From the Top of a Mountain

Dylan Schultz manages Think Bleecker. He's also a musican. Find him @swampbootsmusic on Twitter. 

This was Dylan's first farm visit.

As barista and store-manager at Think Bleecker I’ve encountered and interacted with hundreds of people; coworkers, vendors, roasters, customers. These people help Think Coffee operate through their work and their patronage. But I realized that after so many years, I still hadn’t met anyone directly involved with the growing of our coffee. So when the offer to fly to Nicaragua with Coffee Director Matt Fury arose, I grabbed it.

Fury rented a car so we could drive all the way north from the airport in Managua to Ocotal, about a three-and-a-half hour drive (two-and-a-half on the way back as there was little traffic. Landspeed record!) We shot up through the mountains, zooming past horses and cows standing on the shoulder (in some cases in the road) and motorcycles with two, sometimes three people stacked on their backs.  

When we hit Ocotal, I was struck by the makeshift, hard-won style of the town. Even corporate logos took on a new life when re-imagined and hand painted by local storeowners. During the day the markets throbbed with people, but at night the local kids owned the streets. They raced bikes, kicked soccer balls and joked around. For the entirety of my stay in Ocotal I didn’t see a single cop, yet the streets were peaceful and alive.

The next day we went to run numbers with Don Jaime Lovo and his wife Aldenir, who own the lush Santa Isabel farm and work closely like business partners while sharing the tenderness and mild-annoyance of a long-married couple. Jaime told us that his mother was very ill and while they prepared for her loss, his brother passed suddenly of a heart attack. They were clearly tired and deeply sad, but their warmth and hospitality knew no bounds. Aldenir showed me pictures of their children and proclaimed Brazilian soccer’s greatness (she’s originally from Brazil). Jaime introduced me to his burro, El Capitán, who loved me immediately. We shared a couple glasses of Nicaraguan rum on my last night in town.

The working conditions at Jaime’s farm continue to improve, as does Jaime’s resolve to make things better.  Working on a coffee farm is serious, hard labor, yet the workers seemed in high spirits, a testament to Jaime’s follow-through and vision. Part of the trip was to help decide what Jaime’s next plans for improvement were. He and Aldenir decided to remodel old worker housing and put in solar panels, so the workers and their families could enjoy TV and cellphone use, things that we take for granted but are hard to come by in the mountains.

Jaime was having troubles with his benificio (where he dries, processes, and exports coffee) who had been claiming that a certain percentage of his harvest wasn’t up to snuff, but wasn’t telling or showing him why. The Lovos were losing money and didn’t have any recourse. The main goal of the visit became finding a better beneficio for Jaime and Aldenir. The next day we toured a beneficio, and had an intense meeting in which Fury, Don Jaime, and Francisco, the Gerente General of the company, hashed out details and laid out terms to be considered. We even spoke to another farmer, Jorge, who gave us a tour of his beautiful farm in Dipilto, about the possibility of creating his own beneficio with Don Jaime. Jorge was a great guy, who in addition to inheriting his farm from his late father, went to school to get a degree so he could become his own agronomist. Jorge maintains high labor and environmental standards as well. I was struck by how fast things could improve when everyone was focused and motivated.  

On my last day in Nicaragua, I climbed up a mountainside, machete in hand (not for long as an accidental, self-inflicted machete wound cost me my machete privileges) pulled coffee cherry from a tree, spit-cleaned it and ate it right there. It’s amazing to stand at the top of a mountain half in Honduras, half in Nicaragua, yards away from where old contra landmines were only recently removed, eating a fruit that has sustained me in one way or another for most of my life. But at the end of the trip, my greatest memory is of the people I met, their generosity, patience, and dedication to each other and to their land.