July 23, 2018 / Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
July 23, 2018 / Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
July 22, 2018 / Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
July 22, 2018 / Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
July 21, 2018 / Aguadilla Puerto Rico
July 21, 2018 / Aguadilla Puerto Rico
July 20, 2018 / Aguadilla Puerto Rico
July 20, 2018 / Aguadilla Puerto Rico
July 19, 2018 / Puerto Rico
July 19, 2018 / Puerto Rico
July 18, 2018 / Guayabo Dulce, Puerto Rico
July 18, 2018 / Guayabo Dulce, Puerto Rico
July 17, 2018 / Aguadilla Puerto Rico
July 17, 2018 / Aguadilla Puerto Rico
July 16, 2018 / Tanama, Puerto Rico
Today, I visited Guillermo Cardona of Hacienda Las Nubes. Cardona has been producing high quality, wet processed coffee with his wife, Maria, on their 7 acre farm for nearly twenty years. In the past, their coffee has scored as high as 92 (out of 100). At his small scale, he has experienced great success in specialty coffee, selling to clients in the mainland United States and Virgin Islands. Much of his success can be attributed to the thoughtful and disciplined manner in which he operates his business. Cardona says, he runs Hacienda Las Nubes as a business-- though that may seems obvious, he elaborates that most "farmers run their business as a farm". As an engineer and project manner in his previous profession, he looks at his farm through the same lens--aiming to operate as efficiently and optimally as possible.
Before the start of each harvest season, Cardona's coffee has already been sold out. Over the past 20 years, he has established himself as a high quality specialty producer from a unique origin and also gotten to know his clients very well. Throughout the year, he's in constant contact with them, and once coffee is available, he moves very quickly. Though he has sold small lots to Asia and Europe, Cardona primarily sells to U.S. clients and does so shrewdly, as to avoid many of the bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles that are placed on Puerto Rican producers. Years ago, his small farm was raided by Puerto Rican government agents whom demanded that he pay taxes for his "illegal exportation" of coffee. However, the charges were quickly dropped, as Cardona was able to justify his case that he had been conducting interstate commerce from Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory) and other states in America--not exporting to a foreign country. If he were not able to plea his case successfully and were forced to comply, this would have dramatically affected his business-- raising his already high costs to a point that may have alienated some of his clients.
However, as Cardona says, "my longtime clients don't even ask me for a price or try to negotiate". High quality Puerto Rican coffee is all but commercially nonexistent. For those in the highest tiers of the specialty coffee industry, high quality coffee from this rare origin is extremely desirable--and specialty buyers are willing to pay any price for it. Certainly, Cardona and other small specialty producers in Puerto Rico aren't running any sort of scam--instead they are charging high prices that justify the cost of labor inputs which are significantly higher than in any other coffee producing origin. Additionally, the market dictates the price of their coffee which comes down to a combination of how high the quality of coffee is with how limited the supply is. With supply chronically low, a high quality Puerto Rican coffee will always dictate a high price. In speaking to some very small specialty producers, most of whom own farms which don't even have commercially recognized names, I have found it common to hear of unroasted coffee prices averaging around $30.
Unfortunately, Hacienda Las Nubes was significantly impacted by Hurricane Maria. The storm entirely decimated their coffee, leaving their fields bare. It will be at least 3 years before their next harvest. All that remains are orange trees that he strategically planted years ago to form “green walls” which limit insect damage to his crops.
Tomorrow, Guillermo is expecting to receive a delivery of 7,000 Caturra coffee seedlings that he and his staff of 5 workers will be planting. As a former engineer and project manager for General Motors, Cardona brings an impressive skillset to Hacienda Las Nubes. He carefully gathers all conceivable data pertaining to coffee growth, shade patters, water activity, moisture content, sun vectors and growth curves. He synthesizes this data and has developed some very innovative techniques to maximize the yield of his small farm as wall as optimize bean density, size, and quality. He produces meticulously wet processed coffees and achieves an uncanny consistency every season. While this consistency in final product is uncommon across the coffee industry, it is no surprise that he is able to achieve this on his small farm. His efficient and exacting processing methods ensure bean are entirely depulped within 4 hours and undergo no fermentation prior to beginning the drying process. It was a privilege and a pleasure to spend the morning walking through Hacienda Las Nubes with Cardona. I will be checking in with him throughout the year and in the future, as he executes his plans for the farm's recovery.
July 15, 2018 / Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
July 14, 2018 / Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
July 13, 2018 / Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
July 12, 2018 / Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
DAY 36: Cuchillo de Pina
July 11, 2018 / Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
*** NEW POSTS COMING SOON
DAY 35: Potencial Hasta Donde Alcanza La Vista
July 10, 2018 / Adjuntas--Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
If there is one thing I can say for certain, regarding agriculture or Puerto Rican entrepreneurship in general, it is that there is great potential everywhere. As I've mentioned with the "bills on the ground theory", there is plenty of opportunity laying around in nearly every conceivable nook and cranny. The same can be said for my current residence, here at Sandra Farms. Aside from a federal grant for small businesses in Puerto Rico that we're currently working on (with the help of some very generous entrepreneurs at the small business incubator space, Parallel 18) to supply funds that would allows Israel to renovate and reimagine the beneficiado as a full campus-style processing, evaluating, and education center, Israel is looking into other initiatives. He plans on replanting one of his best fields, the mountain leading up to Greenhaven. The field is ideally position at the farm's highest altitude and is also protected on one side from the sun for 50% of the day.
Over the next year, we plan on replanting this ideal growing field with Typica. Typica is one of the oldest strains and most sought-after, high quality varietals in the specialty coffee. We plan on replanting the mountain with a high quality coffee varietal, Typica. Israel hopes to produce a very high quality micro-lot that will be processed separately with varying drying methods for evaluation. This experimental lot has the potential to have a very high cupping score and may be a microlot that we consider selling to very high-end specialty roasters in the U.S, Japan, and possibly Europe. However, Israel's goal will never be to "get rich" off Sandra Farms, but instead, continue to build something sustainable, that supports a dignified lifestyle for his workers, produces an exceptional product and connects beautiful people working to make the world a better place.
DAY 34: Un Recordatorio
July 9, 2018 / Adjuntas--Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
This morning, we sat with William & Jadier for our daily meeting over coffee. Before getting into the agenda for the week, we all discussed Tropical Storm Beryl (which was downgraded from that category) and the current status of the Puerto Rican people.
