Yesterday I checked a big ticket item off my “being a freelancer in 2014” to do list: I got Obamacare. For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, I can now count myself among the Ranks of the Insured. After suffering through several terrible customer service representatives, I finally got someone useful on the phone. While reviewing my application he asked me to verify my annual income for the past year, and I confirmed the embarrassingly low total that I’d listed. The rep asked me if I expected the same income in 2014, and I told him that I hoped not, explaining I’d spent the past year completing a project that I knew from the outset wouldn’t make me any money. He sheepishly inquired, “Do you mind if I ask what it was?” I told him I’d spent a year traveling through Latin America interviewing coffeepeople and writing a book. He replied, “I’m not rich either, and I didn’t get to do that!”
His comment reminded me that there is more than one way to go belly up. A few times in college I’d stare at my empty wallet and ask myself, “where has all my money gone?” The answer usually involved a few of Lower Manhattan’s best happy hours, interboro cab rides, and 4am pizza binges. A few years later, when I was teaching high school in Brooklyn, I’d often have to politely decline brunch invitations, staring at the near zero balance of my checking account that wouldn’t be refueled again until payday. As I asked myself where all my money had gone, my friends would remind me, “well, you are a patron of the arts.” I’d count back through all the dance classes and ballet performances I’d attended in the past month and have to nod in agreement. That kind of being broke was just as inconvenient as the kind I’d experienced in college, but it was a lot more satisfying. Personally, I consider seeing Balanchine’s Jewels a better investment than bottomless mimosas and eggs benedict any day.
There are many ways to go bust, and right now at least I can feel at peace with the void in my piggy bank. My savings have been distributed around the coffeelands of Latin America. A portion of my money found its destiny in mom ‘n’ pop sodas selling plates piled with rice and beans, another portion went into the hands of TicaBus, Tracopa, Tuasa, Comtrasuli, and other local bus companies. A big chunk of it did go to JetBlue, but an even bigger chunk went to local hostels and grocery stores and a few artisans (like Patricia who sewed me a gorgeous traditional Ngöbe nagua in the hills of Panama and Lorena who made the painted necklaces crafted from coffee tree branches that I gave my mom and grandma for Christmas.) At the end of all these expenditures I not only did my part to sustain rural Latin American economies, I put together a genre-straddling book. So I might be broke, but it’s not for nothing.
Coffee farmers also know that all paths to going broke are not created equal. Basically, if you’re producing coffee, you are either resigned to being pretty broke or well aware that that reality is always lurking just around the corner. If you know you’re going to go bust “why grow coffee at all?” is one valid question with one set of answers, but “how should we grow coffee- even if it’ll leave us broke?” is perhaps the more relevant question, and the one that yields the answers that have the most direct effect on the shape of coffee growing places around the world.
Coffee producers have to invest most of what they do earn back into future production. Once planted, a coffee tree produces for up to 40 years, but those 39 years after planting are far from idle. Every individual coffee tree demands fertilizer, and coffee farms as wholes demand “maintenance” in the forms of controlling weeds, rebuilding paths, putting up fences, repairing storage facilities, pruning shade trees, and of course applying controls for pests and plagues.
All this work must be done and all this work costs money—very likely enough money to break the bank—so if the bank is going to be broken, then a very important question becomes “at whose gain?” If you’re pouring money into fertilizer, are you giving your money to big agroindustrial supply houses? If you buy chemical pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides are you funneling your money into the same? What if you hire a team of local men to machete away the weeds instead of applying round up? Are you creating local jobs or putting yourself farther into debt?
There are growers who treat their coffee farms strictly like businesses, opting to make the financial choices that make the most sense on the balance sheet, such as applying herbicide to control weeds and using store-mixed fertilizer to boost production because those are the cheapest choices. There are also growers who consider themselves to be important community patrons and have had the same men macheteing the same slopes of weeds for decades, growers who wouldn’t think of suddenly firing their workers, because it would boot them from the important social position of Employer. There are growers who opt to plant shade trees and use the leaf litter as both a measure of weed control and fertilizer, recognizing that pruning shade is expensive and still requiresadditional fertilizer, but valuing the habitats interplanted trees create for wildlife and as mitigators of climate change.
Most coffee farmers treat it as fact that they will have to borrow money every year just to continue to be coffee growers, so they find themselves in the position of really having nothing to lose, since all their profit will be poured right back into preparing for the next year’s production. Having nothing to lose is a position most notorious for inspiring people to act with reckless abandon and disregard the consequences of their actions. A much less celebrated (probably because it’s also underutilized) byproduct of having nothing to lose is a sense of empowerment. “I’m not going to make any money. So, in the process of going broke, what can I do that still has some gain?” Going broke the most productive way possible is one route to recouping some dignity in the face of empty pockets. Just because you’re out of money doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of choices.
There is important pride to be had knowing that the contents of one’s pockets are not keeping each other warm at the corner of a blackjack table or the bottom of a bottle and an important distinction to be made between going broke paying salaries to your neighbors versus writing blank checks to Monsanto. Coffee is far from the only form of agriculture that breaks the banks of the people breaking their backs to make crops possible, but it does afford ample opportunities to go broke elegantly.
I hear many different stories in my travels and I hear a few refrains, one of them being “growing coffee is a good way to go broke.” Another refrain I hear, though not quite as often, is, “I may not have any money, but look at that,” and coffee growers gesture around themselves to swaths of forest planted with coffee, papaya, bananas, oranges, oak, cedar, and vegetables. They sweep their hands past leafy green trees ripe with cherries and gesture to children and dogs playing in the shade. They point to rows of coffee trees arranged in contours hugging the hillsides, leading to immaculate beneficios turning waste into fertilizer and preserving the rivers. They indicate compost piles, kids in school uniforms, workers eating filling meals, and gorgeous self sustaining agroforestry systems, all proving that all empty bank accounts are not created equal, and positing that growing coffee (and also writing about it) just might be the best way to go broke.