By Paul Katzeff, CEO & Co-Founder, Thanksgiving Coffee
On January 12, I depart my comfortable home on the North Coast of California to visit coffee Farmers and Cooperatives in Rwanda and Uganda. I haven’t visited them on their home turf for almost a decade. Over the last several years Ben Corey Moran, our former Director of Coffee, deepened our relationships with Cooperative leaders and farmers in Africa. It is my intention that this visit will strengthen those ties.
I’ll be traveling with Nicholas Hoskyns of Etico, an import/export company that has imported our Nicaraguan coffees for the past two years. In 2004 he accompanied me to Rwanda on a USAID consulting job to help The Cooperative Coffee Sector plan its “cupping lab” construction project for cooperatives. He has a vast knowledge of Cooperatives and their organizational structures.
The trip’s focus will be on collaboration: How can our relationship improve quality of life for both coffee farmers and coffee roasters? I believe that quality of life and quality of coffee go hand in hand. There has to be opportunity for a better life in all parts of the coffee trading chain, from the farm to the cup. It is the farmers’ love of their trees that makes good coffee great. Back here in Ft. Bragg , California, it is our pride in what we create for the coffee lover that makes great coffee remain great.
There are some sticky issues that need attention, which have made this trip necessary. Primarily, about crop financing, shipment dates, and creating a system of transparency that demystifies the transfer of money from Thanksgiving Coffee to the individual farmers.
I want to have a first person experience in discovery and learning. And I want to share this 10 day adventure with you. I use the word “adventure” with a certain amount of respect for its broad application. I am not “going on an adventure,” but I know it will be an adventure. What I wish for is the most uneventful yet spiritual adventure. No ceremonial high points and no high fives or WOW’S! I’m hoping for a low key visit with a slow easy gait, and a smile on my face when I return home.
To be continued…
A Trip to Africa (series archive)
Intro – I’m going to Africa
Day 1 – Arriving in Uganda
Day 2 – Dancing, Mango Trees & the Dry Mill
Day 3 – On the Road
Day 4 – Transparency, Trust & Relationships
Day 5 – Coffee Quality & A New Mystery
by Paul Katzeff, CEO & Co-Founder
I have been drinking coffee since I was 17 years old. I will be 76 in February. That’s been 59 years of coffee drinking. I have averaged approximately 2.5 cups per day for 21,535 days. That comes to 53,837 eight ounce cups of coffee (plus or minus), in my lifetime so far. This is about 61 fifty-gallon drums of coffee. Considering ten minutes per cup on average, I have spent 373 full 24 hour days behind a cup of coffee. Granted, I was not just sipping coffee during those moments, I was taking a time out for, I am convinced, a health break.
I’m currently in Phoenix, Arizona playing in the “Over 75” Senior Baseball World Series. I am a catcher, playing the best baseball of my life at 75, and I owe it all to 3,364 gallons of coffee. I’ll let you know how I did when I get back in November. Until then, as my mother never said, “Don’t forget to drink your coffee.”
Learn more about the benefit coffee can have on your workout – “How Coffee Can Galvanize Your Workout” – NY TIMES
PHOTO: Paul Katzeff, batting strong in the 2012 over 70 senior baseball world series.
by Paul Katzeff | CEO, Thanksgiving Coffee
“Rust” is a word with an ominous sound. It ruins older cars, renders tools useless, and is a major reason for the use of paint to preserve everything made from iron. In Central America there are two kinds of rust. The kind that corrodes iron and the kind that kills coffee trees. The latter rust, called “La Roya” is a Fungus that is pernicious. It lives on the leaves, sucking the life out of them. They fall off and do not return. Coffee cherries never ripen, and the tree eventually dies. This is not a good thing for a coffee farmer whose survival depends on coffee.
La Roya is worse than a 60 cent per pound market price, which is a monumental crisis, but there is always another season, and hope for higher prices for the farmer. La Roya is no crop, then three to five years of rehabilitation of the coffee farm. In other words, it is the end of family life on the farm. It is the end of a way of life, of culture, of living on the land. It means hunger, it means migration to the cities, it means over crowding and the deterioration of family life as country people are forced to work in urban factories making clothing for two dollars a day.
