Sure Sign of Spring
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Once again the Pollinator, our spring seasonal, is here! Each year our roasting team dreams up a new interpretation of the theme of spring -- this year it's a cup brimming with oranges and spicy ginger against a backdrop of honeyed nuts.
Spring has sprung unseasonably early in Minnesota this year, speeding dreams of gardening from glossy seed catalog pages to backyard beds sooner than usual. There's an optimism to this stage of gardening before anything's in the ground. All of last year's crop failures are just hazy memories and the limitations of sun, shade, and space don't need to be reckoned with quite yet. For now, the garden's just a dream that gets tended from armchairs in sunny windows; all it asks for fertilizer is one more cup of coffee.
As I sit in my window contemplating the tiny annual optimism of my own garden fantasies, my mind skips to the staggering feat of optimism that is coffee farming. I vividly recall the first time I stood in a coffee field. It was high in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, and a few of the members of the Maya Vinic co-op had just taken us on a 45-minute hike up a steep, switch-backed trail. A little boy, barely kindergarten age, ran eager laps up and down the trail, the flapping of his oversized puddle boots taunting my proper sturdy footwear as he summited the equivalent of three peaks while I slogged up one.
We gathered around under tall shade trees on a hillside so steep that my toes were far higher than my heels. My calves tingled with the stretch as we listened to the young farmer tell us about the cultivation of coffee: How it blooms just after the rainy season, how the fruit sets, then takes nine months to ripen. The ingenious methods they've devised to counter the broca, a ubiquitous coffee pest. How it takes three passes through the fields to pick each cherry at the peak of ripeness to meet our exacting standards.
I'm pretty sure that's what he said; it's the common litany of a farmer showing his field to the visiting buyers. I must confess that in that moment I was mesmerized by something else. Around the base of each tree, slender lengths of green saplings had been sharpened and stabbed into the ground, six inches tall, ¾ of an inch in diameter, these twigs circled the tree. Behind this tiny retaining wall of toothpicks, last year's leaf litter turned to compost was neatly spread. All up and down the slope, these little fortifications graced larger terraces, transforming that steep slope into productive land that wouldn't wash downhill with the first rain.
One of my favorite fast numbers by which to convey the labor-intensive nature of coffee is that it takes one coffee tree one year to produce the single pound of roasted coffee that gets consumed in a week or so of mornings. That number, however, is just the simple arithmetic calculating from the formulas for shrinkage as the cherry chucks off layers of pulp, husk, and water to become the familiar little "bean." How does one calculate, or even begin to fathom, the work that goes into each tree?
Year in, year out, the trees must be tended. Most last up to 25 years, though I've seen bushes pushing 80. Every year they get mulched, composted, and pruned. More drastic "renovation" is necessary from time to time, rendering them unproductive for several seasons -- and still they have to be tended. Take all the minute pruning decisions of each season, each hand motion, and multiply it over the next 25 years like the vast amortization tables that come with a mortgage -- but without a fail-safe formula for yield—the calculation for the work that goes into a tree must look something like that.
Financial reality overlays my dreamy speculations in a real way. The price of coffee goes up and down. Who's to say what it will be next year? In a decade? Weather comes and goes.Who's to say if the rains will stop when they should, etc., etc.? All these factors render the return on that labor unpredictable. And still the trees must be tended -- even if this year's a flop, there's still the possibility of next year.
I came back from that trip and told the larger story of those farmers, the financial and political realities that make their daily lives a struggle, the larger geopolitical happenings that trickle down in unexpected ways to remote mountain villages. More than eight years later, the images of those terraces stick with me, each twig a microcosm of the hard labor and optimism it takes to cultivate each tree, each pound of coffee. It's a humbling image, a reminder that when we speak of the long-term relationships we cultivate with our producer partners, those few harvest seasons that we've been buying are just a few cherries in the span of each tree, and each cherry is just some unknowable fraction of each year's labor.
It's harvest season now in Mexico and Central America. There's a flurry of activity in coffee lands as all hands flock to the fields to pick the ripe cherries. Our staff joins the hustle as we travel to choose the choicest for the year's roasting. Like our producer partners, we are hoping it's a good year.