plant cover of the grasslands created healthy soils that sustained the landscape during droughts. In fact, the soil became so healthy it soaked up the limited rainfall provided, maintained the grassland and still managed to store the rest deep underground in the immense Ogallala aquifer.

As the United States government sought to expand food production with the onset of World War I, they enticed pioneering farmers to convert the grassland to croplands for the first time in their history, tilling them to produce wheat with initially positive results. The crops were productive, booming demand kept wheat prices high through the 1920s and early success incentivized more entrepreneurial farmers to move west and convert yet more prairie into tilled croplands.

But after several very good years, the yields started to decline. Then an epic drought set in. Farmers tilled and planted as they had before; however, the soils slowly lost their health and biological function. In these dying soils, the wheat followed course, leaving the soil fully exposed with no plant cover to protect it. Year after year, dust storms ravaged the soil, lifting and transporting precious topsoil miles away. Over the course of a decade, a vast landscape became severely degraded, threatening to turn the whole region into a desert.

The U.S. government eventually took decisive action, creating a public agency with a mandate to tackle the problem. But this history lesson is still being learned in regions all over the world where many of the same management practices have continued for a nearly a century, creating mini Dust Bowl experiences along the way.

I am now confident the imagery emblazoned in my grandmother’s memory will not sting the cheeks of future generations as we know the solution: agriculture is its own solution.

Planning the Future with Regenerative Ag

The restoration of degraded lands around the world through regenerative agriculture management practices which prioritize the health of the soil is a solution that not only offers more productivity for our global food system, but also generates innumerable environmental benefits. And the time is now. We have the knowledge to make this transition and are seeing a wide range of new innovations under development that will allow us to accelerate and scale it to benefit those on the land – and ultimately consumers – around the globe.

In the coming articles, I will share examples of how farmers, ranchers and foresters are taking their role as land stewards to the next level by prioritizing the health of their soils.

The next time I visit my Grandma, these are the stories I will share with her, too.