La Roya is here and unless a major battle is waged to beat it back, Central American coffee will be a thing of the past, and coffee prices will rise as the supply of quality coffee is diminished. This is not Chicken Little talking here. This is absolutely a disaster about to happen – this year.
This February, I was in the Nuevo Segovia Region of Nicaragua on a coffee buying trip. I visited the farm of a member of the PRODECOOP Cooperative. Alexa and her two teenage sons live two kilometers from the Honduras boarder. Many of their coffee trees are affected by La Roya, and are starting to lose their leaves. They got a crop this year, but next year they expect to get 50% less. I have no idea how they will be able to continue making a living. They produced 10 sacks (1500 lbs) this year, for which we paid $ 2.75 per pound. That was double the world price and the highest we could afford to pay.
Alexa’s coffee is fabulous and we want her coffee farm to thrive. We want her to be able to refresh her trees and beat the Rust. Next year, she will need to get $ 5.50/lb. to survive on her farm. Will you support our effort by paying $2.75 more per pound for her coffee next year? Would you pay more than $15.00 for a bag of her coffee?
Well, first you have to taste it. We will present her coffee to our public in July when it arrives. It is going to cost her about $8,000 to rehabilitate her farm. We are going to try to raise that money between now and December.
That’s the way Direct Trade works – we are all in this coffee thing together.
Paul Katzeff, CEO
Thanksgiving Coffee Company
– By Paul Katzeff, Co-Founder of Thanksgiving Coffee
The year was 1994, the place was Washington DC, the event was the first Coffee Sustainability Conference; the host was The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. The issue that brought 150 environmental activists and coffee business owners together was the fact that the new practice of growing coffee in the sun, which was begun in the early 70’s, had been discovered to be the cause of the disappearance of 60% of North America’s migratory songbirds. When you cut down forests to expose the land to sun, you remove the homes and habitat of birds that spend their winters in the southern hemisphere, vacationing in the warm climate, in wait for the Northern Spring to begin their migration back home.
I had come to D.C. “armed” with a Keynote Address that was more of a challenge then a speech. It was titled “Beyond Organic.” I had been frustrated with the way the industry was developing and promoting organic coffee. We at TCC had been importing and selling Certified Organic coffee since 1990 but demand was slow to develop because “organic” was a health issue in America, and who wants to think about health issues when you begin your day with a cup of Joe. I saw “organic “ as a much bigger issue and so did the people at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC). They saw sun grown coffee as the way toward an environmental disaster being created by the removal of habitat needed for birds, monkeys and all sorts of forest canopy dwellers. The Conference was called to expose this problem and to stop the practice of cutting down forests to grow coffee in the sun.
Why coffee, a shade-loving evergreen tree, which was shade grown for 500 years was now being grown in the sun is a conspiracy story that involves The World Bank, national governments, chemical companies, the oil industry, international timber companies, the greed of Plantation owners and the hope of getting out of poverty by small scale coffee farmers. It is an interesting story about the early use of oil based chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides on coffee farms, and the US furniture and housing industry’s need for the hardwoods coming out of the virgin forests of Central and South America. (A story for another time).
IMAGE: Coffee Buyers Value Chart – 1994
This Sustainable Coffee Conference became a turning point for the industry. I introduced a TCC brochure that included our “Coffee Buyers Value Chart” which created a point system for buying and identifying sustainable coffee.
I challenged the attendees to think about Sustainability as more then “organic” and this set in motion the next evolution in coffee cultivation, and subsequently, the marketing of “shade grown” coffee as an essential to saving migratory songbirds.
Attending the conference was the Executive Director of The American Birding Association who, like me, was an Alumnus of Cornell University School of Agriculture. He approached me with the idea of creating a shade grown coffee package to both educate bird lovers about buying only shade grown coffee (yet to be found on the shelves), and also, to raise funds for his organization, The American Birding Association. After a handshake and three months of graphic design by Chris Blum, Songbird Coffee was launched.
