Another Kind of Organic

Organically picked coffee. Not because it's pesticide free, but because I just stumbled upon the farm owner's office and from there asked to be added to the crew.
Organically picked coffee. Not because it’s pesticide free, but because I just stumbled upon the farm owner’s office and from there asked to be added to the crew.

30 some years ago the UDSA standardized the definition of organic for the purpose of regulating the production and sale of agricultural products free of chemical inputs.

But the larger, broader meaning of organic has nothing to do with chemicals, neither their presence nor their absence.

“Organic” is an adjective to describe something- an action, an interaction, a process- that happens naturally, without human intention or intervention.

Running into a friend on the street could be considered an organic meeting, since it wasnt planned or prepared.

For dancers, improv is considered organic movement, since it entails responding to what one’s body wants to do, naturally, without imposing the prescriptions of a codified canon of movement (like ballet or Dunham modern) and consciously planning to perform one certain step after another.

According this holistic definition, USDA certified organic agriculture is not entirely organic. Even though it’s chem-free, it has still had plenty of human intervention in terms of planting, weeded, pruning, shading, fertilization with organic (here meaning once-living)  material, and more. At its bones, then, no agriculture is in fact organic. When humans were hunting and gathering they were eating organic food because they were just reaping whatever bounty nature/a god/the universe/seasonal luck offered up. They were taking what was available, versus actively planning and intending to make it available.

The ways I connected with the people I interviewed and met with and lived with and worked with in preparation to write this book are of the nature/god/universe/seasonal luck organic variety rather than the USDA chem free crop one.

I did not plan the process for gathering these interviews.  I did not sketch out a route based on what I decided (or someone else told me) were important places to go.

I knew that people grow coffee in countries that speak Spanish, and that, since I speak Spanish,  if I went to one of these countries I’d be able to talk to people. But the Spanish speaking coffee growing world extends from Southern Mexico to Peru. So where to go? I’m bold and adventurous and independent, but I try not to be stupid and did not want to drop myself in a place where I’d be in danger. The trouble with United Statesian portrayals and perceptions of other places is that they are are often skewed and biased (for a host of complex reasons) and so I really didn’t know which places fell into which category. I didn’t exclude anywhere based on prejudice, rather I decided to drop a pin in the map in a place where people I knew and trusted had been, and could thus vouch that I would in fact be ok as a 24 year old white (albeit bilingual, but still really white) rogue writer with a big backpack, ok enough to actually get some work done, versus spending excessive time/money/effort trying to assess potential threats.

So I dropped a pin in Costa Rica. (surprise, surprise everyone goes to Costa Rica.) Well, more specifically than everyone, many of the 7th grade students I’d taught had gone to Costa Rica with their families. My ballet instructor had gone with her husband (and subsequently choreographed a “sloth adagio” inspired by her trip).

From their accounts I figured I wouldn’t die if I went to Costa Rica.

So I started combing through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) list serv for a place to start as a volunteer, just to have an address to put on my customs arrival form and guarantee that I’d have a roof over my head for at least a few weeks.

I found a cow farm willing to have me, and booked a one way ticket.

Once I’d make the choice to go, organic things started happening.

A college friend that mentioned his mom had a good friend who’d retired to a coffee farm in Panama. My good friend’s coworker was leaving for Nicaragua in a few months to work as a teacher trainer, and could surely host me in her place. Another college friend and former coworker revealed that he had actually been born on his family’s coffee farm in the Colombian mountains, where much of his family still lived. Go figure.

Suddenly, organically, I had one name and one phone number in each of 4 geographically contingent Spanish speaking coffee growing countries: Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia. I figured that was as good as a full itinerary.

As soon as I touched down, those initial organically amassed contacts turned into even more organic connections. I started talking to everyone I met about my project, and nature/a god/the universe/seasonal luck responded by offering up people who were willing to talk to me, house me, feed me, teach me, share their lives with me, and help me along my bizarre (yet goal oriented) journey.

I followed every lead I had. I also knocked on doors, sent emails to people whose addresses I found on posters, websites, and coffee packaging, and walked into factories. I googled and investigated and cold called and pursued. And people answered.