William explained his concern, despite the storm’s mild forecast—many of his friends are still living with “blue roof”, installed by FEMA for temporary shelter. This occurrence is far from an abnormality among William’s friends or residents of Adjuntas—throughout the island, many families are far from recovered from Maria or prepared for another storm.
After Maria, many skilled workers sought refuge on the mainland U.S. and have not returned, leaving a shortage of skilled laborers to repair the incredible amount of damage still present all over Puerto Rico.
Thankfully, the storm was very mild and there are currently great initiatives underway by very bright and capable nonprofits as well as social enterprises and individuals
DAY 33: Delivery Days
July 8, 2018 / Adjuntas--Rincon, Puerto Rico
Today we made our weekend trip to Rincon and delivered coffee to Alex and Sarah of Carta Buena. In addition to coffee, Israel also brought Alex some oranges and green papaya to try. After this "recovery year" Israel has plans to continue his plans for diversification by planting an abundance of papaya, oranges, yautia, and other crops that grow easily in Adjuntas with little maintenance. The yield will not be high enough to sell commercially, but it will allow Sandra Farms to offer some exciting and high quality exotic produce to his local specialty clients such as Carta Buena. The main crop focus will always be coffee, and to a similar degree, cocoa, but crops like these will round out his product line-up as well as support his brand values--based on high quality, socially conscious, and healthy living. Aside from his business motivations, Israel is deeply moved by a passion to be part of the small but vibrant community of Puerto Rican social entrepreneurs. His vision is in part to cultivate meaningful relationships with well meaning people.
Our visit today was a great little example of that. Alex reached out to a local man interested in renting a home in Rincon and arranged for Israel to take him on a tour of his rental property in the area. While Israel was off showing the property, my brother and I hung back with Alex and Sarah. We discussed the current zeitgeist surrounding the organic and sustainable food movement in Puerto Rico, and shared stories of past culinary experiences that inspired us (of which, Alex certainly has a great wealth of). Then , Alex began doing some prep work and enlisted the two of us to help with some prep (peeling his first batch of Puerto Rican bananas for the season & laying them out on baking trays). After Israel returned, we continued to discuss the current status of his farm and finally departed-- after giving us one of his last sourdough loaves and offering Israel some pineapple heads to plant at the farm.
Upon our return, we helped Carmelo with his car, which had stopped running. During this typically slow part of the season, Carmelo usually travels to Indiana to work for Turtletop, a company that transforms trucks into fully finished party busses. However, after the hurricane, he has been forced to stay behind and tend to the damage of his home as well as help out more with the maintenance of the farm. This has resulted in Carmelo having to postpone repairs to his vehicle. After this low yield season, he is hoping to have more work next year as well as a free summer period to gain additional income at Turtletop.
DAY 32: To The Test
July 7, 2018 / Guayaba Dulce, Puerto Rico
This morning, my brother and I woke up early to begin clearing the scrap metal left by Hurricane Maria, near the beneficiado. The hope is to rebuild and add to the lookout point next to the beneficiado, as well as restore the hurricane torn home that was previously used as dwelling spaces for seasonal pickers.
We were able to get some work in before having to leave with Carmelo to head down the road to Hacienda Tres Angeles. Here, we met Juancho and Bryan (the people behind CoffeeTripPR and SpotinPR, respectively). They organized a coffee-centric event which would begin with a tour of Hacienda Tres Angeles (led by Juan & Naomi Melendez), followed by a trip to Charco Mango--a local watering hole in Adjuntas. The event was a tremendous success, in which over 40 people attended, learned, and enjoyed (the content as well as the people).
Unfortunately, we had to leave early to recieve air bnb guests. However, this did afford us the time to do something we had been trying to do all week--a blind cupping. Essentially, cupping is a brewing method used to facilitate equal analysis of many coffees at the same time. Cupping employs the immersion brewing method (in which coarsely ground coffee is submerged in hot water--between 195-205 degrees). Today, we were evaluating 6 highly rated (90+) coffees, alongside Sandra Farms'. However, this was a special day--when we first arrived, we roasted their final batch of naturally processed coffee. This was their last, and likely the only naturally processed Puerto Rican coffee currently available in the world.
With our guests also present, we cupped the 7 coffees and elevated each, and shared our thoughts on the characteristics of each. Across the table, our cupping was a bit unorthodox due to the diversity of regions and processing methods. While no one knew which was which, I let the group know that there were two naturals on the table, one honey, and one peaberry. For fun, once we were finished, we asked our guests to pick their "favorites". After revealing the identity of each, it was determined, that the Sandra Farms natural was their favorite.
Rigorous tasting, evaluating and reflection is very important to specialty coffee and essential for understanding what the end goal is, and what must be done to achieve it. While the test turned out to be a positive experience, we all agree that much can be improved and that Sandra Farms' must work to standardize its procedures to ensure a consistent result.
DAY 31: Las Ruinas
July 6, 2018 / Aguadilla, Puerto Rico
After staying overnight with my family in Aguadilla, I stopped by Las Ruinas. The historic site was once home to a lighthouse built by Puerto Rico’s former colonial rulers, Spain. Last time I visited, the former lighthouse was simply tucked away, deep down a rather treacherous trail neat Borinken beach. At the time, the structure appeared to be entirely uncared-for. However, now there is slight improvement-- a rope surrounding a pile of rubble left by Hurricane Maria, and a sign asking for visitors to leave the site how they found it.
For centuries now, Puerto Rico has existed under political and economic systems in which the island has been an unequal partner. Following the Spanish-American War, the U.S. took control of the island. Puerto Ricans were not granted citizenship until 1917, when it conveniently helped the American war effort. Currently, much of Puerto Rico’s residents are deeply entrenched in a pattern of dependence on American aid.
The transition to specialty agriculture aims to free small holding farmers and agricultural workers from a dependence on U.S. price control policies, empowering them to sell their products at a price as high as the quality in which they produce. As i have already encountered and been told by multiple farmers and officials, the problems of Puerto Rico are not only economic--and cannot be solved solely through economics. Despite doubling wages, Israel and the rest of Puerto Rico's specialty farming community, still have great difficulty in finding workers. Much of this is due to social and cultural tendencies and perspectives that have evolved, largely from U.S.-Puerto Rican political economic dynamics. Today it is commonplace, with little social stigma, for able-bodied, working age men to live off of U.S. government-administered aid--in the form of food stamps, cash transfers and disability compensations. However, agricultural work is highly stigmatized and looked down upon. Though specialty agriculture has the potential to provide communities with an increased, stable economic equilibrium, the adoption may be slowed by these social and cultural perspectives that have facilitated dependence. Hopefully, word will spread from early adopters and existing workers, gradually eroding the negative connotations associated with agriculture, and demonstrating the desirability of self relience.
