In Seattle, at The Event 2015 held by Specialty Coffee Association of America, it was hard to gauge the level of seriousness attendees paid to impending coffee supply issues facing the industry. While many roasters and baristas defined trends, most producers discussed the problems impacting their side of the chain. Stories about quality coffee plants crippled by pathogen, bean prices falling short of the cost of production, and the rising average age of the coffee farmer all met faces of momentary concern.
Marcos Croce is a passionate businessman-turned-farmer eager to talk about the projects on his family’s farm, Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza (FAF), located in the São Paulo state of Brazil. He, too, had dire stories to tell, but much of his talk was tempered by a positive attitude. His friendly demeanor rides along a throaty Brazilian accent, which takes on a certain gravitas when herding a point across.
"Agriculture of the world is fucking up our water," Marcos stated plainly. "Especially the way they do coffee in Brazil. It’s the same way they do corn and soybean in Illinois, Ohio, etc."
The rise of factory farms, to which Marcos alluded, is widely believed to have spurred the decline of numerous insects and animal species by reducing their potential habitats. The Bobolink, for instance, is a migratory bird species which makes an annual six thousand mile journey from North America to South America and back. Its breeding population has suffered substantial decline in the last fifty years for lack of habitat, which is essentially little more than tall grass.
To a conventional farm this might not be of immediate concern, but as the Croce family hopes to elucidate to the coffee world, a farm is a microcosm for the entire planet and therefore must reflect a more diverse ecosystem. "If you go into nature and cut everything to one crop, you create a lot of imbalance," Marcos explained, elaborating with a few of the following facts.
Brazil produces a third of the world’s coffee, a figure that amounts to over six billion pounds of green coffee every year requiring large scale production.
The Mata Atlântica, the rainforest spanning much of Brazil’s coastline, has diminished by 85 percent in five hundred years of human settlement. Deforestation that occurs in mono-culture has caused the decreased rainfall of the recent years to leave São Paulo’s water reservoirs dangerously low. In February they were at just 5 percent.
These are just a few of the reasons Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza decided to address the sustainability problems facing not just Brazil, but the specialty coffee industry as a whole. Even though Brazil produces a third of the world’s coffee, a figure that amounts to over six billion pounds of green coffee every year requiring large scale production.
Through the practices of their farming collective, FAF is looking at environmental, social and financial incongruities facing the industry and they're hoping to cultivate solutions through their Bob-O-Link project. A partnership between FAF and other farms who together work to cultivate coffee though sustainable and organic practices.
In 2001, Marcos and his wife Silvia acquired a two hundred acre farm which they promptly renamed from "Fazenda Fortaleza" to "Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza"—roughly translated, from Fortress Farm to Environmental Fortress Farm. Previously, the land had been owned by Silvia’s father who had produced ten thousand exportable bags of green coffee to Illy Espresso every year.
Upon taking over the farm, the Croces immediately discontinued the use of agricultural chemicals. Instead they switched to organic growing standards. But the abrupt change to fully organic practices proved drastic. Before Fazenda Fortaleza had made the environment a priority, it had relied on external fertilizers and pesticides to make large-scale production possible on an expansive swath of farmland covering nearly three square miles. As a point of reference, the farm often produced more than a million pounds of coffee annually—a figure roughly equivalent to the amount of coffee Blue Bottle sourced from across the world in 2014.
When the Croces began to embrace organic farming methods, they experienced a severe drop in production, which nearly put the farm out of business. Even hired consultants and organic certifiers at the time failed to consider the shock of quitting conventional production cold turkey.
"They switched from conventional to organic in one day," says Marcos and Silvia's son Felipe, now in charge of the FAF’s coffee production. "You can’t do that. You can’t just take drugs out of a drug addict like that …"
FAF simply didn’t have the amount of naturally-occurring nutrition needed to feed a farm of that size.
"How will you do your compost—all the things that you mix to give the food to your plant?" Marcos asks rhetorically. "In conventional farms everything is brought from outside. At FAF, we really have to have permaculture to create those things on the farm."
