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!

Venezuela in Crisis: A Starving Nation

Venezuelans collecting water from street

For this post, Dirt-to-Dinner’s Garland West discusses the crisis in Venezuela with Lindsay Singleton, a former U.S. State Department official in Venezuela. We are grateful for Lindsay’s insight into the humanitarian crisis in that country.

Venezuela is in shambles. Decades of corruption and mismanagement has resulted in a collapsed government and a major humanitarian crisis.

It wasn’t long ago that Venezuela was one of the richest countries on Earth. Today, after decades of socialism and a selfish government, the oil-rich nation is bankrupt and has driven its people out of the country. Among those who have stayed, many are now in abject poverty.

Long-running media coverage of the situation, backed by a recent U.S. Senate hearing on the crisis, have laid out fact after terrible fact. U.S. politicians and diplomats call it a “cataclysmic catastrophe” that has caused rampant hunger and growing evidence of hunger-related disease.

Opposition demonstrators blocked a highway in Caracas. Credit: Yuri Cortez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Hyper-inflation at rates of 2 million percent per year  — beyond the average person’s ability to comprehend, leaves people unable to afford even the most basic staples of life, including their food. Venezuelan farmers are unable to help because most can’t afford the seeds or fertilizers. Many have simply given up altogether.

As a result of both extraordinary inflation and food shortages, the average Venezuelan, eating only one meal a day, has lost an average of 20 pounds. It is heartbreaking to read about 80 percent of Venezuelan children under the age of five in some stage of malnutrition.

Hungry people are desperately seeking any kind of food, and turning to local wildlife, dogs, cats, and insects. And all the while, more than 525 tons of emergency food aid and medicines worth nearly $200 million sits at the country’s border, unable to enter the country because of government dictate.

In a telephone interview with Lindsay Singleton, senior vice president of ROKK Solutions in Washington, D.C., and a former U.S. State Department official in Venezuela, she stated, “Before socialism, the average Venezuelan didn’t struggle too hard for food. Food was relatively cheap and available.”

But socialist economic policies have changed the picture. The concentration of abused power within the executive branch has created an environment where political motivations override the basic needs of the people. The military, for instance, largely controls the lucrative drug and food trades, as well as gold mining.

High inflation and distorted economic policies have driven businesses to the point where they cannot continue to operate. Producers have given up trying to grow and market crops. Supplies of raw materials, especially food commodities, have dried up, and factories have shut down.

A grocery store in Guaicaipuro in March 2018. Credit: Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

This didn’t just happen yesterday. Food shortages in Venezuela have been growing for over a decade, Singleton notes. For a while, the growing unavailability of food meant more time and effort spent simply trying to find it. Where a local shop once had the staples most Venezuelans relied on, consumers increasingly had to venture further out for their daily needs.

“There might have been periodic shortages of chicken, sugar, flour or butter, but that meant you just had to go to maybe three stores to find what you needed, or maybe to a local farmers market,” Singleton adds.

But as the private sector steadily began to shrink, the government increased its role in producing and importing food – or more accurately, in not providing the food its people needed. The examples of politically-driven good intentions gone wrong are abundant.

The Venezuelan government created a subsidiary of the national oil company, PDVAL, to take charge of food distribution. “Hundreds of thousands of tons of food rotted in warehouses, hence the nickname ‘pudreval,’ which is a play on the word pudrido (Spanish for rotten) and PDVAL,” Singleton notes.

Similarly, the government took over an abandoned Kellogg’s plant and ordered production to continue, celebrating the country’s first “socialist cornflakes.” “As you can imagine, without ingredients, production didn’t last long,” Singleton notes.

Now the situation for consumers is worse – as evidenced by the hunger estimates and emigration figures.

source: Financial Times

“Venezuela in effect has no middle class,” Singleton explains.  Seven years ago, seventy percent of the population lived in poverty; that number is 90 percent today. There is an aristocracy, but the majority of the country lives hand to mouth, and supply disruptions hit them fast—and hard.”

Basic goods remain available, but only for the select few. “If you can afford it, food is still available,” she adds.

How? The black market for food seems very hard to find anywhere in Venezuela.  News reports indicate that whatever black market may exist functions to move food out of the country, to buyers willing to pay dearly for it, not to local needs. Absent a viable black market, where do consumers turn for food?

“They buy it on Amazon,” Singleton replies. “They pay an exorbitant amount for what they need, and it is flown into the country, and often delivered by truck to their doorstep by networks under military control.”

Singleton and other observers note that such efforts to secure food reflect the larger political issue behind the Venezuelan turmoil. Simply put, those who continue to support the ruling regime of President Nicolás Maduro politically find it easier to secure food than those who don’t.

What about those don’t have any money or aren’t willing to provide political support?

“There is no food on the table,” she explains.

Children suffer the most, too.

“Child malnutrition is a huge problem,” Singleton adds.  “Children are suffering. Measles, mumps, malaria… it’s a humanitarian disaster at this point.”

So what happens now? How could the situation possibly get any worse?

Politicians and other observers point to regime change as a critical step out of the morass. But few can predict when – or even if – that will occur.

“The worst-case scenario is a Syria-like situation,” Singleton observes. “If Maduro stays in power because he has the backing of the military, this could drag on for quite a while.”

But some form of economic reversal is essential to dig out of the mess. If and when that will happen is anyone’s guess. “If the economy can be stabilized,” Singleton notes, “businesses might be more confident to invest in infrastructure and play a big role in re-establishing some sort of social cohesion. Their involvement – their leadership – will be critical.”

Until then, the picture remains bleak for Venezuela.