Seeing Roya Firsthand In the Coffee Fincas of Matagalpa with COOMPROCOM

IMG_1947Managua          We rolled out at dawn for Matagalpa with Managua stirring all around us as the city waited on corners for buses to work. In two and a half hours ,we were rolling up the narrow streets and steep hills looking for the gas station near the Centro, which was our landmark, in a journey that took twice as long in 1981 and included some dirt roads in patches. We were meeting Ervin Calixto Miranda, the secretary general of the COOMPROCOM coffee cooperative. We wanted to see the impact of the roya or coffee rust epidemic firsthand, as well as understanding more about the challenges faced by cooperatives in contemporary Nicaragua.

If you ever want to fully understand from nuts to bolts how a coffee cooperative works, and the immense challenges they face, particularly financial, find Ervin! Before we left to scale the mountain and visit several farms (fincas), Senor Calixto gave us a master class in the financial struggles of a cooperative and its individual farmers. Ervin had been raised on a farm, as had all of his staff, and managed to go to university and a career in finance, before coming home to the cooperative, so he could break it down for us.

COOMPROCOM started in 2002 with 52 members and now has grown to 250. In the beginning they were 100% organic, but are only 40% now, and roya is no small part of the problem, though economics are also challenging as well. For their organic and fairtrade coffee some of their farmers have a series of certifications, all of which cost them money and make them money. Organic certification gives the producer 30 cents more per pound, and costs 5 cents per pound of coffee to achieve. Fairtrade certification from FLO, the Fairtrade Licensing Organization in Bonn, Germany gives them another 20 cents/pound and costs 3 cents, and those that have the additional Rainforest Action Network certification make another 15 cents/pound at a cost of 5 cents/pound. It all adds up and for those farmers growing conventional Arabica beans, they can get almost as much per quintal, without the costs and the years of work to achieve the number. A farmer gets $160 per quintal for conventional and about $180 with the certifications.

A quintal is a classic weight measurement that is the standard for Central American coffee and equals a hundred kilograms or roughly 220 pounds. Ervin broke out the rest of the costs per quintal for us as well. Processing would cost $10, taxes $5, and they were rising, exporting would be another $6.00, the Cooperative fees were 5 cents per pound or about $10, if I followed him correctly. The farmer is lucky to have $154 from the $180 quintal, which is part of the short term tension between conventional and the whole package. You have to believe that the savings on different pesticides will be offset over time.

All of which is challenged by the roya epidemic which we saw firsthand up the mountain. One small farm we visited had lost 90% of his production. The last two years saw the roya reduce 25% of production across the coop for the first attack, and then 13% more in the second attack in the second year for an average decline of 38%. Organic plants are hit worse. Ervin and some of the farmers showed us their work in pruning to strengthen the plant as well as the new plants being put into production for the next three year growing cycle. They were experimenting with a more resistant form of coffee plant, but couldn’t tell if it would match the quality standard. Part of the roya problem is that it reduces the quality by weakening the bean and a cup rating of 82 won’t sell, while there will be a line for an 86 cup. We saw some plants with the roya spots still on them that were now resistant. One small farm with loans from the coop was going through the whole process of rebuilding his crop to top certifications. Where we visited at 2100 meters or almost 6900 feet on the climatic edge of the rain forest, the coffee plants were luxuriant. This was a well-run cooperative, and it seemed that the right steps were being taken, and they would make it.


Drummond Pike, who had visited 30 years ago, when cooperatives were a dream, saw real hope here, as all of us did, but they were doing it on their own. The financing was tenuous and based on contracts and long standing relationships with their broker in England and their markets there and in the USA, so there was no government assistance, credit was thin, and growth past 300 members seemed untenable in their view for protecting quality standards.

Meanwhile fewer children were staying on the farms. The roya was pushing them into other crops while they regenerated the farms. Worse, the math was precarious. Producers getting less than a dollar a pound at the ground level for coffee selling at least that and often double and triple for the consumer, is a market efficiency that continues to leave the farmer in perilous shape in rough living conditions and hard work, and those of us supporting fairtrade coffee wondering if all of this is sustainable either at the back end or the frontend.










