It’s coming up on a year since I left to begin this odyssey. On August 28, 2012, I departed Newark Liberty International Airport for San Jose, Costa Rica with a backpack full of farm clothes and a pocket full of ideas. My goal was direct and concrete even in its amplitude. Who grows coffee, and what do they do?
As we approach August 28, 2013 I think it’s time for me to ask myself, “did I meet my goal? Did I find out who grows coffee and what they do?” Good businesses produce annual reports and good writers give their readers anchoring summaries.
To answer this question of whether or not I met the goal I set out to meet, I think it’s a perfect opportunity to really look at the year in review.
I purposely set myself with a wide enough goal that I would have to work pretty hard to not achieve it. My thesis was not narrow and focused, as we’re told theses should be, my inquiry was broad and candid, “what’s going on at coffee origins?”
But the tricky part of setting oneself a broad goal is that the evaluation of the fulfillment of the aim is not as simple as “met/not met.” With such a wide query the assessment framework then becomes not just “did I meet my goal?” (because meeting such a wide goal is pretty much a given), but rather “how well did I meet it?”
And requires a qualitative response, which much more difficult to give than checking the “met” or “not met” box on a nebulous goal evaluation checklist. So let’s get qualitative.
Did I find out who grows coffee?
Yes. How well did I find out who grows coffee? Did I meet people? Yes. Do I know their names? Yes. Did I work alongside them? Yes. Did I eat at their tables? Yes. Did I go back and see the same people more than once? Yes. Did I celebrate holidays and family events with them? Yes. Did they teach me things? Yes. Did I sleep in their homes? Yes.
But all these qualitative stats can still seem vague. How can I quantify the coffeepeople I met over this year?
In Costa Rica, I interviewed 28 people who’s words will be included in the book. I met most of their families, if not their families, their coworkers. So let’s say each of those people represents a group of 3 on average. Then add another 25 people I met, stayed with, and worked with, but whom I didn’t interview at all. So that’s 109 coffee people that I know in Costa Rica. 25 more from Nicaragua. 16 interviewees representing families, plus other connections in Panama gives another 60. And probably a good 50 from Colombia. Maybe I made around 244 individual connections with coffeepeople I can name and know something about.
And in getting to know who grows coffee I met people who process it, transport, it sell, it and prepare it. I also met people who grow sugarcane and bananas and raise cattle. I know artists and hotel owners and tour guides and other travelers. I not only figured out who grows coffee, I interacted with those people and got to know their personalities.
I know that Alirio has such good coffee because he obsessively holds himself- more so than even the people he hires- to a standard of the utmost quality. I know that Federcio actually doesn’t like coffee as much as he likes fishing. I know that Henry belives that God loves him and his family and his employees and his land, and he produces coffee with a spiritual devotion to them all. I know that Wilford can charm his buyers, and that Pedro can single handedly manage an entire supply chain and lead his country in café culture because he’s determined to uphold a pioneering aesthetic. I know that the Aguilares will never starve because they know how to work as a family and be resiliently optimistic even when they’ve spent their lives being underpaid.
I found out that coffee can be grown and produced in as many ways as there are people who produce it, because it is the individual personalities of those people that make every plot of coffee unique, even in the face of grossly homogenizing markets and marketing-centric direct trade.
Did I find out what these people do?
Did I ever. Did I find out how they germinate the seedlings? And transplant them? And prune, and fertilize, and cultivate the trees? And harvest the cherries? And depulp, wash, dry, hull, sort, and store them? Did I see all those steps happen, see them happen firsthand with my own two eyes? Did I do some of those steps? Yes. Did I do all of them, at one scale or another? Yes. Did I do them repeatedly, and in different countries? Yes.
Did I see people’s faces and listen to their tones of voice and track their body language as they did these jobs? Yes. Did I find out what the women support the men (and sometimes women) doing these jobs do? Did I sit in the kitchen with the 50 gallon pots and 4 foot stirring paddles? Did I walk to the stream for washing and see the clotheslines under plastic in places that never get anything but rain? Did I see the sweeping and scrubbing and lugging? Yes.
Did I wash my clothes in machines, on stones, in buckets, and in cramped shower stalls? Did I learn to peel plantains, use a rice cooker, start a fire with plastic, conquer my fear of gas stoves, make salad for the masses, gut fish, and hand pat out a hundred arepas? Yes.
Did I plant things and weed things and pick things and machete things and carry things? Did I start to feel in my bones and know in my muscles what it ‘s like to do what coffeepeople do? Yes.
Did I find out what’s going on at origin?
I did. But I certainly didn’t find out everything. I did find out something about how governments work with producers, how agencies are formed, who organizes organizations, how coops are structured, why people do or don’t join coops. I found out something about how buyers buy directly, how traders trade, how biologists clone and cross plant hybrids to generate new varietals, and how baristas practice their latte art.
I found out that every coffee producing country has its own vocabulary for what they do to make coffee, and that every country has a different system for getting coffee from plant to port. I found out that for every sound system there are people working outside of it, not to undermine it but just to explore alternatives. I found out that systems that seem sound can sometimes have cracks, or even gaping holes, if you look a little closer.
I found out that people at origin want to know more about what’s going on where their coffee is drunk; they want to know what’s happening to their coffee when it leaves their lands, what people think about it on the other side of the world.
When I was 15 I read Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth, and it changed the way I thought about everything. I was fascinated that he had done something so simple; look closely at all the work of other people who’d looked more closely at one place. He found there were more things that unite us as humans than those that divide us by place.
At 15 I wanted to do what he’d done. I wanted to survey everythings from everywheres and look at the big picture of a sweeping horizon. I knew I could never just sit and analyze one cave painting to death, because I’d be too busy wondering what other cave paintings looked like.
I started this odyssey in a literary mindset; I wanted to collect stories from coffeepeople, expressing in their own words who they are, what they do, and what’s going on where they live. I had no intentions of paying attention to industrial trading, commodity markets, plant genetics, or international politics, but that’s what I ended up doing. I somehow ended up channeling Mr. Campell and finding coffee with a thousand faces.
I look at industrial trade without forgetting about homemade machinery. I looked at homemade machinery without forgetting about the market price. I looked at the market price without forgetting about national coffee growing support agencies, and I looked at those support agencies without forgetting the names, faces, and stories of the coffeepeople I would be eating dinner with that night.
Maybe it looks like I’ve done too much this year, so much that I’ve done nothing, because I’m not in fact a trader, a mechanic, a biologist, an agronomist, or a landowner. But I am still a writer. And a coffee drinker. And a talker and a listener. And curious enough to not be afraid to go find out what I want to know, and what I know other people want to know.
So I’ve come home with stories. I’ve rounded out this year with knowledge deep and wide, but also with hours and hours of recorded storytelling., spoken stories that I’m transforming into written word. These stories are crossing the thresholds of medium and language, but they make it across intact.
Soon, very soon, you will be able to put your hands on those stories in the form of a real, physical book. But I need your help to make it there. In order to self publish this collection of stories, you need to advance order copies. There are only 6 days left to fund the publication of “When Coffee Speaks!”
Let’s make it happen so that I can tell everyone one of those 244 people I know that there are people on the other side of the world itching to hear what they have to say.