DAY 30: One Down
July 5, 2018 / Guayabo Dulce, Puerto Rico
Today marks one month that I have spent in Puerto Rico at Sandra Farms. Thus far, I can sincerely say that the experience has far surpassed my expectations. I have been very fortunate to be able to connect with some of the most forward-thinking individuals involved not only in Puerto Rican coffee but also Puerto Rican entrepreneurship. After realizing the wealth of knowledge, experience, and thoughtful local people, I have decided to focus primarily on Sandra Farms, and the surrounding area for the first portion of my trip. The results and the relationships I have began to build are truly unbelievable. From conception, the plan to implement a volunteer pickers program is already nearing fruition. We are also in the process of applying for a USDA grant that will greatly increase the farm's capabilities. During this second month, I will be following through with these projects but will also be more active in visiting sever farms.
DAY 29: Hermanos de Cafe
July 4, 2018 / Guayabo Dulce, Puerto Rico
July 3, 2018 / Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
Today we were visited by my grandparents and sister. My grandparents, Hector and Luz Borrero were both born on farms in Puerto Rico---Luz; a farm in Aguada, and Hector; a large sugarcane plantation in Arecibo. A reflection of how behind the times Puerto Rico was in innovation, my grandmother grew up in the 1940's in a home with a dirt floor and without electricity. At 7 years old, my grandfather was working in the field with oxen used in place of motor vehicles or machinery and had a horse as his primary means of transportation. At the age of 16, he left the island and moved on his own to New York, with the clothes on his back, a brown bag with a spare set of clothes, and a loaf of bread. He attended night school and learned english quickly, however, he spent his first several months in New York sleeping in the public library. He eventually went on to become the vice president of a multinational photography company and later quit to start his own beverage distribution business which is still in operation by my Tio Edwin (his son) today.**For more information Hector and a brief interview, see my earlier posts.**
Though my grandfather had agreed to come, he was very resistant to listening to much of anything I had to say regarding specialty agriculture. In his view, he knew everything there is to know (in a general sense) and was perplexed by what is is that I as well as Sandra and Israel are doing here. Like many Puerto Ricans who have been involved in agriculture for many years, he only sees one way of operating the business and is skeptical of anything that differs from that perspective.
July 2, 2018 / , Puerto Rico
Today we received guests but also began engage in some critical talks, centered around improving guest experience and services in concert with our increase in production quality. With a nearly non-existent harvest last year and a small expected yield this year, it has become readily evident that a solid agro/ eco- tourism business is essential to providing stability, and supporting the main mission of increased coffee quality and community well-being.
Thish week, we began some cosmetic upgrades, like newly painting the main house, Beneficiado sign, and parking signs. I am also working on creating an upgraded brewing and tasting "lab" as well as a standard protocol for a truly special & repeatable brewing presentation and ceremony for our guests.
Today, we also began reimagining the roasting and packaging rooms as a hybrid space that could be used for receiving and testing ripe cherries from local farmers, sample roasting, and hosting education events for the local as well as international community. Down at the beneficiado, we have also began laying out a vision--actually, reviving a past idea of Sandra and Israel's. We hope to convert the lookout point down at the beneficiado to a cafe styled (blended, indoor & outdoor) space to receive tourists and guests, as well as host campers, and locals.
DAY 26: Back at It
July 1, 2018 / San Juan, Puerto Rico
Today I made another trip to San Juan, this time, accompanied by Carmelo. Along with visiting some more specialty shops and boutiques which could be potential wholesale partners for Sandra Farms, I was hoping to speak with the owner of Cuatro Sombras, in connection to my research of Puerto Rican farm recovery after Hurricane Maria. I had the pleasure of meeting the owner (& head roaster) of Cuatro Sombras, Pablo Munoz. He’s a veteran Q Grader of 10 years, and puts his training to the test by constantly sampling the coffee he purchases from his partner, small-holding Puerto Rican coffee farmers. He primarily offers coffee fro the region of Yuaco but has had to source additional coffee from Juayuya due to the devastation hurricane which demolished 80% of the crop. He has relationships with several small holding farmers in Puerto Rico, whom supply his cafe for beverage service as well as retail bags. Though this year has been difficult and misleading advertising from other brands which claim to be “cafe puro de Puerto Rico” has been frustrating, he has carved out a solid business for himself in San Juan and aims to honor the name of true Puerto Rican coffee. A beautiful setup, the street-facing side of his building is home to a bustling coffee bar, while the center offers a beautiful courtyard, and the back offers a relaxed lounge setting. While there, spoke and set up a meeting, but also stopped to watch the World Cup shootout between Spain and Russia. Afterwards, we joined him in the front of the shop while he roasted coffee--he had planned on being home today, but a busted sensor on the roaster forced him to come in and roast by sight--something that after years of experience, comes as second nature to him.
We also found out (rather ironically), that the abandoned farm Carmelo spotted earlier this week in Yauco formerly belonged to Pablo’s grandparents. His deeply rooted history helps to explain his admirable reverence for Puerto Rican coffee and efforts to provide it at a specialty grade. I’ll be accompanying him to visit one of the farms he does business with, later this week.
DAY 25: A city on the Rise
June 30, 2018 / San Juan, Puerto Rico
Saturday morning I arrived in Santurce, San Juan--a hip, up-and-coming area that certainly receives its fair share of tourism but is still strongly rooted in its local community. Santurce offers shops like Pal's (an imaginative "cereal bar", serving up ice cream and a variety of cereal flavors), Santurce Pop (an indoor marketplace of shared creative & design shops), and Cocina Abierta (a gastronomic, experimental concept restaurant). Today, I was there to meet Abner Roldan, 2 time latte art champion and owner of Cafe Comunion. From our previous communications, I already had an inkling as to what Abner's mentality was about coffee--very serious and completely hands on. And I was correct.
Though certainly a very kind, soft spoken, and compassionate guy, when it comes to coffee, there is no compromising. In his modern, yet cozy shop, Abner aims to be situated as a community gathering place, where people are free to slow down, chat, and let their creativity flow. However, being a barista champion, roaster for some of the country's top roasters, and well acquainted with some of the highest quality coffees in the world, he flatly refuses entertaining the idea of carrying any coffee that is less than the best.
