Seeds on Fire

Next generation of Colombian coffee growers. Leide, center, has a college degree in  agricultural systems and owns her own 2 hectare farm.
Next generation of Colombian coffee growers. Leide, center, has a college degree in agricultural systems and owns her own 2 hectare farm.

I had the pleasure of spending last week in Antioquia, Colombia with 1,000 of the country’s next generation of coffee producers. The week was a testament to the powerful catalysts that education and agriculture can be to one another other; academic theory means nothing if it doesn’t get turned into application, and growing things is a waste of time if all you’re doing to improve is crossing your fingers.

The campo and the city can ignite each other in a very symbiotic way in any country, but the ones who are poised to make fiery symbiosis happen in Colombia are the tenaciously innovative 15-25 year olds who gathered at the “New Generation of Coffee Growers’” camp to connect with each other and with the plethora of sub-specialties that comprise the coffee industry, from soil to boiling water.

Not a bad setting for coffee school
Not a bad setting for coffee school

Before I dove into coffee, I taught high school. I still am and will always be a teacher, so I am constantly tuned in to how people learn. I was curious to visit this massive Colombian “coffee camp” for several reasons. First, I wanted to see what the young coffeepeople were being taught. Education is as much a tool for liberation as it is for indoctrination into an oppressive agenda, and gathering a bunch of kids together to “teach them the ways” has no shortage of historical evidence to illustrate how unfortunate the outcomes can be.

The camp surpassed my expectations in thoroughness and quality of material being disseminated. Students were given full access to the same standard of information given to attendees at SCAA workshops and CQI courses. In the session dedicated to roasting, students–in groups of four–had the chance to try to match a light roasted sample roast using a brand new four barrel Probat sample roaster, a Rolls-Royce of a machine that many professional roasters would give their left hand to use, even for just 8 minutes.

Jose Ruben Cartagena Garro tries his hand at roasting
Jose Ruben Cartagena Garro tries his hand at roasting

Sessions on fertilization and plant nutrition broke down the enigmatic numbers on fertilizer sacks and explained the relevance of a soil analysis and the relative weights of elements used in agrochemicals. The session on breeding gave a clear breakdown of how an F5 hybrid of a plant is arrived at and why certain plants were selected for propagation in Colombia.

Of course, there were some facts and tenets that I personally disagreed with, but they did not diminish the overall comprehensiveness of the material being taught.

Secondly, I was curious to see if the young coffeepeople were actually learning anything. The best curriculum in the world is useless if the teachers are unengaging and students are disinterested. Again, my highest expectations were surpassed. The teachers, coming from Antioquia’s government agencies, the Departmental Committee of the Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers, the free national continuing ed institute SENA, regional coffee buying coops, and even one Australian importer from Bogota volunteering to teach cupping classes, were all experts in their respective fields and adept at motivating and inspiring the wide-eyed rural coffeeyouth.

Seeing what a Brix refractometer is all about
Seeing what a Brix refractometer is all about

It is very easy for occasions that are supposed to contain learning to turn into approximations of learning, of going through motions that are designed to imitate actual understanding. A classroom full of students hunched over their desks, writing away and not gazing up from their papers looks a lot like learning. When you are focused and thinking deeply and trying to find a way to put complicated ideas into writing it is true that you will probably be bent over a desk, intent on your paper. But—here’s the tricky part—when you are instructed to regurgitate memorized information and threatened with negative consequences for not doing so, you are also likely to be bent intently over you paper. Ideal student behavior is not always indicative of learning. Equally as tricky is the reality that the most profound learning usually happens in the exact type of unregulated environments that schools traditionally work to avoid. Voices talking over one another, tools and implements strewn around, and no one person dictating the direction of events are characteristics that might seem to belong to chaos—the last thing you want in a learning environment—when in fact they often accompany the most complex cognitive processing.

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Putting math to work to calculate "yield factor" used in green coffee purchasing
Putting math to work to calculate “yield factor” used in green coffee purchasing

When we are able to engage with lots of physical stuff and follow our own curiosity, that is when we are more likely to have “aha” moments. When those light bulbs go off we don’t usually want to keep quite about it. I said earlier that light and space are part of what is necessary to be able to work through complicated things like budgeting and detailed planning, but the acts of planting seeds of innovation and igniting those seeds into fireballs of action do not have such steep demands.

A bunch of 16 year olds crowded around a cupping table slurping coffee with plastic spoons, trading folders as writing surfaces to jot down the “mango” and “jasmine” fragrances they note in the samples is just the kind of messy environment in which sparks go off. It doesn’t look like what we often think a classroom—a space designed for learning—should look like. Students shout over each other, cup the samples out of order, and text under the table. But there is a purposeful design to the lesson and the materials used meet international standards. The cuppers leading the sessions observe protocol and pull back the coffee grading curtain, demonstrating the evaluation process to which literally every coffee in the world is subjected to at some point.

First time at the cupping table
First time at the cupping table
This is what learning looks like.
This is what learning looks like.

The cupping score sheets and steps taken to cup adhere to SCAA protocol. Reggaeton blare from the courtyard below. Smells of frying fish from the nearby cafeteria contaminate the atmosphere. Cupping is typically a reverent affair, performed with the solemn hushed air of ablutions at the alter. In order for these 16 year olds from some of Colombia’s remote communities to ever value a few ounces of coffee grounds enough to one day observe such reverence and cup with the devotion of a deacon, they have to start here. And here, in this small second floor room of the office building at a water park filled with sweaty, shirtless teenage boys who two days ago rode mules to get to the bus that brought them to coffee camp, the seeds of sensory understanding necessary to one day become a Q grader are being planted. Comingled with smells of patacones and sounds of Carlos Vives, students lazily draped over each other’s shoulders and raising plastic spoons to their lips, those seeds are ignited.

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First time with an Aeropress.
First time with an Aeropress.

Teacher relish those moments. In the monotony of the traditional classroom it is a treat to see students eyes light up with that “aha” of connection and understanding. It’s a clichéd metaphor but you really can see it. When the gears in someone’s brain click into place and some bellows puffs just enough air onto just the right ember there is a “WOOSH” that transforms that person’s entire face. At coffee camp it happened left and right.

Demonstration of how a PVC rake with spiraled tongs works
Demonstration of how a PVC rake with spiraled tongs works
Teacher explaining how PVC rakes won't rot like wooden ones, and explaining how to make them
Robinson explaining how PVC rakes won’t rot like wooden ones, and how to make one yourself
Thinking...
Thinking…
Processing....
Processing….

Instead of eye rolling, teenage boys (who would rather be by the waterslide) stand up straight. “I taste it. Cedar. This one tastes like a tree. And that other one, that other one was sweet like ripe pineapple.” The light bulb goes off. That is what learning looks like; it looks like the moment when the nascent seed of an idea catches flame.

Tuned in.
Tuned in.

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Answering her first question correctly (and earning a sticker to prove it!)
Answering her first question correctly (and earning a sticker to prove it!)

That’s what coffee literally is, after all, a bunch of seeds on fire, little compact nuclei of a tropical plant set a blaze in order to be ground, soaked, and guzzled so that we can be a little faster, a little sharper, and have just a few more “aha” lightbulb moments than we would otherwise have.

Group 7, who adopted me for a day and let me be a coffee student with them
Group 7, who adopted me for a day and let me be a coffee student with them
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2 Comments

  1. What a brilliant idea. Columbia obviously has its eye on their future. I wish you would propose this type of camp to iCafe. As usual, awesome blog, you hit on so many topics that we don’t think of as we enjoy that dark elixir; thanks!

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