In the fall of 1994 the world of coffee changed with the Songbird Coffee introduction. Coffee became a focus for America’s 73 million backyard bird lovers, the 1,000 Bird Business’ like Wild Birds Unlimited, and the 2 billion dollar bird food industry. Thanksgiving Coffee Company had used birds and shade to move organic coffee away from a health discussion and into an environmental discussion with Habitat preservation as the mission for buyers of shade grown coffee.
We have been selling Songbird Coffees for 19 years. By 2010 Songbird sales had raised $142,000 for ABA’s Birders Exchange, which purchases and donates scientific equipment to ornithologists in poor countries so they can study and preserve bird habitat in their countries to the south.
After 20 years, it is time to reintroduce Songbird Coffees to this generation of bird lovers. Lets make our 40th year the year we put bird friendly coffee and the forest canopy it comes from into the climate change discussion.
It was our third day on the road and we were feeling good. The simple diet of rice, beans, eggs, chicken and beef, plus mangoes and papayas was beginning to provide native energy. We were not in conflict with the food we were eating, we were in harmony with it. And we all had lots of sleep last night. So after breakfast we took a stroll in the central square where these photos were taken. Just a slice of life in a dreamy coffee town in the most important coffee growing region in Nicaragua and the home of SOPPEXCCA, a small scale producer cooperative we have been purchasing coffee from for over a decade. Flor de Jinotega: sweet, caramelly with cashew notes in the finish – just great stuff. A really progressive cooperative also. Here are six photos that will tell you what you need to know about Jinotega (if you examine them closely)…
A garbage can on a street corner. Could be Manhattan or your home town, lots of plastic… because it is the can for recycling plastic! They are soooo hip. Look at how attractive, festive, these cans look. Makes you want to throw away things just to see if music comes out .
This fruit stand was selling mangoes that tasted like sorbet (mango sorbet) for five cents each. The cart was “hecho a mano” (handmade) the tire is illegal and there is no running water or ice, but the health department is not shutting down the economy today. It is known that about 80% of the world’s commerce is “unofficial” and unreported. It is a problem worth many more words as the implications of not being able to get credit go way beyond mortgages and car loans.
This church was and is magnificent. I’m not Catholic, but it felt Holy in there just the same.
And the revolution shall not be forgotten. A monument is on the rise and it will overlook the town square for the next 100 years.
You can tell, the mood was up. Left to right Ben, Jenais, Nick, and Jody. And that’s how we started our day.
When our party of seven arrived at the restaurant in Matagalpa for lunch on our first day in Nicaragua two weeks ago, there was Ernesto, sitting under a tree, waiting for us. He was about 30 pounds heavier then the young man I had last seen nine years ago. He is married now to his college sweetheart; they have a 10 month old baby girl, Katlynn. Ernesto traveled with us for two days, ending up on Wednesday night in Jinotega where the group was bedding down. Our hotel was just one block from where his wife was living with her parents and the baby. His job in Chinandega allowed him to see them only once every 15 days, being a three hour bus ride away and earning a salary too meagre for them to live together. Holy cow! What a painful way to be in love. But as fate would have it, I was looking for a Nicaraguan Blogger to send us reports on life in Nicaragua as seen from a Nicaraguan’s perspective. Ernesto and I struck up a deal that enabled his wife and baby to move to Chinandega to live together for the first time under the same roof. At breakfast the following morning, we all met his wife and baby. So beautiful! When I asked him what he was going to do with the rest of his day, he said, “We are packing. The bus leaves in two hours, and we will be on it together.”
So here is Ernesto’s first Blog entry. We can expect many more.
– Paul Katzeff
Hello everybody, my name is Ernesto Somarriba, I’m 34 years old, I’m Nicaraguan and of course I do live here in Nicaragua in a place named Chinandega.
Now I want to tell you my experience with the cupping labs for small coffee farmer. In 1998, I was in my third year of agriculture engineering at UNA (Universidad Nacional Agraria) in Managua. I was young at that moment without experience, at the same time I was working for a lodging house in Managua, because I have to eat and to have a place to sleep during the time I was studying engineering. This house was visited by pleople from The United States and Canada, and of course they spoke English, so I decided to learn English, I said, if I have some problems with the language, I can ask the visitors for help. I was studying English very hard, I spent about 3 or 4 hours a day.