At some points I was terrifyingly planless, feeling like I had exhausted all organic hope, as I sat by myself in bus stations and just looked at the list of places to go, trying to guess where would be the best next move. And sometimes I had so many offers I had to choose and prioritize and turn people down.

There’s a lot of coffee in the countries I visited. I wanted to go everywhere, but sometimes you have to breathe and be where you are. I was often torn between the allure of visiting more places and growing my tally  of “farms visited” and the desire to really just live in and get to know one place.

There are places I wanted to go but didn’t, and there are people I met who are more incredible and surprising than I could have ever dreamed.

I’m happy with my organic journey, which maybe is a little bit more like the USDA’s definition than I thought. It was indeed free of the poisonous affects of overplanning, but it was not completely devoid of human intervention. I did not just sit and wait for things to happen.

I germinated my idea in a New York greenhouse before transplanting the seedling project to Costa Rican soil. I actively weeded away doubt and distractions, I pruned my expectations, abilities and reactions, I shaded myself from disbelief and stress and anxiousness so that only rays of patience could filter through. I fertilized my idea with a rich compost of ideas from the people around me. I watered it with determination and propped it up with support of people who know more than I ever will.

This idea, this honest conviction that I could find out something about who grows coffee and what they do just by finding those people and asking them, grew to be a fully developed tree of stories, not by accident, but through dedicated labor.

The backdrop that holds both chemicaless and naturally occurring definitions of organic together is one of connectivity. When you use less chemicals in agriculture it is with the hope that you will be more connected to what you grow, getting to know the plants as you crouch in between them weeding by hand- rather than impersonally spraying from a distance. When you bump into a friend on the street hopefully you are momentarily more connected to that person than the other far away friend you were in the middle of texting.

The intention of this book is that kind of connectivity organic. There are many ways in which we can never be connected to coffee growing people and places, since physical distance remains a real barrier to certain kinds of interactions. But we consume coffee; we put it into our bodies- and our minds and heart rates are affected by it. And so we’re connected to it, for better or for worse.

Sharing stories is one platform for intimate connection that can transcend the separating curtains of time and place.

We’re already connected to coffee because it’s in our kitchens, our nostrils, our stomaches, and our veins. It is my hope that this collection of stories from (transcriptions and translations of recorded conversations) and of (my own explanations, observations, and reactions) Latin American coffeepeople will help us find new ways of connecting with something which is already very much a part of who we are.

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3 Comments

  1. “I germinated my idea in a New York greenhouse before transplanting the seedling project to Costa Rican soil. I actively weeded away doubt and distractions, I pruned my expectations, abilities and reactions, I shaded myself from disbelief and stress and anxiousness so that only rays of patience could filter through. I fertilized my idea with a rich compost of ideas from the people around me. I watered it with determination and propped it up with support of people who know more than I ever will.”
    . . . and now you can harvest a book!

  2. muy bien escrito. tengo un cuento más para tu colección:
    yo estaba viviendo en chiapas, méxico hace 3 años (ahora vivo en españa) y por una casualidad (¿orgánica?) me encontré en las altas, dónde cultivan café. me fui a un cooperativo y me explicaron un poco de la producción local, ¨los coyotes¨ que viene a comprar por un precio bajo, calidad/cultivado en la sombra/bien para la migración de pájaros etc… y a final me fui a recoger café en la montaña de una comunidad pequeñísima. con nada más que mi canasta, escalaba la montaña y cogía café, luego después de quitar la cascara, pusimos el café a secar y seleccionar a mano los buenos.
    todo el proceso era algo espontáneo (de mi parte), no tenía expectativas y todo me sorprendió. en algún momento sentí la conectividad humana y fue increíble cuando me invitaron a una boda. eran todos indígena (maya) y me siento honrada de haber participado. qué cosa más profundo que has tocado aquí con tu investigación: la conexión entre café y conectividad.

    1. Gracias por compartir tu historia tan linda! Es algo muy especial ser invitada participar en algo tan familiar. Que bueno que tú también experimentó la profundidad de como trabajo compartido y el producto final puede conectar a gente tras las distancias y circunstancias. Cheers!

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