Not only that; while in the shop, he insists on preparing every order of coffee that he can possibly handle in order to ensure that each customer receives their beverage exactly as it was intended to be enjoyed. Over the nearly 2 hours that I spent with Abner, our conversation ebbed and flowed between shots being pulled behind the counter and friendly banter with his regulars. As conversation progressed we reached a point of mutual interest and frustration--the disconnect between the hot cafe and barista scene, and education about coffee production--particularly in Puerto Rico. Abner explained that latte art contests and barista skills workshops surely have their place, but an intimate understanding of and appreciation for what actually goes into coffee production is what really is necessary to advance the specialty coffee community. Without being grounded by this essential understanding, the rest is superfluous. Abner started off as a school teacher and part time barista at Hacienda San Pedro but after spending time along with his wife, in Portland, Oregon (arguably the "mecca" of specialty coffee) decided to start his own place in order to deliver an experience to the Puerto Rican people that met his rigorous standards. Abner also commiserated over the fact that he was not able to serve Puerto Rican coffee in his shop--he'd love to, but there is not currently any farm capable of supplying him with coffee that meets his quality standards (farms like Sandra Farms are currently in low supply because of the season lost to the hurricane and ones like Hacienda Pommarrosa are too small fulfill high volume wholesale requirements). Abner and his wife, Karla will be visiting the farm in the coming weeks to check out the operation, meet Israel, and further discuss points in which our passions intersect.
After Cafe Comunion, I was supposed to meet with Clay & Sam of re:3D and Bryan of Spotin PR. However, they both had to reschedule due to last minute commitments. I'll be meeting with Sam on Thursday, and Bryan will be staying over with his crew on Tuesday of next week. I'll also be seeing him this weekend at Juancho's Coffee Trip event at Tres Angeles farm.
To pass the time between meetings, I decided to try a new spot for lunch. I took Aner's recommendation and went to Cocina Abierta. The "open kitchen" hyper-seasonal styled menu was very imaginative and offered some very interesting pairing. Under the guidance of a very sincere and knowledgable server, I ordered blood sausage croquets and a Lamb Wellington. Both were beautifully presented and masterfully executed! While I'm not a professional food critic (though I do have prior experience with my family in the gourmet and specialty food industry) this lively little establishment was further reassurance that Puerto Rico is on a path in which small entrepreneurs see an economy and community that values quality and attention to detail.
Finally, I met with Juancho and his wife at Plaza Rio Hondo. We connected briefly to continue articulating our distinct and shared visions--me, for our volunteer program at Sandra Farms, and Juancho, to continue to grow and enrich his CoffeeTrip community. The meeting was very productive, as I was able to show him some sample itineraries I had drafted with Israel as well as an outline of our planned pre-harvest pickers' training retreat.
DAY 24: West - Central
June 29, 2018 // Aguadilla & Utuado, Puerto Rico
This morning, I began my day at 6am, taking my brother and sister to a couple of local beaches. The beaches of Playa Montones, Crash Boat, Olas y Arena, and Surfers Beach are the ones my family have enjoyed since my early childhood. Though most of the ocean front areas were primed for summer tourism, the impacts of Hurricane Maria could still be seen and felt throughout the Western part of the island. A beachfront restaurant which my family used to visit on every trip, was entirely blown to pieces and still under new construction. The areas surrounding the beaches of Aguada, Isabella, and Aguadilla were once populated by plantano, banana, and other fruit trees. Now, we witnessed full fields of dead trees. Following a morning of beach hopping, I stopped by Levain bakery in Agudilla--one of the few artisan, specialty shops still in the area. I purchased a few items for my grandparents as well as some European (Ciabatta and Sourdough) loaves for Carmelo, Sandra, and Israel. Though it may seem insignificant, the shop's success demonstrates a proof-of-concept that the time is now, that specialty items (food, crafts, etc) can now provide a legitimate foundation for a viable business in Puerto Rico. Hopefully, Puerto Rican producers of all kinds will begin to see that there is a market for higher price items, services, and experiences, if the quality is equally high.
After the morning trip, I returned to Adjuntas and unveiled the new coffees and equipment we would be trying. We were able to sample a wet processed Tanzanian coffee from JBC roasters, before having to leave. Carmelo and I decided we'd take a tour of some of the other well known Puerto Rican coffee regions of Utuado and Yuaco, before dropping off his Jeep to be repaired in Utuado. The Jeep is now Carmelo's primary transportation, but was previously a work vehicle at Sandra Farms. Throughout our trip to the shop and back to the farm, we often made stops on the precariously narrow and often sinuous roads through the mountains. We counted several abandoned coffee plantations and noted the poor condition of most of the unattended trees. However, the mountain views were stunning and some of the old haciendas were very interesting to see-- some having been untouched for over 50 years.
DAY 23: Back Home
June 28, 2018 // Aguada Puerto Rico
Today I made a trip to Aguada, Puerto Rico after helping out with some morning tours. The night before, my grandparents, brother, and sister flew in to Rafael Hernandez Airport in Aguadilla. My siblings will be staying for the week with my grandparents in their Aguada home. Though absolutely beautiful, a visit to my grandfather's home may feel more akin to a visit to a fortress or maximum security prison than a cozy residence. For as long as I can remember, my grandparents have been frequently traveling back and forth from the island, spending a few months in Puerto Rico, then a few months with us in New York (often scheduled in conjunction with holiday seasons)--on one such trip, several years ago, my grandparents' home was broken into and robbed. Since then, my grandfather (Hector Borrero) has invested not only in advanced security and monitoring systems, but also physical gates, walls, and doors. A few years ago he even went through the extremely burdensome process of obtaining a permit to carry a firearm. Puerto Rico has the strictest gun ownership laws in America, yet an extremely high rate of violent crime incidences by use of firearm. With the arduous and stringent gun ownership process and laws, otherwise law abiding citizens often carry unregistered firearms for protection, while criminals, often involved in drug trafficking, employ their use in more sinister ways. After reviewing Puerto Rican gun statutes, my grandfather chose not to purchase a firearm, as he felt the laws offered little legal protection to those aiming to act in self defense. Recently, gun laws have been significantly laxed.
Today, once arriving at their home, my brother and I helped settle my grandparents back in their home. After the hurricane, their front gate was completely ripped off and some water damage was sustained. Although they didn't receive power back until a few months ago, they were extremely fortunate. Many Puerto Rican are still struggling with housing and food instability.
