By Carly Kadlec, Equal Exchange Coffee Purchaser
Over the past several weeks I have been in Central America, visiting our producer partner groups. At every stop along the way, I get gems of knowledge dropped on me at totally unexpected moments. Sometimes this is as straight forward as a farmer explaining a new organic practice that I have never seen before. However, more often than not, producers shatter my worldview with their incredibly refined and pointed observations of the world in which we live.
Frequently, these great moments happen when I am precariously weaving my way through a muddy farm trying my best not to fall on my face in front of 20 farmers. Needless to say, I don’t always have pen and paper handy. However, I absorb what they are saying and store it away in my brain to share with co-workers or friends at some point in the future. I am realizing how short-sighted this is! As interested as a lot of the folks who buy our coffee, chocolate and myriad other products are in how our products taste, I know that consumers are also interested in WHERE their favorite coffee comes from, WHO grows it, and WHY do they do what they do.
So, please read on to experience some of my favorite “whoa, knowledge was just dropped!” moments of the past month.
“It’s not sufficient to say that poverty is the problem. We must say that the system that generates and maintains poverty is the problem,” Miguel Mateo tells me. He is referring to the importance of creating new institutions that change the entire system of traditional trade and why he views the relationship between Manos Campesinas and Equal Exchange as a game changer.
“That’s why it’s called a Cooperative. We don’t just cooperate with members, we cooperate with everyone,” says Clemente Moreno Carrazo, president of one of the primary cooperatives of Prodecoop in Estelí, Nicaragua. At Equal Exchange, we talk a lot about cooperatives and what it means to be a cooperator. Hearing this from Clemente made me aware that the supply chain that we are a part of—growers’ cooperative à worker cooperative à consumer cooperatives/cooperators—does not stay within our cooperatives. The primary level co-op of which he is the president actively invests in their community members whether or not they are members of the cooperative. They rebuild bridges, improve the roads for better commercial access, support the community school band, provide transport for medical screenings to community members, and provide school supplies for the children in elementary school. I think this was a pretty great moment for me to consider what our cooperative does to invest in our community and again, producers setting an example for us. Cooperation reaches the furthest when you start collaborating with everyone.
“Which Bicycle?” refers to the name that Omar Oscar Alonso gave to his coffee farm several years ago when he reached a difficult crossroads in his life. He retold the story of this challenging time for me and the idea that eventually encouraged him to move forward (not backward) to become one of the most innovative members of COMSA in Marcala, La Paz, Honduras. Several years ago, during this challenging time in his life, Omar realized that the bicycle was the perfect metaphor for his life. Bicycles only move forward and in order to ride a bike successfully, you have to find a balance and continue to maintain this balance as you move forward. He decided to name his farm “Which Bicycle?” to continually remind himself that he was moving forward and to focus on the balance that farming requires. In addition to being a philosopher, Omar is also an innovator.
While visiting the Which Bicycle? farm, he demonstrated to me one of the coolest and most original techniques for water retention on a farm that I have ever seen. He had a friend who started selling fresh coconut water to the local market. The friend had accumulated hundreds of coconut shells/husks and was preparing to throw them away but Omar did not want to see that much organic material wasted so he agreed to buy the coconut shells for a small amount of money. He had no idea how he was going to use them but he brought back a big truckload to his farm and started to think of how to use them. Eventually, after studying the properties of the coconuts, he realized how much water the husk contained even after the coconut water had been removed. Omar started placing several open husks around the trunk of each of his coffee plants with the thought that the water contained in each husk would be absorbed by the coffee plant and soil during the summer (dry) season. To his great surprise and pleasure, his idea worked! He leaves the husks in the underbrush of the coffee farm and eventually, they decompose and return organic material back into the soil.
These moments that I have been able to share here are only a tiny sliver of the things that I get to see and hear while visiting farms and producer groups. I hope that these moments encourage you to stop and think more deeply about the issues that we are dealing with in this world of alternative trade. I am continually amazed at how much I learn on a daily basis while doing my job and I will be satisfied if I can pass along even a fraction of the eloquence and determination that our producer partners share with us.