Seeking a Sustainable Path for Coffee, and Coffee Farmers, in Haiti

March 22, 2012
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By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Todd Carmichael, a founder of La Colombe Torrefaction, in Haiti.La Colombe TorrefactionTodd Carmichael, a founder of La Colombe Torrefaction, in Haiti.

Todd Carmichael, a founder of the coffee roaster La Colombe Torrefaction, is an interesting mix of entrepreneur, adventurer (Antarctic speed trekker), showman (a reality TV show on coffee hunting is coming) and philanthropist. His latest venture combining all of these traits is a line of coffee, called Lyon, sales of which will generate money for environmental initiatives supported by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. The coffee blend includes beans that Carmichael is obtaining from Haitian sources that, he says, sidestep predatory loan sharks and middlemen who have hampered the climb out of poverty by Haitian coffee growers. I recently had an e-mail exchange with Carmichael about his experience building relationships with coffee growers in rural Haiti.

Here’s are some video highlights from Carmichael’s trip, followed by our e-conversation:

Q.

What led you to Haiti, in particular?

A.

I’ve been sourcing raw coffee for many years, in many countries, for my roasting company La Colombe. My search in Haiti began the season of the earthquake, and I stepped it up in terms of urgency after the quake. What many people do not know is that the earthquake occurred at the start of the coffee shipping phase of the season. Little coffee from that season made it out, which for farmers compounded the disaster.

Q.

What are the main impediments to turning this into a sustainable resource?

A.

If by sustainable you mean financially sustainable, the most intimidating barrier I face in every coffee region and the biggest impediment to sustainability in Haiti, is the presence of “coyotes,” or the exploitative, often violent, coffee shakedown artists. The coyote typically “loan sharks” the peasant farmer small amounts of cash during the dry season – when the farmer is profoundly desperate — in exchange for his entire harvest, or for pennies on the dollar. This is a no-haggling transaction. Many of these types even present themselves to the outside world as “Coffee Marketing Co-ops,” or worse, farmer co-ops, some even maintain popular coffee certifications, but all of them are bad news. Often, and this was the case in Haiti, I have to break this system in order to buy. For any roaster, this requires a certain tolerance for risk and something not often found in roasters – the willingness to stick it out with that farmer in the seasons that follow.

This is the true face of most coffee — even specialty coffee. And this has not won me oodles of praise amongst my peers. While priding itself on “fairness,” specialty coffee is culprit number one when it comes to switching farmers, coffees, regions and countries. Go to your local coffee spot, and watch the chalkboard change like a stoplight — farmer after farmer after farmer. Year in year out, the roaster is always looking for something different, and therefore the coyote cycle remains the same. The peasant farmer is not going to take a risk and turn over the apple cart, even if it is exploitative, if the buyer is unwilling to be there when things go sour and, eventually, everywhere things go sour.

What is important to understand is that the average coffee farm is no larger than three acres, tops. The concept of estate coffee, outside a few wealthy countries, is ludicrous. In short, no matter the quality, it is most likely that your coffee was grown on a tiny plot tended to by a family, none of whom know how to read and write, and it arrived to you through an exploitative system.

In Haiti, on my first trip into the mountains, let’s just say I was not met with a large frosted cake upon arrival, and it got a lot worse before it got better. My Haitian coffee came at a price: three separate death threats, a near beating, some very stressful confrontations and some seven different long treks through the mountains with a backpack full of cash. I’d say now it was worth it. Now all my farmers are free from exploitation and can grown and sell coffee, as they should (and I’m adding more every day). But the other regions of Haiti, much of the world, really, still struggles under this system.

Q.

How did Leonardo DiCaprio get hooked up with La Colombe?

A.

As a direct coffee sourcer your world can cut a pretty wide swath and include any number of some 80 countries. In each country I work, farmer exploitation, environmental mismanagement and animal welfare crowd my attention. I can’t escape it. I was doing my damnedest to help save the lives of the wild orangutan living in the peat forests of Borneo when I caught wind of another man doing the same in Sumatra, for the tiger. That man’s name was pretty recognizable, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Eventually our people thought we should meet, and we did, in Hollywood. He’s energetic, informed and willing to put his efforts where his heart is. I liked him right away. What was to be a 30-minute chat lasted late into the evening, and by the time I left his house, we had co-created the concept of Lyon — directly sourced third world high end products for American consumers where we drive all the profits back to the people, animals and environments that most need our help. A week later I was in the mountains of Haiti — on an extended trip that took me around the world, from Madagascar to the mountain peaks of Peru.

Q.

Is there a sense, either in Haiti or more generally, that the supply end can match the demand if this kind of coffee initiative expands beyond the sustainability “niche”?

A.

Before the embargo, Haiti produced millions of pounds of high-grade heirloom coffee to a world eager to consume every drop. Today, that torrent is just a trickle while the coffee infrastructure lays idle. All this while the world’s demand for high-grade heirloom ecologically sound and directly sourced coffee is massive and growing bigger each year.

What is important to note is that Haiti grows an exceedingly rare plant variety, the un-mutated offspring of the original coffee plant discovered in the forests of Ethiopia, while the rest of the world is cutting the last of them away and replacing them with mutant hybrids. Ask any good geek worth his weight in tip money what Typika is, and his eyes will glass over. Chefs are a bottomless pit for Typika, even though they do not know the variety. Soon, it will be very hard to find true heirloom coffee (Typika) outside a few small countries.

The reason Haitians use this plant is because of hurricanes – the same for Cuba. This plant has not been modified to be short and grow 20 times the amount of fruits per plant, and grow in direct sunlight and require tons of chemicals. The modified plant, particularly when loaded with all that fruit, snaps under the force of even a modest wind. Typika can handle a hurricane.

I do not worry that this small half of a small island will upset the supply and demand balance of high end coffee, my worries are more fundamental, like getting all my farmers through the season in one piece.

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