In 2000, I received a phone call from UNAG (Union Nacinal de Agricultores y Ganaderos). The caller was Byron Corrales. He said, “there is a delegation from the United States coming this evening and we need a translator for tomorrow.” I told him that I never did that job before, but he said, “Do you want to come or not? ” I said, “Yes, I will do it, give me the address of the hotel that I have to be at and the hour.”
The next morning I went to the hotel, and then arrived Byron Corrales. I met him personally and he said, “there is one person that needs someone to help with the translation. He is a coffee buyer, his name is Paul Katzeff, and you have to do the best you can.” And I guess I did, well I think so, because they looked for me again the next time Paul came to Nicaragua, but this time I was with Paul, Byron, and the technicians. We went to Palacaguina,Yali, Jinotega, Esteli, Matagalpa, and Arajuez, where they were planning the best way to build the cupping labs. I was translating for them. They got agreement from the coffee farmers and cooperative leaders about the best construction styles for the cupping labs, and they started building them. While they were building (2000-2001) I finished my engineering degree, I got off of the project and I stated working in other things.
Nine years later I got an invitation from Paul Katzeff, to go back to see the cupping labs, and now you can see that it is a job well done. These labs work very well and the farmers take advantage of it. They are able to assess how good their coffee is, and because of that, they can improve the quality and get better prices. This means that they have better life conditions for their families because the cupping labs are useful. Now I feel proud of it because I helped in some way.
For some reason in this moment I’m working as an English teacher in a high school here in Chinandega, I have been doing this for 5 years, but in the future I have a good story to tell to my grandchildren.
More next week….
Just back from a “buying trip” to Nicaragua. It has been four years since I was last there. The farmers reminded me of that, much to my surprise. I was surprised by many things this time. How so much has changed at the Coffee Cooperatives, and how so little has changed in the market places we visited in each city we entered. Our trip took us from Managua North, to the mountains. Matagalpa first , then Jinotega and Estili on nights three and four. Then back to Managua, the capitol city and the flight home.
We tasted and selected some really fine coffees. There were seven of us on the trip. We travelled in two Toyota pick ups (not on the recall list) so the musical chairs of deciding who to travel with got us all in sync.
The biggest change I noticed was the growth and progress of the coffee cooperatives themselves. In the four years since my last visit , their capacity to handle giant amounts of coffee grew exponentially. They all acquired more land to dry coffee and had built new warehouses, coffee receiving stations, and office space. I will get into that in tomorrows blog.
What did not change were the local peoples markets. That is what was fascinating to me. Where the local urban “Poor” spend their money , and how the merchants create their shops, and who they sell to and at what prices is worth taking a look at. First off, there are two economies, the dollar economy with it’s imported electronics , cars, boom boxes and cameras that sell at the same prices as you would expect in the USA, and the Cordoba economy based on their local currency where a pound of rice is 8 cords, or .40 cents U.S. The tortillas these ladies were pounding out were 20 for 10 cords.(2.5 cents each).
It was 10 am when I took these pictures at the Managua Central Market, a 5 acre indoor open air market with a thousand seller stalls selling everything from locally made shoes, pottery, household wares and food. It was a market you could get lost in. The ultimate mall.
Feast your eyes on these three pictures. They are rich in culture, color and the human spirit. More tomorrow.
There is much to see in this simple picture. I like “reading” this kind of quiet photograph. If I were to title this simple scene I would consider Going to School or Paradise Found. But there is no running water or electricity here. No wooden floor covered with a Moroccan throw rug. The boy is not even wearing shoes. So what are we looking at?
In the foreground on the right lies what looks like a pile of dirt or garbage swept into a pile, however, it is a pile of dung collected for fuel to cook over. Behind it lies a stack of wood, not your basic split cord wood European style, cut into 18 inch lengths, but smaller branches, indicating there is not much wood around any more and that the people of this region are living with real scarcity.
There is, behind the palm frond roof of the traditional home, two native trees of significant size, remnants of what was once a magnificent forest. Their size shows what the land could support. That these two trees still remain, speaks to the nature of the people who live inside the house. I would bet they cherish, care for and respect that ancient tree.
