Division of Decision

Jose Raul manages a Panamanian coffee finca and makes many decisions while the owners are on the other side of the world.
Jose Raul manages a Panamanian coffee finca and makes many decisions while the owners are on the other side of the world.

One of the greatest positions of power a person can be in is a position in which the decisions he or she makes directly affect others. With this decision making power always comes the great responsibility for the consequences of those decisions.

In a business, decision making power can fall between owners, managers, and employees, and the responsibilities for the consequences of those choices mean the difference between profits and losses, between breaking even and going bust.

In coffee, the division of decision and execution is one of the things I found most confusing to sort through when I first started visiting farms and was looking to interview “coffee farmers.” I thought it would be pretty straightforward to figure out who “coffee farmers” were, but I found that it was actually a difficult distinction to make and depended deeply on how I was defining “coffee farmer.”

I decided “people who grow coffee” was a good enough definition and proceeded with that. But even “people who grow coffee” is a hard group to define and figure out who to include/exclude. In the coffee jargon glossary of When Coffee Speaks I start to tease out this confusing question with the definition of caficultor. I say that the word caficultor translates to “someone who grows coffee” and that “to be a caficultor you have to be in charge but still get your hands a little dirty.”

This is mostly true, because no one ever says, “I’m a coffee grower,” unless he/she owns land and actually spends some time on it. But growing coffee is an extremely involved process, and the decision making power and responsibility that falls on a caficultor varies widely from farm to farm. Hopefully the book When Coffee Speaks illustrates this through the stories people tell and the explanations people give because there are many decision division models that exist, and the “people who grow coffee” include many more than just those who fall under the definition I outlined for caficultores.

I found myself constantly asking myself question like, “if you buy the seeds, dictate when and where to plant them, but never actually put one in the ground yourself, can you be considered a ‘person who grows coffee?’” and, “if you germinate the seeds, transplant them twice, and prune the trees every year, but only do all those things because someone else is telling you exactly when and how to do them, can you be considered a ‘person who grows coffee?’”

I met landowners who made lots of decisions but never executed any of them (some of these landownerns were present and observant and giving constant feedback to the people who were doing the execution and others who were making decisions, and therefore handing out instructions, over the phone from foreign countries). Does a decision maker have to do at least some of the execution to be able to be considered a coffee grower? Maybe not actually carry out the decisions but at least be present while someone else does? Does “present” mean being there every day? Once a week? Once a month? Once a harvest?

I met farm managers who’d been fertilizing, fumigating, pruning, harvesting, germinating, and planting for their entire lives. They knew every ditch and hill of the farms the worked on and could remember the exact month they’d planted every lot for the past 15 years. But they’d never once made the choice that those were the months to plant in. They’d never chosen which products to use to spray for disease. They’d never seen the results of any soil analyses or points from any micro lot’s cupping score. They could tell you how likely the trees were to see certain funguses based on the amount of rain in the past month, but they couldn’t take any action until someone else decided action should be taken. Could those farm managers be considered “people who grow coffee?” If they were handed their own farms and told to be the decision makers, would they be ready to turn their knowledge into concrete choices that directly impact the farm’s bottom line? Would they even want that responsibility?

I also met farm managers whose roles included exactly such responsibilities. The farm owners on the fincas these ,anagers managed were largely absentee, so the managers were entrusted to make choices about how and when to do what. They selected products, dictated applications, orchestrated other crews of workers,  coordinated timing of new plantings, and traced out the lots according to the densities they saw fit. In these cases the owners merely said, “let’s plant that hillside,” and these empowered managers made the decisions necessary to make that happen. Could those farm managers be considered “people who grow coffee?”

What about the next-in-lines? Every finca (that’s larger sized than one family with a handful of active members can manage) has a manager called a mandador. All fincas with mandadores have waves of seasonal employees for harvest, but they all also have a handful of year round employees who help execute pruning/planting/spraying decisions made by some combination of the owner/mandador. Those year round employees often know a whole lot about the details it takes to make coffee grow, and many eventually graduate to mandadores or buy their own farms. But when they’re just year round employees, can they be considered “people who grow coffee?”

In order to answer that question I next had to ask myself, what does it mean to “grow” something? Does it mean being the one to actually put a seed into the ground, or does it mean being the one to look at the weather, analyze the soil and topography, calculate costs of products, and decide when and where and how that seed should be planted? Is growing an act of decision making or one of execution?

There are some people who are undeniably people who grow coffee because they do both. The smallest landowners make all the decisions about what to do to make coffee grow, and they also do all the “doing.” At the family farm scale, all the decision making and the bulk of the doing usually falls on the head of the household, be it father, eldest son, or widow. But both decision making and execution are less risky on a smaller scale. If you’re only planting 200 plants and you think you might have planted them too close together, you only have 200 plants that are a little bit too close together. You’ll plant the next 200 farther apart. But if you’re planting 20,000 plants and you chose to plant them at too high a density and now the branches are stunted and the harvest is less and any harvesting at all is difficult, you can still plant the next 20,000 farther apart, but you have a lot of really undesirable plants that you’re now responsible for finding a way to deal with.

During my coffee odyssey I often check to see what I really remember and know from all my time spent on farms by asking myself, “could I do this on my own? If I were up on a finca way in the mountains with no cell service and no ability to phone a friend, would I be able to replicate this?” In questions of execution, the answer is almost always “yes.” I feel fairly confident that I could prune at the right height and the right angle, that I could make a seedbed with adequate soil and proper drainage, and certainly that I could pick and sort ripe coffee. There are still some executions I couldn’t pull off, like tracing out a steep lot for a new planting or using a machete to trim the roots of seedlings in a hillside almacigo, but there are enough tasks I’ve done enough times in enough different situations that I think I could pull them off on my own if I were the head of a coffee household.

But the situations in which I would always need to phone a friend would be in times of decision making. Is it too wet fertilize? Too hot to apply pesticides? If I make an almacigo now, will it be ok to plant the seedlings in 6 months? My trees are 8 years old but this year’s harvest was awesome; should I really prune next year? I’m probably most comparable to a halfway decent year round employee; I don’t have enough execution skills to be a mandador, and I certainly don’t want the decision making power or consequence responsibility of being the owner in charge of the bottom line. One of the conundrums of the division of coffee decision is that the people with the most on-the-ground information necessary for making the decisions that directly affect the bottom line are not in fact the ones making the decisions, and the ones with the confidence and clearance to make such decision are not the ones with the bank of firsthand on-the-ground information.

In the process of growing coffee, the division of decision can vary, but however decision and execution are divvied up, they both have to happen in order for coffee to grow. I couldn’t come up with adequate parameters for deciding who was or wasn’t a coffee farmer, so I just decided to coin the word “coffeepeople” and put it to work defining people who do any combination of deciding and/or executing in order to make coffee grow.

Beyond windowboxes of petunias or the odd potted tomato plant on a Brooklyn fire escape, growing things is not a solitary activity, and coffee certainly can’t be grown by one person alone. How coffee growing decisions and executions are carried out on a given farm vary according to the logistics of the finca and the personalities and preferences of the individuals involved. All the coffee you’ve ever tasted or smelled is the product of collaboration—be it oppressive or symbiotic, contractual or familiar—of the minds and hands coffeepeople who smudge the lines of any seductively simplistic definitions.


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