After organic production initially failed, the Croces leased a section of the farm to a sugarcane grower in order to climb out of debt. When Silvia returned to the land in 2010, she initiated permaculture by keeping more diverse organic matter on the property. The Croces added more varieties of fruiting plants, more livestock and nitrogen-fixing cover crops which helped nutrients enter and remain in the soil. Since then performance has improved, and in the past few years the farm has proven financially solvent, selling to quality roasters such as Blue Bottle.
Stephen Vick is the green coffee buyer for the San Francisco-based quality pioneer. He explains, "Twenty-five years ago, FAF was just another one of the tens of thousands of farms producing coffee in a commercial, volume-focused way. Now, they are leading by example on how a shift toward quality-focused, organic coffee production and sustainable farming can not only lead to exceptional cup quality and have a net positive environmental impact, but can also manifest into a viable business model."
Through FAF's Bob-O-Link project, the Croces are working to educate other farmers on environmentally-friendly ways to grow great coffee.
"The primary goal of our Bob-o-link project is help these farmers get better coffee," Felipe says. "Then I can place their coffees in a place like Blue Bottle. But the coffee has to be good. Otherwise they won’t buy it."
FAF’s stewardship of quality and holistic agriculture has garnered a reputation among certain epicurean walks of life looking for insight and a peak into the farm collective’s evolving experiment. Permaculturists, coffee buyers, chefs from São Paulo, and other world-renowned palates have all paid the farm visits.
Tim Wendelboe is one such palate. The World Champion Barista in 2004 and World Champion Taster in 2005, ten years later Wendelboe has turned his name into a taste-making brand comprised of a shop, roastery, and coffee training center in Norway. In addition to sourcing high quality coffees from across the world, he posts an annual transparency report that lists the prices he pays for each coffee with his namesake label. When Wendelboe first visited FAF five years ago, he was pleasantly surprised by the look of the farm but also the quality of coffee is produced.
"You can see all of their coffee and the coffee on their partner farms are more alive," Wendelboe says. "There is more grass in between the coffee trees. There are definitely more [shade] trees on the farm than a conventional coffee plantation would have. If you go to one of the big farms in Cerrado (about two hundred fifty miles north of FAF) you will just see like a desert. It’s just sand and coffee trees."
FAF now practices both passive and active organic style. Passive organic allows coffee to grow in the forest the way it has for eons. Active organic integrates production of crops such as bananas and oats to improve the soil's richness and to diversify the farm’s economy. Vick says organic production is the norm from coffee down to the supplementary crops.
Sitio Canaa is one farm which FAF is helping to go green. The FAF crew partnered with farmer João Hamilton to implement shade trees and crop diversity. But Felipe is quick to point out the trick to creating a successful, complete farm moves beyond the mere intention of diversity.
"The challenge is to show that we are going to be more financially sound with this diverse model than just a conventional coffee farm," He says. "It’s massive because you’re now working with several different products, and you have to be good at them."
In the spirit of quality assurance, FAF set up a lab in the west side of São Paulo, a hip section of Brazil’s largest city currently experiencing a culinary renaissance. There, Felipe cups all FAF coffees, including those sold through his boutique brand Isso é Café ("This is Coffee" in Portuguese), which aims to expand Brazil's market for quality beans. The term "cupping" refers to the practice of coffee graders and buyers assigning a score out of 100 to a coffee based on its value and potential (85 being the threshold for high quality).
Felipe also works with some of the best chefs in São Paulo, not only roasting high quality coffee for restaurants, but providing them with other fruits from the farms. Recently, one of FAF’s botanically-inclined partners identified a prevalent weed on the farm for its piquant properties.
"I basically harvested this brush and drove it back to the city, straight to Epice, this is a one-star Michelin restaurant in São Paulo," Felipe says. "I called Alberto [Landgraf] and he was like ‘This is amazing I need to use this. I want to cook with it.’ So we’re thinking about a mustard sauce."
This same weed also serves as a good cover crop, fixing nitrogen and keeping moisture in the ground, both of which will improve the coffee tree's nutrition. As a former student of ecology at Berkeley, Ben Myers, who founded small batch roaster 1000 Faces in Athens, GA in 2005, became fast friends with the Croce family.