Coffee Rust Worse Problem for Border and Coffee Drinkers than Reported

10293579_812218472164492_6052867961713463478_oNew Orleans        Sometimes you know it’s bad, but you still haven’t wrapped your mind around the full ripple effects of how bad it might be. Focusing on the immigration crisis for children and families at the Mexico-United States border, I have concentrated on the problems we knew were coming from communities organized by ACORN International, especially in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, which have been among the leading areas that children are fleeing. ACORN Honduras members – and mothers – demonstrated in both cities recently both at the American Embassy in Tegucigalpa and at the First Lady’s office in San Pedro Sula, demanding more security from gangs and violence to protect their children.

There’s no question that narco-war and gang violence in Central America is driving an exodus. Another factor, less reported, but arguably significant is not in the cities, but in the economic devastation that is now hitting the rural areas where coffee growing farmers and their cooperatives grow some of the finest Arabica coffee beans in the world. Preparing to interview someone recently returned from the region, a statistic in the Wall Street Journal woke me up to the severity of the crisis when they estimated the economic damage in the region this year as likely $500 million in lost sales and 350,000 jobs lost in the countryside.

Stanley Kuehn is a fellow who hasn’t shaken the natural Texas twang from being raised in Rio Grande City, a poor community along the border where I’ve stopped more than once, and when you ask him where he works there’s an alphabet soup that spills out. The simplest part of it is that he is the regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean. The longer spiel is that he represents the National Cooperative Business Association and the Cooperative League USA and is also tied into something else called VEGA, the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance. Whew! Trust me though, after interviewing him during Wade’s World on KABF/FM. if you can make it through the alphabet there, the message is vital.

Stanley says that the devastation to the coffee crop is huge. Honduras may be the lightest hit with 25% losses, but Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are all either moving towards 50% losses or already up to 60%. Losing this much of this cash crop will decimate some communities.

The cause? Stanley says it is climate change more than anything else. Coffee plants have gotten weaker with rising temperatures, less shade, abandoned plots without proper pruning, hotter summers and cooler winters, all of which have combined into something unstoppable. The roya fungus originated in Ethiopia some years ago, but has accelerated now. The fix isn’t simple. There are organic pesticides and better pruning methods that can save some trees and will make a difference in the future, but where they have to be cut down and replanted it will mean five or six years until good beans can be replaced. Coffee drinkers will get their fix by paying some higher prices for the good stuff or drinking robusta from Brazil on the cheap end, but many of the farmers and their cooperatives will be decimated in the meantime.

We’re going to have to talk to Stanley more. He’s relocating to Salvador this coming January to go hands-on one-hundred percent. He needs help from farmers or anyone who wants to put their back to the job.

We’re going to see more families from Central America forced to become economic refugees. This will be a bitter brew for years in the region.


Traveler’s Travails in Bolivia, Peru, & Miami: Coffee So Bad, Transfers So Long

Lima and Miami      In Bolivia coca leaves in hot water is the drink recommended for altitude adaptation.  It’s what they grow, so it’s what they drink.  In Peru they grow some pretty good beans.  We’ve handled some Peruvian fairtrade at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse to brew a good cup, so it’s not as if there isn’t anything to work with there.

But, the common fare that passes for a cup of coffee along the Andes is really pretty terrible.  A black sludge of sort is brewed and then cut with hot water.  In fact, in Cochabamba the coffee urn was specially designed with two spigots, one for the sludge and one for the water.  At the other end of the spectrum were largely Star bucks-type shops with modernistic designs like 4D, Star Coffee, and others.  There are occasional exceptions like Barrisco’s in Peru down from our office in Jesus Maria, but these are all espresso based coffees.  When discussing the phenomena with Orfa Camacho, ACORN Peru’s head organizer, she both boasted that Peru had the second best coffee in South America after Columbia, and then flatly stated that the problem was that “people don’t know how to make coffee.”