Behind the boy are some pretty large coffee trees with a wooden platform structure that is probably used to pick the upper branches. Or it could be some sort of a well structure. What ever it is, it is something thought out and man made and an asset of some sort. And behind and in between the trees are the large broad shade trees of the banana plant that protect the delicate leaves of the coffee trees beneath and provide the fresh fruit for the family.
You can see the rolling hills in the background and by the way the landscape disappears downward behind the house, we can feel that this family chose to live at the top of their land, the spot with the view, a decision made very much like any family anywhere in the world would make when selecting a homesite.
However, with the land destabilized by the removal of the trees, this family might have opted for the ridge to be safe from mudslides during the rainy season.
There is more to this picture but to unlock more, a better-trained eye then mine is required. It is five years since I stood at this spot. I wonder if that young boy is still in school and what life holds in store for him.
Here is an inspiring communication from a Peace Corps Volunteer working in the mountains of The Dominican Republic. He contacted me a couple of months ago looking for advice on how to bring the coops coffee to market. I put him in touch with friends of mine who have been through the same coffee/Peace Corps experience so that he could get the best of their experience. This communication is between he (Charles) and Chris who did his Peace Corps work in Nicaragua. If you want a first hand report from the mountains of the DR in real time, a report with real facts and real frustrations and real commitment and a read that will expose you to a world both harsh and beautiful, read this young man’s words and if you are so moved, send him a word or two of support. It is young men like him who represent American ideals best. email@example.com.
“I am 17 months into my Peace Corps service and helping a coffee cooperative in the Southern, Dominican Republic. The
cooperative is located in a rural mountainous municipality, Peralta, of roughly 15,000 that are dispersed in 7 communities. Coffee, like many mountainous communities in the Dominican Republic, is the most important aspect for the economy and environment in Peralta; more than 2,000 families depend on coffee for their income. As the case
throughout the coffee producing world, poverty is high amongst coffee growers; a survey done by the Dominican Council of Coffee (CODOCAFE) revealed that 9/10 coffee producers live in poverty in the province of Azua (where my community is).
To improve this situation, CODOCAFE has a project (PROCA´2) (that will end this December) to improve coffee growers standard of living by increasing the quality and competiveness of Dominican coffee. The project has several specific objectives but the underlining one is to have coffee producing organizations (OPCs) throughout the country that are able to support small scale growers so that coffee is profitable and sustainable. The project facilitates the organizations get new plants, credit (maintenance, rehabilitation, harvest), extension services, infrastructure improvements, repair roads, diversification, and promotion of the high quality coffee. Unfortunately, this project will end because it has helped the OPCs a lot and before they didn’t have these opportunities.
The cooperative that I am working with, San Rafael Inc., serves the small and medium sized farmers and offers extension services, credit (very small amount), mutual service (they help out with funerals), and commercialize the coffee. However, it is not necessary to be a member in order for the cooperative to purchase your coffee. The cooperative has roughly 200 members but only 100 or so are active (pay the monthly quota) and about 70-80 participate in the monthly assembly. The cooperative has many problems but the lack of trust, organization, and a vision have impeded the cooperative’s (community’s) development. The cooperative is the only community organization that offers these services but they have struggled to gain the trust of the rest of the community and educate the importance of being organized.
My objectives with the cooperative are very broad and vague. Unfortunately, my work has not been the most efficient but that is the way work is in the Dominican Republic because of the lack of organization and stability. After doing a needs assessment, understanding the circumstances more and talking to lots of people we have determined that the main problems for the coffee are age of trees, age of producers, harvesting without defined criteria, and market and credit access I have been supporting the CODOCAFE with the PROCA´2 project. What I have been working on is:
1. Organic transformation. We applied and received a working capital
grant to transform and certify farms. Hopefully by next winter, the
2010-11 harvest, we will have organically certified coffee to
2. Nursery. A fundamental problem is the age of the trees and the
producers have to travel roughly two hours to purchase plants (very
few, if any, have nurseries on their farms). The cooperative is
establishing a nursery of coffee (tipcio y caturra, dos variedades de
Arabica), avocado, lemon, and maderables in the community. This will
definitely help the production of plants, but it still will be
difficult to plant the trees because the nursery is still far from
most of the farms.
