Bringing My Kids to Origin

 Max and Jason unloading roofing materials.

Max and Jason unloading roofing materials.

Last month I brought my kids (Max, age 11; Arlo, age 8) to Nicaragua to visit our farmers, Jorge Lagos and Jaime Lovo, whose coffee you serve everyday. Our Coffee Director, Noah Welch, was there too and was an excellent tour guide during a very busy trip. 

The kids rode in the back of a pick-up to the farm where they picked coffee behind Carlos, the machete-wielding farm manager. They cupped coffees at the mill -- lots of authorized slurping and spitting -- and got to jump off huge stacks of our green coffee that had already been processed and bagged for export. They rode horses (Jaime owns a ranch too) and petted many cute stray dogs. They played soccer with kids in the farming community and ate tons of rice and beans (gallo pinto) And Jorge's mother gave them lots of hugs. 

I am sure they will have great memories from the trip, but the proudest moments for me were when they witnessed and participated in the projects we do at origin. They delivered construction materials to farm workers' homes that Think Coffee is helping to rebuild. They got to see the classroom on Jaime's farm that Think Coffee helped make happen. I would like to think that Max and Arlo understood the impact we are making.  

It is a privilege just to be able to sell a product like coffee that people enjoy so much, but to be able to do so in a way that impacts the lives of so many in such meaningful ways makes our business special to me. Bringing my kids to origin and having them start making this connection was a truly joyous time.  

- Jason

 

 

Nica Roundup

We've been back for about a month. I went with Nicole, manager of Think LGBT, and Shaun, one of Think's Director of Operations. Here's a brief roundup of what's going on with Nicaragua.

THE LOVO FAMILY'S SANTA ISABEL

I first met the Lovos in May 2012. I skipped my college graduation to visit Nicaragua. Shout out to Cesar Vega at Cafe Integral for leading us to this coffee, and Beneficio Las Segovias

Lovo coffee currently makes up 30% of our blend. It adds a lightly citric, tamarindesque flavor, and a very clean and thick, what I like to call chewy, body to the blend. We basically buy the entire farm every year.

Our project has up to this point been all about education, healthcare, and overall well-being of the 100 or so workers on Santa Isabel. On going to visit this time, there was one hiccup: Bayardo, the enthusiastic farm manager, and his wife Adriana, the enthusiastic farm teacher, had moved away on a whim. Aside from this personnel change, the project felt very mature and sustainable. The Lovos are happy to continue paying high wages, feeding, educating, and transporting their workers. It was, at this point, just a question of who would be managing these things.

But, the Lovos had it under control. They hired Carlos, an old friend and employee, as the farm manager. Carmen, the sister-in-law of Roger, another trusted employee, would begin teaching the following Sunday.

What's also especially exciting about the Lovo farm is that it is becoming a true family affair. Jaime's son, Jaime Jose, is a graduate of Zamorano in Honduras, and he's focusing on the harvest quality and some processing experiments with Carlos - this year, they'll sort the coffee into smaller lots and try to produce 20-30 bags of honeyed coffee.

Janaina Lovo, Jaime's daughter, is an architect, and is focusing her energy on infrastructure changes/project management on the farm. Janaina plans to develop the on-farm classroom's capacity, and basically design a small daycare center for the children of workers to spend their time on while their parents ascend the mountain to harvest coffee.

I asked Carlos to be the ear of his workers and let all of us know what they need as things come up, so that we can better form our project around actual needs, not imagined ones. 

JORGE LAGOS' SANTA TERESA

Jorge has been a good friend for a few years. His coffee, a washed, mixed varietal blend, is currently on our Single Source menu. Jorge has always been good to his workers - when I first met him he was rebuilding their housing to include safe ventilation in the woodburning kitchen. Now, we are increasing our volume of purchases from Jorge, and this means that we can invest several cents per pound in more impactful projects for his workers and the families living in the surrounding mountains. The coffee this year is going to be really good too. We'll buy a variety of YELLOW CATUAI, my favorite off the tree, PACAS, my second favorite, and YELLOW BOURBON.

As I did with Carlos and the Lovos, I asked Jorge to be in close communication with his farm manager Moncho and the community leaders around the village. The next time I go back, I'll do the same (it's often better that these conversations do not begin with me; Think and Jorge are collectively considered the boss, so for honest answers about development goals, things should really begin without us being present). We have each allocated a certain number of cents per pound purchased to a farm project, but before we actually begin anything, we need to make sure that we're not projecting our own vision onto the people who we're affecting.

Anyway, as a roundup, our coffee quality from both of these farmers is becoming more and more varied and interesting. Our projects are maturing with input from all sides - workers, owners, and us - and I'm excited to continue moving forward in this with both families. As members of the landed class, it is not necessarily a requirement that Jaime or Jorge are such thoughtful and caring bosses. For them to work with Think Coffee, it is. And it is a great thing that they are willing to be responsible and genuine, both for the sake of the lives of their workers and the coffee that you drink.