I made it by cheating.  I carried my 2-cup stainless steel plunge pot, picked up on my last visit to Mumbai with Vinod Shetty for a couple of bucks and a pound of Fair Grinds New Orleans Blend, fairtrade coffee & chicory.  We would have a good cup in the morning, and hope that lasted through the day with a shot of espresso somewhere on the trail if we were lucky.

But, why, is coffee so disregarded and abused.  The folks we would see in the Starbucks-wannabe places were teens and post-teens drinking fancy sugar-and-milk drinks where coffee is an afterthought.  The workday folks were forced to drink swill.  It seems like there’s a real opportunity for some evangelizing on the coffee trail, if we had the energy and resources.  In the meantime, it’s just sad that life in the morning is made so hard for our Peruvian and Bolivian brothers and sisters.

Speaking of sad thoughts, another one is landing in the Miami International Airport after a long international flight from anywhere.  The MIA folks have done a lot of construction on the airport and its concourses in recent years, and it is an improvement though every report notes that the distances traveled between concourses and the slowness of the SkyTrain are both absurdly ridiculous still.

All of this pales next to the problem of flight transfer.  MIA is the only airport I can recall where when you clear customs with your luggage there is no way to immediately transfer it to your carrier for your connecting flight.  Yes, really!  So, you come out of customs and then have to schlep your luggage jammed packed with everything you could haul back from your adventures from the customs clearance to whatever your concourse might be.  In our case that was D where we were picking up American as another part of the One World fiasco.  Between conveyor walkways that were shutdown, we strong-armed our bags a half-mile or more, and I’m not kidding.  All of which was great exercise, but is this any way to run either an airport or our airlines?  As Orfa would say, they just don’t seem to know how to make airports in Miami, I guess?

Miami International Airport


Fairtrade Fracas Confusing Consumers and Producers

New Orleans   Fairtrade has a language problem that is quickly becoming a huge commercial and consumer problem.  There’s no copy write to the name “fairtrade,” so like it or not, anyone can use it, claim it, or con with it.  As a relatively new movement trying to build commercial strength and consumer identification, a “classic” understanding of what fairtrade is and means only dates back several decades, so full on assault and, more worrisome, corporatization, of the concept along with increased commercial usurpation could have the impact of knocking the socks off of what might still be fairly called the “fairtrade movement.”

As we prepare to have a large meeting at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in several weeks (Tuesday, September 18th at 7pm if you are in New Orleans!) to discuss “Fairtrade and the Port of New Orleans,” this is all very worrisome.  On one hand we are trying to get our community to embrace fairtrade and on the other large, powerful forces have significant economic investments in confusing consumers.   The Nation in a September 10th piece by Scott Sherman painfully entitled, “Brawl Over Fair Trade Coffee,” does a good job of putting the internal schism within the fairtrade movement and the external corporate predation before the readers.

Once again, here is the back story, friends.  There are internationally agreed upon fairtrade certification standards for coffee and similar products.  In the case of coffee, the requirements of production by close to 400 coffee growing producer cooperatives, largely in Latin America, which are regularly inspected, pay the fees, and then receive a premium for doing so that is roughly $0.50 above the quoted price on the New York commodities exchange.  FLO, the Fairtrade Licensing Organization from Bonn, Germany runs the certification operation and has for years with a number of country affiliates largely in Europe and North America.  In a small version of a Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes kind of divorce, Fair Trade USA, the American affiliate, pulled out of the international relationship to go on its own, bringing the whole mess front and center and displaying in full force the ideological and commercial disagreements within the fairtrade movement.

Once the name-calling is taken out of the dispute, the heart of the matter is that Paul Rice  and his USA Fair Trade operation want to be able to certify coffee plantations and single producers, rather than cooperatives.  There are no virgins here.  FLO, the international body, already certifies plantations in tea production for example.  The 800 pound gorilla of coffee, Starbucks, “certifies” its own coffee purchases and claims the “fairtrade” mantle in its advertisements, which is a little like Wal-Mart self-certifying its subcontractor work standards!  Among progressives there is also confusion such as Just Coffee direct trade certifications in protest to what they, probably correctly, view as lax certification standards for roasters.  Did I mention that this was a mess?