Once the Hurricane initially hit, my father and Tio Edwin flew to Puerto Rico as quickly as possible. Unable to contact my grandparents or other relatives, the entire mainland family was absolutely distraught, uncertain of their condition. Within the first week, my Tio and father were able to fly in to San Juan. With a satellite phone, provided my aunt and uncle ( Ivette and Chris), they would be able to communicate with the family back home. Once arriving at the airport, they rented the only available car and had no way of filling it with gas. On one tank they were able to make it to Aguada and back to San Juan for their flight to New York.
DAY 22: Help on the Way
June 27, 2018 // Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
This week we have ben very fortunate to have a full crew of dedicated volunteers. However, they're a bit more than volunteers-- Sandra and Israel's middle child, Carla, has brought a group of friends and family to stay on the farm for the week. In this time, the group of 10 have spent days clearing coffee fields and entirely repainting the exterior of the main house.
Though obviously, not an effort to base a business on, the group's hard work, passion, and care exemplify what we are looking for in our volunteers for the upcoming Harvest Pickers' Program. We are are very conscious of and actively trying to avoid the use of this program for "voluntourism". The practice is becoming increasingly popular; though an ostensibly benevolent trend, a deeper examination reveals that insincere "voluntourism" can often not only fail to provide an increased social good, but actually add strain onto small businesses and community. Essentially, voluntourism is the use of "service learning" or volunteer programs as a guise to cheaply travel or temporarily live in desirable vacations locations. For Sandra Farms, the problem with this, is that coffee production is very intense work and can simply not be done in a casual manner without significant exertion. The fear on behalf of Sandra and Israel is that they could potentially invest in improving their facilities to receive volunteers and then not receive the reciprocal service output needed to make the investment worthwhile. These concerns are why I am not only being very careful in whom I select for the program, but also why I am employing the method of reaching out to Puerto Rican non-profit and social enterprise leaders to acquire recommendations.
After working indoors for the morning hours, I spend the duration of the afternoon attempting to salvage what I could of the pajilla (coffee chaff) for our alternative fuel reserve. Though 6 bags were salvaged, the majority had begun decomposing. For the chaff unsuitable for fuel, we have decided to use as compost. Once finishing bagging, I began the monumental task of breaking into every bag and evenly spreading out the pajilla across the field adjacent to the benefiado so it can decompose into compost evenly. As mentioned previously, the goal is to be a closed circuit, sustainable operation whenever possible--nearly nothing goes to waste at Sandra Farms.
DAY 21: Local Ecosystem-Environmental & Entrepreneurial
June 26, 2018 // Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
Today Israel and I made a trip to a local agronomist in Adjuntas. He had previously worked at the Department of Agriculture and Adjuntas Agricultural Experimentation Station, but now runs his own nursery, producing hybrid citrus trees. He grafts citrus trees onto other plants with more hearty root systems that are less vulnerable to high winds. Today we purchased 30 seedlings--15 Valencia oranges and 15 clementines.
Israel makes a concerted effort to support the local community and economy whenever possible, by purchasing goods, supplies, and services from local individuals and businesses whenever possible. For Israel, the farm is only worth running if he is able to do so in a way that aligns with his personal values and benefits all that are employed by or associated with it.
The purchase of these seedlings is a very positive sign, as it indicates Irael's increasingly optimistic outlook for the farm. Not long ago, he had resigned himself to the idea that he'd leave things the way they are and produce modestly. However, since then, he had had a positive shift in his thinking and now believe he can not only continue survive post-Maria, but actually thrive and expand Sandra Farms' ( in terms of quality, service, production, and impact). The seedling will replace the trees that were lost to Hurricane Maria in his citrus mangrove. Aside from serving as a subsistence crop for consumption at the main house, the citrus serves three other purposes. Firstly, the mangrove provides a haven for bees, which they hope to bring back to the farm--Carmelo will lead the effort to repopulate bee colonies around the farm, for increased coffee yields and pure honey for sale to domestic specialty markets. Secondly, Israel's mangrove harbors varieties of rare and desirable citrus hybrids which can be sold to specialty markets, as he had done in the past. Finally, the presence of a vibrant citrus mangrove among the coffee fields may positively impact the coffee. The taste of coffees are highly influenced by environmental factors. The presence of fruit trees on coffee plantations often influence the end product of roasted coffee. This often results in citrusy hints and fruity profiles. A vibrant, interconnected ecosystem on the farm is highly desirable not only for cup quality but also the long term well-being of the environment.
After returning with the seedlings, we prepared for the heavy week of tourism we will be receiving. Tomorrow, we have a group of 6 coming to take a tour, followed by a student group of 16 on Thursday. Today, we prepared the house, cleared the area surrounding the Beneficiado, and roasted 25 bags of coffee.
DAY 20: Adventurers Wanted
June 25, 2018 // Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
With the aspiration to promote specialty agriculture in Puerto Rico and the reality of low supply, Sandra Farms has sought to diversify their income streams and expand the scope of their operation (while remaining small and focussing on quality, ecological responsibility and social benefit). As part of that effort, Sandra Farms will be expanding their tourism and education programs.
As one of the first (physical) steps in that effort, I began working to clear hiking, biking and walking paths.Today, I first made roadside markers which lead to a series of paths which vary in difficulty. First, there is a path nearly straight up the maintain. This path is at an extremely steep gradient and consequently has led me to discuss safety measures with Israel. Potentially, we will be adding a safety rope which will be anchored up at the air bnb (Greenhaven). From this main path, there are 4 alternate paths which diverge from it. They are all more moderate and scenic trails which lead through the forrest of cocoa trees as well as wild Typica coffee. The goal of the paths is to advertise and attract more naturists, outdoorsmen, and adventurers to Israel's beautiful and expansive farm.
Along with this tourism push and marketing to a new agro/eco-tourist market, I have initiated a program (with Israel's approval and Carmelo's support) that will hopefully alleviate some of the financial and labor pressures of the harvest season. If all goes well, this season, we will be piloting a program that will bring volunteers to the farm to pick coffee and help with processing. In return for carefully picking ripe cherries, the volunteers will receive free basic food and housing as well as education that will come naturally from daily operations as well as formally scheduled educational programing (led by Sandra Farms' veteran staff and local experts). This will enable Israel to produce perhaps the highest quality coffee in the farm's history! As he has already mentioned, if all goes well, he will be able to reinvest his profits in new equipment, facilities and higher wages for local workers. In general, the volunteers will also alleviate financial pressures and allow Israel to hire more local pickers and generous wages.