Also. Recommended reading:  William Easterly's The White Man's Burden.

This is the sort of thing that I am always contemplating as we begin or adapt our projects. It is important to me, to Think, and to the farmers we work with that our projects are actually addressing community needs related to our coffee producers, and that we are not simply imposing a set of predesigned developmental ideals onto these communities.  

Año Nuevo

Barquito, Director of Coffee, signing on. I am in Nicaragua with Nicole Buchwald, Jefa de Think Coffee Silver and Think LGBT. This is her first trip to meet our farmers. For me, I have lost count. My passport is running out of pages.

We are here now to work with our two farmers: Jaime Lovo, with whom we have been working on social and environmental projects since May of 2012, and Jorge Lagos, with whom we have been working since 2013. Jaime’s Santa Isabel currently makes up 30% of our blend. Jorge’s Santa Teresa is a highlight of the Single Source menu. It is a new year and we are moving forward with the same relationships, ever stronger, but striving to be even better for the farming communities.

We arrived on New Year's Eve, to try having some low-key family time with our Nicaraguans. Jorge Lagos graciously picked us up from the airport and took us to eat. He then took us the 3 hours to a hotel in his town, Somoto, about 40 minutes away from his farm. We fell asleep but woke up at midnight to see the extravagant display of fireworks all across every street in town. Scarecrows stuffed with fireworks. Kids lighting fireworks. It would be scary if it weren’t so charming. Excitement and cheer in cardboard with a wick. 4th of July x 100.

We spent Friday afternoon with Jorge, who gave Nicole a brief overview on coffee varietals and processing. He showed us his new water-efficient coffee cherry depulper. Then he showed us his newly purchased neighboring farm, Villa Guadalupe, which admittedly needs some TLC but has huge potential. Meanwhile his farm manager Cancho was packing up sacks of dried coffee for us to take to the mill. We arrived at the mill too late for Jorge's coffee to be formally received, but the guard let us in to leave the 11 bags marked "Jorge Lagos" at the receiving station. We spent some time looking at a small batch of Jorge's honey processed coffee drying on the patios, then went off for dinner.

Last night, after a quick swim in the chilly Somoto Canyon, we came to Ocotal, where we had dinner with Jaime Lovo, his son Jaime Jose (whom I last saw just over two years ago as he was graduating from agricultural university Zamorano) and his wife Aldenir. The Lovos were charming and excited to show Nicole Ocotal. They drove us from one side of Ocotal to other to show off how long it is.

After dinner, Jaime was also excited to show Nicole his home (it is a beautiful hacienda). We sat and talked, Jaime showed us the faded and browning bags of retail coffee we brought him cerca 2012 (one in english, one in spanish) and said “you need to use more colors!” I agreed and told him this was something we’re working on.

Today we expected to spend the whole day with Jorge on the farm working. But, it’s a busy time of year, both for coffee and family, so Jorge didn’t get going until afternoon. We drove around with him collecting workers from a distant town on a distant peak, up and down red dirt roads for a little over an hour, people with machetes periodically hopping into the back of the truck.

(Every two weeks, either Jorge or a representative of his drives out here, to one of the region’s poorest towns, to collect workers who then stay on the farm for 13 days, when they are paid and driven home. The process repeats. He has been hiring people from this village for years, and his father before him. Coffee pickers are paid for how much coffee they pick. The government mandates a minimum of 27 cordoba/lata-lata is a uniformly sized can - Jorge pays 40.)

After we dropped the workers off at their quarters on the farm, we went up to the main house on Santa Teresa where Jorge’s mother, siblings, and nieces had been cooking and celebrating the new year. They cooked for us, we tried to impress them with our Spanish, we showed pictures of Think in New York. It was a true family affair and an honor to be invited and to share this celebration with them.

Tomorrow and Tuesday, we’ll spend a lot of time on Santa Isabel with Jaime and Jaime Jose Lovo, sorting out the future of Proyecto Santa Isabel, its little classroom and all. Wednesday, back to Santa Teresa to choose coffees for this year and formulate a project with Jorge, Thursday we’ll pick up District Manager Shaun Morrissey from Managua, then more time with both farmers and some investigative work in cacao.

Closing thought: while these relationships take time - years of sitting and waiting, of long drives then long hours talking, dinners, farms, leisure time - they are honest and natural and real. Real relationships mean spending real time and having real conversations, even if they are uncomfortable and your politics don’t always entirely align. Real relationships mean prices are flexible but fair, projects are constantly evolving. This makes our work sometimes much more personal and complicated, but also that much more interesting. So here’s to the continuation and the improvement of all that is real and honest and transparent. Here’s to the future for the Lovos the Lagos and everyone they support. 

Feliz año nuevo, damas y caballeros.