Sherman catches the heart of the beast well:

Fair trade coffee has been a valuable experiment, one that has brought concrete benefits to hundreds of thousands of farmers.  But it rests upon a fragile foundation, and the corporate embrace of the concept could undo decades of work by activists, consumers and farmers: democratically run, farmer-owned cooperatives may be unable to compete with corporate-sponsored plantations. “The fair trade model provided some protection from the unequal conditions of the open market,” says Nicki Lisa Cole, a sociologist at Pomona College who has studied fair trade. Welcoming large-scale plantations into the model “re-creates the problematic conditions for small producers that spurred creation of the model in the first place.”

Rice for his part argues opening the door to more commercialization and bigger producers is part of “innovation.”  He cites Apple as an example, but since all of us are so fresh from the Apple scandals with FoxConn and all of its offshore, largely Chinese subcontractors, it is hard to embrace this model as any other than exploitation, and certainly not innovation.

All of this leaves the US movement in a shambles.  The excellent Canadian fair trade organization is essentially managing all of North America now.  In working with a growers’ cooperative in Honduras that produces aloe vera, we have been bounced from the Canadian organization to the Swedish fairtrade affiliate in our negotiations with a cosmetic company that wants to go fairtrade and organic, because no one has time for anything much other than the American mess.

And, the consumers?  Anarchy will not produce more fairtrade purchases.  “Looking for the label” could mean asking a consumer to pick between Rain Forest Action certification, Catholic Relief Service certification, corporate self-certification and branding (Starbucks and friends), and not one but two competing outfits claiming to certify for United States consumers.

The producers will be hurt by this chaos, if not permanently crippled.  Purveyors like Fair Grinds will end up continuing to pay market premiums for our beans with customers drinking “great coffee for a change” out of trust more than understanding.

This is no way to run a railroad or a social movement.


No News, No Power, No Way

New Orleans  This is the way pre-industrial societies and social networks operate.

Somehow I opened in the darkness with the generator roaring, doors flung wide open, and by the light of a flashlight at 630 AM telling folks at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse that I had lots of choices.  I had “hot coffee” and I had “hot coffee.”  I had medium roast fairtrade Guatemalan or, yeah, you get it, “medium roast fairtrade Guatemalan.”  I started selling large and small coffees, but before long on a 40+ brewing cycle as the line got longer, I only sold small.  Eventually during the brewing cycle I sold “iced” coffee without the ice (later we got ice around 10 AM, but I had sold 3 or 4 gallons without ice).  I could offer cold bagels with no toaster or great cranberry oat bars we had found in the frig.  Our muffin man showed up about 8AM out of nowhere and asked if I wanted muffins, and, yes, indeed, I did, and sold them hot right out of the Tupperware from the counter.   And, people loved it, and I lost count of the number of folks who told me it had two, three or four days since they had a cup of coffee or the thanks for opening the door and being there.  A couple of the leaders of the Fair Grinds community produced a huge fan and canvassed an extra extension cord, so there was even a breeze somewhere out there.  I wouldn’t know by 530 AM, I was wringing wet and that didn’t change until I walked out at 1130 am to go and find more gas for the generator.  Lucky a wide coffee bar separated us!

It was interesting though how many people asked what we were “hearing” about power coming back on in the neighborhood.  We were a listening post.  We were reading smoke signals.  We really knew nothing, but we were passing on snippets of information.  An EMS worker had seen power trucks on Esplanade.  A cop had come in and thought it would happen today.  Someone had power a block over.  We all knew the French Quarter had power.  Never lost it.  We would hear a rumor that good parts of Uptown had power, but then someone would come in and say, nah, only around Tulane University.   The main room was a cacophony of conversation rising to climb over the din of the generator.

There was no internet.  People would plug their phones into the power strip I had connected to the generator.  Everyone coming in from the confusion, feeling lucky it wasn’t worse, but also trying to piece together what it might take to bring things back to normal, as they knew it.

Operating as a community center and a community service, the coffeehouse, like the first ones in London and elsewhere became a place where news was exchanged and created, where information was direct and traded.   It was hard not to stand there for a second and think, “damn, we’re doing a good thing here today!”


