This last post about our trip to Mexico is written by student Anne Hogan. I find it fascinating that she and Erik have such different reports about the same day (and check out the coffee beans drying on the patio — wow!):
Back in New York, standing at the coffee counter, I studied the maps hanging on the wall. They featured coffee growing regions from around the world— making little Oaxaca appear so tiny in comparison. I read the shop’s description for one of the offerings, and amongst all its other details it noted that the varietal was “patio-dried.” I had never stopped to think about this simple descriptor before. And now for the first time I really understood what it meant, and I thought about the actual patios that served as the drying beds for the fresh green coffee beans. It was a detail, like so many others, that I had often overlooked.
Coffee beans patio-drying in Loxicha, Oaxaca.
A little more than a week ago our bus was carefully winding its way up mountain roads as we ventured towards Loxicha. As we climbed higher and higher through the atmosphere, an entirely new ecosystem presented itself through the fog. Floriberto Zaqueo, a coordinator with the CEPCO organization that we’d met that same morning, was bringing us to his family’s organic coffee farm. We’d left the sunny disposition of Oaxaca City and found ourselves amongst pine trees and a misty breeze rising from the ocean nearly 6,000km below. After hours of weaving steadily upwards, we made our way to the village. Our gigantic red bus was met with the gawking and giggling of nearly a hundred school children. Our group of 15 made a sharp contrast to the dirt roads and corrugated steel roofs that greeted us. The scene was striking. Houses were eye-level with the clouds, doors were held shut with padlocks, and eyes peeped out at us through small windows in the partitions.
Octavio (our friend from UPAEP) spoke to me about “two different Mexicos,” and Loxicha was definitely the “other” one. This was the kind of village most people never even thought to venture to. There were no official sights or shops, except for the occasional storefront selling Coca-Cola and bottled water (incidentally owned by Coke as well). Loxicha was undoubtedly poor, but I had to wonder, was this the type of community that suffered most in Mexico? Economically disadvantaged and secluded—yes—but were they able to fair a little better, holding onto at least some of their autonomy, subsisting in the mountains, committed to a cooperative determined to get fair prices for their exports? As opposed to perhaps their indigenous counterparts trying to make a go of it working the unofficial sector in the surrounding cities? Or those families separated by a father and son’s migration to the U.S.? From any angle the inequality in Mexico is polarizing, to say the very least. This disparity is just one of the many reasons a community driven organization like CEPCO is so important.
Noting the apparent lack of resources, I asked Floriberto how it was that these coffee growing communities, separated by so many miles of tumultuous terrain, came to organize themselves so successfully. He told me, “there was no other way,” because they “needed better prices for [their] coffee.” Determined to get higher prices for their beans, they joined together and demanded better compensation (which worked out to roughly $1.29 per one pound of coffee, and was—surprise, surprise—contingent upon the NYSE). While this is far lower than farmers should receive for their beans (seeing as how I just purchased a pound of coffee for $14.00—something’s not adding up!) it is still a much better price than they could command unorganized on their own. The coop also enables them to cut out the cost of needless middlemen, as they work to purchase their own trucks and storage facilities.
We continued down the road eager to reach the farm. We came to a small building at the top of a hill, and a beaming woman ran out to greet us. This was Floriberto’s wife. They were both visibly excited to see one another as Floriberto had just spent a week at the CEPCO training facility in the city. She then greeted the rest of us with hugs and smiles. After the warm, but brief meeting, she rejoined the rest of her friends on the nearby porch and we continued down the hill. I saw some dark red cherries peeping out from the side of the road. “Whose tree is this,” I asked. I was nonchalantly informed that those were “just wild.” That was almost too much for my nerdy coffee brain to handle, “wild!?” While I was trying to wrap my head around this new information, we kept walking and came upon a small opening in the trees. We followed our guide single file through the entrance and down the foggy incline. Those in the front of the line were obscured by the thick grey mist and tall(er than expected) coffee trees. The path was rocky, narrow, and steep, and the trees stretched out as far as you could see. The air smelled like citrus and wet earth. We continued carefully down the mountainside for nearly half an hour, trying to take in everything we could from this new place. This was special. This was someone’s life. But, as gorgeous as it all was, it was also incredibly difficult to imagine the reality of working this mountainous land, and navigating these woods with heavy, cumbersome coffee sacks.
As we continued our downhill hike, we came upon an older woman collecting ripened cherries near a clearing. The clearing led to a small house on leveled land. The woman wore a simple white dress, smiled slightly, and only spoke Zapotec. This turned out to be Floriberto’s mother. She came back to the house when we arrived, but generally kept to her own business as her son spoke to us about the processes of the coffee harvest.
Walking back through the forest you notice again these gorgeous bright cherries staring back at you—all different shades of reds, greens, oranges, and yellows. While beautiful, these little beacons in the grey are different colors because they all ripen at different times. Each branch filled with different hues, this adds another intricate complication to the farming process. The cherries need to be handpicked—each branch of each tree needs to be combed thoroughly to find the ripe beans. So now we can add on patience and extreme attention to detail to the already impressive attributes of strength, stamina, and ingenuity that it takes to be a coffee farmer. These growers are not only stewards of the land, they are artisans, and they most definitely deserve to be compensated as such.
Organic coffee is an incredibly valuable commodity that commands a high price on the market, and acknowledging the labor intensive methods of production it demands, it absolutely should. However, the unfortunate reality is that the majority of coffee growers are not seeing the better part of our actual coffee dollars even with free trade agreements in place. That money is going to roasters, marketers, exporters, and grocery stores. It’s depressing, but the situation is not entirely hopeless. Cooperatives like CEPCO are working to take a step further than just relying on a fair trade system. They are aligning themselves with what are referred to as direct trade options instead. With a growing specialty coffee industry, this is fortunately becoming a viable opportunity for many small growers. In speaking with Floriberto I learned that CEPCO has partnered with Intelligentsia, a Chicago based roasting company that focuses on buying beans directly from growers. In this particular partnership, it means that a representative from Intelligentsia visits the farm about three times a year. They come during the planning stage, at harvest time, and post-purchase. They do this to assess if the growers (in this case Floriberto’s parents) are committed to healthy environmental and social practices, and of course to determine quality of the crop. The direct trade criteria dictates that the verifiable price to the grower and/or coop (not just the exporter) must be at least 25% above Fair Trade prices, and that all trade participants be open to financial disclosure. This is an amazing way for growers to ensure higher prices for their products and to make sure that more money stays within a given community.
So if it’s feasible for you, try and grab your next cup of coffee from a shop that actually supports these direct trade relationships. Ask them who their roasters are, find out where the beans come from—and who knows, maybe you’ll end up with a taste of that misty Oaxacan mountainside in your cup.