DAY 19: Adjuntas Field Trip
June 24, 2018 // Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
Today, Sandra, Israel and I set out to survey the neighboring mountains of Adjuntas. After taking some in some views of the Rio Blanco and panoramic view of the lake at the base of the mountains, we attempted to visit Popoline's--a casual restaurant and community gathering place located at the base of a hiking trail that leads to the highest point in Adjuntas. Unfortunately, we arrived to find that the establishment was destroyed and apparently abandoned. Over the last few weeks, as they have gone out to explore how neighbors and local establishments have recovered, this kind of discovery has been common.
After the brief trip, we went to Maribol Wine Bar & Restaurant in Adjuntas City. This high-profile restaurant attracts patrons from all corners of the island. Maribol even owns a private helipad, located behind their farm, to receive wealthy diners from San Juan. Once the Apasionado cigars are ready to be sold, I plan on meeting with the proprietors of Maribol (longtime friends of Sandra and Israel) to showcase the product, explain how it could be presented and advertised to customers, and discus carrying the product at their restaurant. Though one wholesale account or sale may seem insignificant, all these endeavors into specialty production and product placement by Sandra Farms is amplified by the relative absence of these efforts being done (successful or at a significant scale) by other Puerto Rican producers. Therefore, Sandra Farms can be referenced as a representative case study for other local entrepreneurs in the industry. If demonstrably successful, hopefully Sandra Farms' experience can be convincing enough to persuade other producers to transform their operations into specialty focussed enterprises.
While reaching out to new retail partners, Sandra Farms will continue to fortify its current relationships and cultivate a progressive community of progressively minded entrepreneurs and consumers.
DAY 18: La Ciudad de Cafe (?)
June 23, 2018 // San Juan, Puerto Rico
Today, Carmelo and I ventured to the capital city of San Juan. This was, 1. to survey and experience the growing specialty coffee scene and 2. to meet with specialty & boutique shops in search of new wholesale clients for Sandra Farms’ expanding range of products (and in anticipation of increased supply following the upcoming harvest season). While in San Juan, we also delivered 4 bags of coffee to a father and son whom had taken a tour of the farm last week. We also dropped by to see a friend of Carmelo's and deliver one of his last remaining pre-Maria liters of honey. After visiting the shops, we returned to Blakely's (Carmelo's friend) home for dinner with a group of her coworkers. Finally, at 7:30, Carmelo and I made our way over to Dos Molinos (an independent, third wave coffee shop in San Juan) to attend a specialty coffee event organized by Coffee Trip PR, for Puerto Rican coffee professionals.
The event focused on education in coffee brewing methods as well as friendly completion. I had the pleasure of meeting CTPR's Juancho and was able to give out cocoa samples to the attendants. To finish off the night, the owner and head barista, Gabo, prepared a pour over of Sandra Farms coffee for guests to sample. Juancho, Gabo, and Coffee Trip PR represent the new wave of consumers that are concerned with quality in coffee and treat the product like the specialty product that it is. We also of coffee culture in Puerto Rico!
In the coming weeks, Israel and I are very excited to share a new range of coffee and cocoa products that will hopefully allow Sandra Farms to reach new specialty markets and clients as well as establish the brand as a strictly specialty producer. Carmelo and I will be traveling around to high end wine bars, cigar lounges, clubs and specialty shops in search of new partnerships. I have also been in contact with specialty and boutique roasters in the U.S. to establish micro-lot buyers for the upcoming harvest. Hopefully, this year will be fully utilized to experiment with innovative production methods as well as marketing and branding efforts. If Sandra Farms is able to build and expand their brand as well as variety of high quality products, Israel will be able to further invest in his workers and equipment, in addition to expanding producer partnerships. I all goes well, this will gradually result not only in an increase in quality of specialty products in Adjuntas, but also an increase in quality of life.
DAY 17: Coffee of a Different Sort
June 22, 2018 // Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
Today I had the opportunity to sort coffee and then experiment with different roast profiles. Typically, one large jute bag of green beans (60lbs) is given to the local sorters, to be hand processed. As I've previously discussed, this process achieves several things; high quality coffee, supplemental income to women in need, and a sense of community pride and unity. In my opinion, and in the opinion of Israel-- coffee is not necessarily the most important part of Sandra Farms' efforts. Instead, it is the vehicle or engine that drives a sustainable system which provides dignity and empowerment to many people of the island's most underserved and most-in-need individuals.
In my research and my investigation once coming to Puerto Rico, the largest concern expressed unanimously by all farmers has been the lack of labor force participation. Without blaming any party or implying malicious intent, I express the belief that the relationship between the Unites States and Puerto Rico has created a massive social and cultural crisis. The "relationship" and the "model for growth" for Puerto Rico has always been one based on dependency and never one with aims to create a self-sustaining, autonomous island-neither politically or economically. In my thesis, I discus the detriment of the "Rich Uncle Sam" dynamic and in my time here, I have seen it play out, resulting in a crisis in which there is excessively high unemployment and lack of workers.
Today, I sat for several hours and sorted green bean coffee. During this time, I was only able to get through approximately 7 pounds of coffee. During this interminable (though enjoyable) time, I thought of how most people don't know what truly goes into coffee production--what I was doing was the easy part. To produce truly outstanding specialty coffee, not only must the stars truly align (for example: no hurricane!), once must be so uncompromisingly meticulous and precise, in every step of production. As I've found out, the few people on the island that dare attempt to produce specialty coffee are extremely intelligent people, most commonly from STEM related fields. Israel began his career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia (in the 1950's) and later went on to graduate from Columbia University and work as a psychologist. Other neighboring farmers were previously engineers and Information technology specialists for the U.S. Army, U.S. State Department, FBI, and NASA. They were all drawn to the industry precisely because of the extreme difficulty, complex problem solving and multidisciplinary analysis required.
I hope to help Sandra Farms and the handful of likeminded specialty producers on the island to transform the industry. Given the process required for its production and the demand for its end result, I believe there should be a shift in how coffee is perceived--a shift to something that more accurately reflects all that goes into it. With things like fine wine or cigars, we have a ritual, a ceremony, or a basic protocol. I think the same can be done with very high quality specialty coffee. This is why when I give tours, I try to create an atmosphere that I feel is more appropriate for what we will be experiencing. Usually, I provide a "pourover ceremony": I roll out a table to the balcony in front of our guests, and take them through various stages of a sensory experience, including slowly brewing the coffee in front of them. Then, I pour the coffee into a stemless wine glass, approximately a quart of the way filled. This mentally primes the guest to approach this as they would any other specialty product--such as wine, cheese, cigars, etc. I believe, a shift to seeing specialty coffee in a light more closely align with what I've described is not only logical given how other specialty products are treated, but essential in order for producers and laborers to live a dignified life in which they can economically support their families and communities. Theres no reason that a farm producing the highest quality coffee should be economically handcuffed simply because of how coffee has traditionally been perceived.