3. Youth. The average age of a coffee grower in the Dominican
Republic is 55 years old and the youth are very detached from the
coffee production. To address this we are now training the youth in
organic coffee practices and cooperative management. If the youth
have interest, through CODCAFE, we will offer them credit, plants, and
4. Diversification. Due to the decline in coffee profitability and
potential to harvest other products, there is a lot of interest in
diversification. The community wants to diversify with citrus,
avocado, zapote (a local exotic fruit) and macadamia nut. The problem
with diversifying with avocado is the area is very vulnerable to a
particular plague they haven’t efficiently developed a system to treat
them yet (avocados are still very new in the Dominican Republic,
especially in my community). Other problems with the avocado are the
lack of road access, the knowledge of the necessary technology, and a
very crowded market. More challenges for diversification are the lack
of infrastructure and the high altitude. After speaking with
agronomists and an organic fruit broker, the best strategy for
diversification would be getting organically certified lemons, they
grow well and the organic market is not very crowded. However, no
feasibility study has been done yet, which is a SERIOUS problem for
the coffee growers: the lack of relevant information.
5. Institutional Strengthening. All of the other issues would be
easier to be addressed if there was a strong institution, and we are
trying to create a well-managed cooperative. It is difficult because
they do not have the practice or much interest in receiving management
training. Also, the cooperative struggles with corruption and lack of
transparency, although unintentional much of the time. .
Unfortunately the cooperative does not think that their struggles are
attributed to internal problems; they believe they only need more
grant money. I assume weak producer organizations are a problem
across the coffee producing world.
I do not have an agriculture background and this is my first job out of undergrad, so I am learning as I go. Although very unorganized and our results have come slowly, it has been an amazing experience working with small scale coffee producers and I am very excited to continue to learn more. I have talked to my director about extending for another year and he has given me the green light, but we will wait and see.
Besides the coffee, I am working with the youth groups and the public schools about HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancy prevention, and environmental education. These activities have been a lot of fun and I would like to see if we could include the cooperative more.
You asked about finding a balance in my experience and that has been my biggest challenge. These communities need so much help in so many areas and it is so hard to neglect them. I feel guilty not supporting the public education or youth of my community but it comes to a point where it can be overwhelming trying to find a balance between project,
learning Spanish, self-growth/discovery, and maintaining and building relationships.
Anyway, thank you very much for your email. I have read “Confronting the Coffee Crisis” and found it very inspirational and helpful for my project, especially the section about Community Agroecology Network. I would love to learn more about your recent projects, especially in the area of research. What are you all working on now?
As I mentioned earlier, I do not have an agriculture background, so all this stuff is new to me. Do you have any suggestions about starting organic transformation projects? What are some successful examples in other countries? The problem with the projects in the DR is that they all have been started by donations and they are not very well managed. What are your recommendations for increasing consumer awareness of our coffee in the USA? I am thinking of contacting the fair-trade student organizations on university campuses?
Thanks a lot for your email and I hope we can stay in-touch.
San Juan La Laguna is a Mayan village on the shores of Lake Atitlan. It was a peaceful place when I was there in 1990 but it had been a place of oppression by Guatemalan military for over a decade and you could still feel the tension. I was there looking for organic coffee, traveling with Karen Cebreros, one of the first lady green coffee importers in what was, until then, a man’s world. We visited the coffee cooperative La Voz que Calma de Desierto, meaning, the voice that cries out from the desert. Odd name for a tropics based community but later I found out that the Patron Saint of the village was Saint Juan, who came from the desert.
These two woman were just walking down the road in their special clothing woven on hand looms for thousands of years. The patterns indicate status and family identities. I returned with a contract to purchase their coffee and it was the beginning of a decade long relationship with the cooperative. We sold their coffee under the title, Mayan Harvest Coffee and rebated to them .25 cents for each pound sold. Over the decade the coop received rebates well in excess of $50,000 which was used to build their first coffee drying patio. Today La Voz is one of the sought after Guatemalan Organic Coffees and Karen Cebreros is still a green coffee buyer and importer. I took this picture after we had passed each other on the path and I realized that I had a camera and they didn’t. On my next trip to La Voz I found them and gave them each this picture.