Serving a Community in the Shadow of a Hurricane

New Orleans  It’s a Tuesday, but the City of New Orleans is shutdown.  I drove down Esplanade Avenue to Fair Grinds Coffeehouse this morning at 5:30 AM through dark and deserted streets.  The donut place on the corner of Broad Street had been hopping with a dozen pickup trucks and cabs at that time on Monday morning on this same route.  Our Baton Rouge-based chain competitors were already opening, even earlier than our 6:30 AM scheduled time on Monday, but now they were locked down tight with not an umbrella or a table in sight.

At 630 AM when I was still hustling to get the “bank” for the cash register and make the last of the four types of “house” fairtrade coffee we brew every morning (medium, dark, chicory, and decaffeinated), strangely no one was at the door yet, which never happens.  I was opening because the barista staff was scattered to the winds or hunkered down before the storm.   For some crazy reason I thought it important to have the coffee good, hot, and ready for what I call the Fair Grinds Community, the people who seem to care deeply about the coffeehouse, feel fully able to express their opinions loudly on issues small and large, including making sure that I know “what the hell I’m doing,” and whom, I swear to goodness, I’ve come to think really in fact, depend on us being there for them.  Sure enough, 630 AM was the classic “lull before the storm,” because from 635 am until 10 am there was never a break for air, and it largely stayed that way with our makeshift crew of “draftees” (my daughter, Dine’, and Emily came in for a bit before 8 when I was soloing to lend a hand, and at 8AM Chaco, who was the one barista, I could lean on to work, showed up to save the day, and finally when we closed, we even had the family matriarch cleaning places that needed a firm hand!), until we finally had to lock the door, exhausted at 230 PM as the wind started picking up.

So, am I crazy to think that our “community” at the coffeehouse which supports community organizing around the world is also like the membership organizations in workplaces and neighborhoods; I’ve organized and served all of my life?  A day like today makes me think no.

At one point a photographer for The Times-Picayune yelled from near the front door, “Hey, Wade, do you mind if I take some pictures,” and I yelled back, “No problem, but no rabbit ears or tongues sticking out, huh, gang!”

photo from the The Times-Picayune

Looking at the picture that went on their website within hours, the picture tells the story of places that opened as usual in the face of the storm.  To me the picture speaks to the Fair Grinds Community.  There’s the table at the back with regulars that have adopted Fair Grinds over the years and come on a daily basis, and care deeply about issues large and small at Fair Grinds.  When we first took over they lived in fear I was going to paint the front room, now almost a year later, that is the only area not painted.  Sometimes they will reach out with preferences on music or other opinions, like all of the members I’ve served in organizations in the past.  At this point, “we’re good.”  On the right of the picture is Mark Herman and “his” table.  Mark makes sure our toaster is on target for his daily bagel and acted as the sales agent for the property and guide to the history of the coffeehouse and counselor to me on many things.  The man with his back to the camera with no interest in the picture or anything but his morning chicory coffee (and evening chai) making notes in his book, handling his phone calls, and reading his papers, is Jerome Smith.  I’ve known Jerome for 35 years or so from the time I returned to New Orleans after a dozen year hiatus in Massachusetts and Arkansas.  Jerome was a legendary SNCC organizer and freedom rider from the 1960’s in New Orleans, and inspiration for youth, cultural icon with Tambourine & Fan, and teller of many truths to all powers in the city.

Yes, that’s a community, if you ask me.  Students, bloggers, writers, musicians, lawyers, retirees, activists, organizers, and the whole assortment of unique and special people that you come to know and appreciate.  Scores of them caught me at the counter or out among the tables, and literally thanked me for opening on this hurricane-watch today.  I’m sure I blush, and say, hey, no problem, or something glib, but I hear it all, and I remember it, which is why I postpone other work, and ride into open at 530 am.

If you look closely and zoom into the back of the picture towards the counter, that blurry somebody in the gray Fair Grinds t-shirt is me making sure there is a place ready to serve and protect the whole community that in Mark Herman’s works to me some months ago is “even better than home.”