Thankfully, in many developed parts of the world, this shift has already occurred or is in the process of occurring. Furthermore, Puerto Rican producers are able to access these markets and have their products reach those consumers.
DAY 16: Steps Forward
June 21, 2018 // Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
Today, we continued our plans to move forward in anticipation of a productive harvest season beginning in late September. In the morning, Israel set out to survey the status of several coffee lots throughout his expansive farm. First, he went down into some of historically most productive Caturra fields. Caturra is a coffee varietal, often understood as a dwarf version of the heirloom Bourbon, renowned for its high quality cup potential. With Caturra, this high quality bean is packed into a smaller tree which is easier for hand-picking. Somewhat to his pleasant surprise, these resilient and mature coffee trees not only survived, but in many cases, seem to be thriving. Some early fruits were observed to be ripening, though cherries will not be harvested until September. After walking through to closely scrutinize the plants with William (who has worked with coffee since his early childhood), Israel returned to his jeep and plunged deeper into his farm. We came across one of his micro-lots of Pacas--another varietal, renowned for its relatively large beans. In some areas, we observed that trees high on the ridges sustained the greatest damage but served to protect the trees behind them, when Hurricane Maria struck. We joked that the front lines, high on the ridge, acted as martyrs and died protecting the rest: surely a noble cause. At some of the far reaches of the farm, coffee trees intermingled with Valencia oranges and grapefruits.
As we continued on what I called our "tropical safari", Israel pointed out trail ways that had been obscured by overgrowth. Two such trails would lead down to Rio Blanco if properly cleared. Over the last two weeks, I had passed by these hidden treasures nearly every day on my morning runs. Now that I'm aware of them, I will be doing my best to mark and clear them so that future tour groups and Air BnB guests can make use of them. With all the work that needs to be done to prepare the coffee trees, Israel has been forced to temporarily neglect less essential projects and trails. However, with tourism a significant source of income, stability and risk negation for the farm, I will be doing all I can to help enhance the guest and tourist experience.
With their coffee in short supply, sales of their coffee infused chocolate has been absolutely fantastic. Sandra and Israel could not have hoped for a better response to their Apasionados product line. Their cocoa products have now reached a point where they can stand on their own and nearly equal their coffee sales. With this unbelievable success, Israel feels motivated and confident enough to expand his product offerings. He has added a 72% cocoa, coffee infused dark chocolate that is shaped and packaged to look like a fine cigar. The product's quality is truly exquisite and uncompromising-- he hopes Carmelo and I will be able to reach out to boutique shops in San Juan to have his a latest product featured. Additionally, he hopes to add some more health focussed products--after speaking with his mold-maker, he has decided to move forward with Apasionado bars that are mixed with freshly ground turmeric from Sandra Farms. As a big believer and personal advocate of an anti-inflammatory diet, he is extremely excited to be selling his first batch of this new product in the upcoming weeks. I am also glad I was able to contribute to experimenting with and ultimately determining the proper ratio of cocoa, turmeric, and ground coffee as well as deciding on packaging for the new offering. This is all part of the greater effort to help Israel diversify his business as well as reach niche and specialty markets where his products can fetch a higher price.
For most of the day, we experienced intermittent rain and constant mist--which is always desirable on a coffee farm. Following a short dry spell, the weather has been ideal for the past 3 days. The view of the mountains when a storm approaches is completely breathtaking and highly recommended for any nature lover to experience. You really feel like you are among the clouds.
DAY 15: Vivo y Bien
June 20, 2018 // Ponce, Puerto Rico
***This post will be brief, as I will be attaching an interview with Eva as well as an edited text transcript**
Today, I had the pleasure of visiting Kurt & Eva of Hacienda de Cafe Pomarrosa. Having spoken with her several times throughout the last few months I was very excited to meet her and curious to see the progress Pomarrosa had made. The last few times I've spoken to here, she made me aware of a nonprofit organization, Para La Naturaleza. The organization is engaging in a reforrestation project that aims to plant 100,000 native tree species in Puerto Rico. She was kind enough to give them Israel's contact information so they could plant trees at Sandra Farms just as they were scheduled to do at Pomarrosa.
People like Eva are truly inspiring and have adopted the trpe of additude that is vital for the growth of Puerto Rico. While Maria left them with less than 1,500 of their previous 7,000 trees, you’d never know it from talking to Eva! Eva and Kurt do not rely on the government for assistance, nor do they wallow in the devastation left by Hurricane Maria. Instead, Eva and her team have charged forward in repairing the farm.
Eva and Kurt also understand the only viable way to sustain coffee production is through transition to specialty.
Following the devastating hurricane, she, her husband and their team were right back to work in restoring the farm to receive guests. In addition to specialty coffee production, Pomarrosa has oriented their operation on agro-tourism. This provides more stability and opportunity for growth, as they are limited to their 7 acres of coffee production.
She hopes to spread the word of the beautiful stories of resilience & determination that the Puerto Rican people have and continue to show. She explains, for too long now, Puerto Rico has been characterized in the news as an island of victims, although popular media storytelling may be well intentioned. Her wise words of caution surely reflect the history of debilitating dependence gradually instilled in Puerto Rico through its unique political-economic relationship to the United States.
If you find yourself in Puerto Rico, pay Eva and Kurt a visit at Hacienda Pomarrosa! You'll leave informed, entertained, and inspired.
DAY 14: Light at last
June 19, 2018 // Guayabo Dulce, Puerto Rico
After almost 10 months, electricity has been restored to Sandra Farms. Prior to this afternoon, Sandra and Israel had last been connected to the grid prior to Hurricane Irma which cam a week before Maria. As I have previously mentioned, receiving power before September has been a major concern since the coffee processing equipment at Israel's Beneficiado requires a capacity far greater than what Israel’s solar panels and battery could produce. With this reassurance, they can move forward with peace of mind.
This action of "moving forward" will include the previously discussed producer partnership initiative. As Israel and I have been discussing, it will also include some experimental coffee lots wherein he and Carmelo will attempt alternative processing methods. I will also be doing my best to return to the farm at some point during the harvest.