"For me, FAF is standalone in its approach to the environment," Myers says. "It’s just the entirety of the place—how you sleep there, how meals are prepared, I mean, we cupped honey!" Silvia, who has been keeping bees for 30 years, is now working closely with the nearby university, taking a closer look at the different honeys derived from specific flowers.
Varietal distinction is another of Myers’ predilections, and he collaborated with FAF to sell a Red & Yellow Microlot sample pack of six 90-gram tins, each holding a different coffee variety, enabling the consumer to taste different flavors in beans. "Felipe always puts on tremendous cuppings for me," Myers says. "I always thought ‘Wouldn’t it be great to provide a little bit of this experience for the consumer?’ It’s so rad to just go through and say ‘Ok that’s what Yellow Catuai tastes like, that’s what Red Catuai tastes like side-by-side.’"
Where most farms in Brazil lump all the coffee into one, drying, bagging, and selling it, FAF invests time and effort in producing clean, uniform coffees that stand out in Brazil—a coffee origin typically known for its standard nutty, chocolate profile.
"Stone fruit, blackberry, grapefruit," Vick says. "These are flavors that are often associated with Kenyan or Ethiopian coffees, but we often taste these flavors in coffees from FAF and the farms with which the Croces work"
All of the coffee pros working with FAF highlight the operation’s attention to detail during the processing stage. Even Wendelboe—arguably the spearhead for the Nordic style of coffee roasting and extraction which puts a premium on bright, floral, tea-like coffees—takes a liking to their beans.
"I’m not a huge fan of natural processed coffees, but FAF seems to have very clean ones that didn’t taste too fermenty and don’t have that aggressive fruit flavor that a lot of the naturals have," Wendelboe says. "They are drying partly in shade, so the coffees are drying much slower and don’t over-ferment as easily."
"Labels and certifications are a bit of a struggle for me personally as the messaging tends to become skewed by the time it reaches the consumer. - Stephen Vick, Blue Bottle"
In Brazil, because labor costs are much higher than other origins, coffee from a given lot must be harvested all at once, resulting in cherries picked at different levels of ripeness. A quality-minded farm in Brazil will use machines to separate these ripeness levels into uniform lots; this way coffee cherries at varying degrees of moisture aren’t dried together, which would result in less than optimal flavors in the roasted bean.
This processing machinery can be hugely important when it’s time to pick the fruit, and the farm’s small but skilled crew needs to focus energy on harvesting, drying and bagging coffee. People working on FAF’s eco-tourism projects, or producing quality fruits and cheese throughout the year, focus all efforts on coffee, and neighboring farmers apart of the FAF collective help one another too.
It’s an unconventional model, to be sure, but in many ways provides a local solution to the social sustainability problem currently looming over the wider industry.
"Honestly, comparing Brazil to other producing regions, when I see A Film About Coffee and all these importers’ films about how coffee is done in Central America and Africa, to me that’s slavery," Felipe says. "Coffee in Rwanda, Burundi they’ve got like six hundred people on a patio. They just have women picking out defects. [Manual laborers] have got to be making nothing in order to make the numbers work."
Many in the industry believe trade labels don’t do enough to effect change or their full meaning can be difficult to convey to the consumer. "Labels and certifications are a bit of a struggle for me personally as the messaging tends to become skewed by the time it reaches the consumer," Vick explains.
Those dissatisfied with Fair Trade USA argue that the price gained might not exceed the cost of production for a given area, nor does it encourage quality production. Organic can come at a hefty cost with out a guarantee that the coffee will be sold at its intended premium. Even in the case of biodynamic certifications, requirements drafted by organizations based in the global North are not always sensitive to the conditions of a tropical farm.
"I don’t really think standardization in coffee works," Wendelboe says. "Every farm has different needs. Every biological ecosystem has different needs. It’s really hard to say you should do things according to a certain recipe. That might not be sustainable in one place where it might be in others … For me the quality of a coffee is related to growing sustainably. If you’re constantly using weed killers and pesticides, then your [coffee] tree will suffer more and more—the quality will always go down."
At the end of the day, a farm that banks on quality must not only focus on the task at hand, but should also plan for the future if it truly wants to sustain itself. Says Felipe, "We want to plant today and we want the farm to be producing a hundred years from now."