Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Meeting the farmers, walking their farms

By Heather Farrell

The circle of plastic chairs filled the cool, dark living room. We sat holding bowls of sopa de gallina india, scooping up pieces of chicken, rice and beans with ground-corn tortillas. Gilberto, Patrick and I were with a group from Uncommon Grounds Coffee Roasters in Saugatuck, Mich., listening to Pastor Bernardo tell about his coffee, his family, and how his quality of life has improved since partnering with them and Unión MicroFinanza.

Bernardo and his sons.
Before we went out to see Bernardo’s coffee plants and processing equipment, the group shared photos of Michigan, the coffee shop and roaster, and the large photo of Bernardo with his coffee that hangs in the café. Bernardo laughed his unforgettable laugh: “I have more gray hairs now!”

Bernardo introduced his three youngest sons (his older children were at school) and said his daughter, Noemi, wanted to be there, but she was in classes at the bilingual school. Through customer tips that the baristas receive, Uncommon Grounds sponsors Noemi to attend the Vida Abundante bilingual school, where she is in second grade. Bernardo also shared about his life and how it has changed over the past several years. He described how he spent his entire adult life in debt, but that through working with UMF and Uncommon Grounds, he finished last year’s harvest not only without debt for the first time in his life, but also with money saved in a bank account. As we rose to leave for his field, Bernardo asked to pray for the group and the coffee shop, and he blessed the relationship they have established with the farmers whose coffee they buy.

Bernardo shows his processing
equipment and sorting techniques.
This is when we see the result of our work at Unión MicroFinanza – when coffee buyers can visit the home of the farmer who grew their coffee, meet their family, eat a meal and drink coffee with them, walk through their fields, and share stories about their lives. For these people from Uncommon Grounds, they will not only be able to tell customers who grew their coffee, they will also be able to describe from personal experience how paying a farmer a just price can make a difference for his family and his coffee.

They are also able to understand the obstacles the farmers must overcome in pursuing a higher quality of life. Before visiting Bernardo, we went to see Rigoberto Paz, whose coffee is also sold at Uncommon Grounds. We rode up into the mountains to his 1500-meter-high field, which received the double punch of damage from last year’s hailstorm and roya (coffee leaf rust), but still managed to produce a small harvest of amazing coffee. The group stood among the small, new plants that were growing from the roots of those damaged by the hail and cut down, and saw the stark difference between a coffee plant with roya and one without.

Returning to Rigo’s house, the group met his wife and one of his sons. His son, who is deaf, brought out his detailed drawings and we admired his immense talent for art. We gave Rigo a bag of coffee that he had grown and Uncommon Grounds had roasted and brought with them from the U.S., and we all gathered in his kitchen to brew and drink his coffee.

To round out a day visiting coffee farmers and their farms, the group returned to UMF’s beneficio to process more coffee (they also processed coffees the day before), and get their hands (and clothes) dirty with the process of taking a coffee from just-picked-cherry to dried bean. As the group returns to the U.S., we thank them for coming to La Unión to support coffee farmers and their families.

Uncommon Grounds visits Rigoberto Paz (center) and his field.