Irving Farm's Director of Wholesale, Teresa von Fuchs, has had the opportunity to visit coffee farms in a few different parts of the world—it's not, as they say, her first rodeo. But a recent trip to Ethiopia with our Coffee Buyer, Dan Streetman, to visit the Amaro Gayo coffee farms belonging to our producing partner Asnakech Thomas, opened her eyes into the past and future of coffee as just part of the greater social and agricultural landscape. Read on...
When I teach classes or conduct trainings about coffee, I always stress that coffee comes from far away, that it’s exotic and we shouldn’t take it for every-day-granted. When I had the opportunity earlier this year to travel to Ethiopia, and specifically to visit coffee producer Asnakech Thomas at Amaro Gayo, this truth was so clear. And although I’d been to other coffee-growing countries, Ethiopia was truly like nothing I’d ever seen before. It took almost 3 hours to drive to Amaro Gayo from Yirgacheffe, a distance of only about 50 kilometers (as the crow flies) along rough, dirt and gravel roads. The landscape alternated from lush and green to dry rolling desert then back again. The spare number of buildings we passed were mostly hand-constructed in the local style from organic materials, and some had intricate designs carved into the wooden windows. We passed beautiful mosques and Christian churches, built out of corrugated metal, or occasionally stone. Our fellow travelers along the road were almost all on foot herding cattle, sheep, or goats, or leading a mule piled with water, or sacks of grain, or coffee. Some rode handmade carts attached to mules piled with building materials, like long sticks, or more sacks of grain or firewood, or more people. We passed motorbikes with up to three or four riders, also carrying goods.
Wearing two pairs of glasses on her head, Asnakech was sorting coffee with about 20 other women on the porch of her coffee storage facility when we arrived. She shared that they were resorting 40,000 lbs (one container's worth) of coffee because she had been unsatisfied by the sorting done by the processor in Addis. The women were seated, with large metal trays on their laps with small piles of green coffee. They sorted out the defects and rejects into smaller pails and the newly sorted coffee into separate bags. They had removed their shoes before coming onto the porch and a large piece of burlap covered their feet. The material was to ensure that no coffee was dropped onto the floor of the porch and that anything that was dropped could be added back to one of the sacks in the center of the porch to be sorted. Asnakech estimated it would take them all about 20 days to sort through this last container. From there she switched the sunglasses from the top of her head to her eyes and invited us to walk through the mill and then her farm. We were late in the season, and the harvest had happened earlier in the year than usual. Mill workers were already cleaning up the raised beds, replacing older posts, and cleaning the mill. From the mill, we walked through parts of the farm and she explained that the rains stopped too early this year, and sadly many of the cherries on the trees were not able to fully mature. Total production was down nearly 50% because of this and had increased her costs with the extra sorting. She told us that it was the hardest year of her 11 on the farm so far, but "c’est la vie" she shrugged—what could she do?
Well, actually, during the rest of the walk and the day, we learned how much she was doing. We walked down to the river just outside the lowest part of her farm. She explained that this was the primary water source for this area and though it was running strong now, by the time her trees needed the water, it would dry up. So she’s building an irrigation project at the top of the hill. She was still working on funding to build it when we visited, but the hope is that building the irrigation system and rain collection tanks will allow for a backup water supply so the trees and her harvest don’t suffer like they did this year. She also showed us the pruning techniques she had been developing, the fertilizer they create from the coffee pulp byproducts in the wet process, how they dry and package coffee leaves, and the husks they save from the naturally processed coffee to sell to the local market as teas. She then walked us through a small nursery that was planted by some of her trainees. Asnakech hosts trainings once per year for other local farmers, on everything from farm management to how to produce coffee for quality, not just quantity.
We walked back to the porch and coffee storage building and shared a lunch of injera, lentils and many small cups of coffee with her and her workers while she told us about all the other projects she’s working on. Along with training other local farmers, Asnakech also trains the women in her area, many of whom are the farmer’s wives who end up doing much of the farm work. She trains them not just in farming, but in banking. In her region there had never been a bank and not much reason for a bank to open, because no one wanted to use one. She convinced a bank to open in her town, and in her trainings she created an ID system where husband and wife both get cards and she pays them separately for the cherry that meets her quality spec. This way the women have an income and, potentially, savings. She stressed the importance of this because in her area women have no property rights to their husband’s land. Typically if something happens to a woman’s husband they cannot keep their land and thereby lose their income. With the bank, they can at least save a share. Since the bank has opened she’s also working with all the locals to open accounts and use the bank to secure funding for projects that could help them create more profitable futures. She said even small things, like the capital needed for an out-building to store their coffee and protect it from the elements and animals, can make a huge impact on a small landholders' earning potential.
She’s also working with her community to create alternative revenue streams, such as setting up honeybee hives and teaching people how to collect and sell the honey. She worked with a group of local women to produce pottery that she hopes they’ll be able to bring to market next year. And she’s working on introducing new crops to her area like adzuki beans. She has also worked with a partner to create an HIV awareness program. She explained that though HIV is a huge health issue in her region, there was no local knowledge of what the disease is and how it is transmitted. She runs the program during her employees’ work days at no cost to them and incentivizes that everyone in her area go through the program yearly. Another project she’d like to complete is to build a hospital. The closest facility is hours away. It could take an ambulance days to arrive and almost no locals have vehicles. Asnakech has dreamed about being able to open a hospital in Amaro since she was a little girl and listened to her older sister suffer for days and finally die in childbirth. When we were there she’d secured a site but had been disappointed as funding kept falling through.
What was most obvious and moving to me was that Asnakech’s passion for her coffee was a larger expression of her passion and pride in her region and people. She spent years lobbying the agriculture minister in Addis to study her area’s coffee trees. Every time they refused, saying that her trees were most likely the same as the ones 40 kilometers away. She insisted they weren’t and finally offered to pay for the research project herself. Once there, the scientists discovered 58 new varieties which had never been seen before. She continues to pay for the project to study and cultivate her unique varieties. She named her farm for her region and her tribe, Amaro—which she said no one had really heard of until coffee people started traveling to visit her and discover why her coffee is so unique—and Gayo, a waterfall in the area. The legend is that Gayo is the place where sacred water collects into a waterfall, and this water was used to anoint the king of her tribe. When I caught the first aroma of this latest crop of Amaro Gayo coming off the grinder, it made me think that all of Asnakech’s work is like the sacred water collecting, ready to spill over, her beautiful coffee, like her spirit, anointing the world.