With numerous plans in motion, and countless competing priorities, I have secured a 3-month free trial with Basecamp; a very user-friendly app designed to help organizations large and small coordinate, collaborate, and delegate short term tasks, specific to each individual as well as company-wide goals or initiatives. Though initially hesitant, Israel has agreed to give Basecamp a try as he can see the potential benefits of increased focus and productivity as well as an added layer of protection against certain tasks falling between the cracks every now and then. Tomorrow I will be setting up the program for him, adding his current employees, and then allowing him to test drive it for a week before deciding if it would be a worthwhile system for him.
Being stranded at the house due to trucks obstructing the road, Israel and I went down to the beneficiado to make an attempt at salvaging some coffee chaff. The stacks of patilla (chaff) currently seen surrounding the Beneficiado area were once perfectly stacked, dried and sealed. Unfortunately, Hurricane Maria ripped through most of the bags, leaving chaff strew around the area. In addition to making a mess, much of the patilla is no longer fit for use as fuel in the hot air flow machine as it has began to rot due to the presence of moisture. With the last several days of rain, we were able to salvage and repack 6 bags of chaff that were protected from rain. Sadly, the remainder cannot be used.
While working on the chaff packaging, a couple from Montreal arrived for a tour. The pair were both scientists studying innovative cancer treatments and appreciated the scientific approach Israel brings to coffee production, while infusing it with a deep passion and sense of both ecological and social responsibility.
Tomorrow, I will be visiting Hacienda de Cafe Pomarrosa. Over the past sever months, we have been in contact several times and I am always entirely delighted by co-owner, Eva Santiago's upbeat demeanor, enterprising motivation and generous nature. I'm very excited to see the great work being done by Eva, her husband Kurt, and their dedicated team. Unfortunately, they were his much harder by Maria, devastating a significant portion of their coffee trees. However, you'd hardly realize the struggles they've gone through, by speaking to her on the phone. After the Hurricane passed, they were quickly back to work restoring the farm. Tomorrow, in addition to interviewing Eva and Kurt, she has arranged for me to speak with a nonprofit organization that will also be visiting to plant 50 tropical trees as part of a reforestation effort.
DAY 13: Hearts & Hands
June 18, 2018 // Guayabo Dulce, Puerto Rico
Begining the day at 6am, Israel, William, Jadier, and myself had a discussion over coffee. Israel explained, there may be some less productive growing fields that they may need to abandon for the year, to focus on the more productive ones requiring less investment (of time, effort and money) to maintain. With a very lean staff, it is likely, they would not have enough manpower to pick those fields this year anyway. Instead, once the season is over, they'll prune and restore those fields for the following year.
Aside from the usual work, a large group consisting of students from the U.S. mainland as well as local children visited Sandra farms today. The religiously affiliated (Baptist) group of 15 students from Camp Caribe intended to donate their day to working in the fields. After meeting the Sandra Farms staff, learning about the day to day life on the farm, and sampling some coffee, they set out for the fields. Under Carmelo's supervision they cleared the trail way leading up to the main house and beneficiado. By lunch time, the group was a bit worn down by the intense work in peak sun but still just as cheerful. One woman, who excitedly explained that this was her first mission trip admitted, "I knew running a farm wasn't easy, but wow!"
At Sandra Farms, Israel is thankful for any help he can get. The daily operations of a specialty coffee farm are very physically demanding and labor intensive.
Consequently, Israel had not been able to operate at the full labor capacity that he's like to since he simply cannot find enough willing laborers. For coffee picking, most farms pay approximately $5 per cuerda (~27 lbs). Israel pays double the going rate ( $10 or more) but is still unable to entice enough people to work. Pointing out to the surrounding mountains, Israel laments, "none of the kids that live here, none of the kids around here have ever picked coffee a day in their life". In many instances, it is more profitable and economically efficient for would-be low wage earners to claim unemployment and engage in the casual labor market in cash transactions. Among the lowest earners, Puerto Ricans would earn more money by remaining unemployed and collecting government assistance than by working full time at minimum wage. Carmelo explains his observations of the well documented circular migration pattern of many Puerto Ricans. He says, often, young people go to the U.S. for the summer and work a seasonal job, then go back to the island and collect unemployment checks for the remainder of the year.
The relationship between Sandra Farms and this group from a local baptist church has been ongoing for several years and while the work is greatly appreciated, Israel most values the opportunity to meet with these outstanding young people. Israel does his best to educate the young people about sustainable and ecologically conscious farming practices while Sandra delights in putting what they do in a historical and contemporary context. With both Sandra & Israel having a background in social work and rural community development, Sandra Farms’s vision has a wider scope than just producing great tasting coffee.
DAY 12: Jibaro en al Ciudad
June 17, 2018 // Rincon, Puerto Rico
To begin the morning, Israel sat down with William and his son to discuss his plan of action for the week, over coffee. He also informed him of happenings and projects on the horizon. After a brief and informal meeting, the men went off to the fields. I prepared a pour over of Sandra Farms coffee for Israel to taste side-by-side with a coffee from a well respected South American specialty coffee producer. Once Carmelo arrived, we loaded the delivery van and set out for Rincon ; a nearly 2 hour trip.
Despite the distance, Carmelo, Sandra and Israel value their trips to the trendy coastal town as it is a center for arts, culture, and tourism on the Western side of the island. Though their low supply of coffee due to the hurricane prevents them from taking on new clients until the following season, they feel it is important to keep their finger on the pulse of developing trends as well as interact with conscious consumers and thoughtful entrepreneurs of all varieties. After dropping off coffee at Carta Buena, we hopped around, taking in the local scene and visiting boutique shops whom Israel has been forced to temporarily suspend business with.
Afterwards, we stopped at the Rincon Plaza to speak with vendors at the weekly farmers' market. Here, I had the opportunity to speak with the owner of Jeanmarie Chocolate. He has a thoughtful, inspiring, and inclusive vision for cocoa in Puerto Rico. With a background in International Business, he has his sights set on foreign exports. He explained to me, it would be futile to engage in the cutthroat competition that takes place on the island-- the market to begin with is finite, obviously by geographic constraint but also due to the lack of a widespread specialty market. The same "race to the bottom" price competition I speak of in the coffee industry (complete with the deceptive marketing as well) is present in the cocoa industry. However, the international market infrastructure already exists and is well established for specialty chocolate. Therefore, he invests in producing chocolate of the highest quality for export to the U.S. and abroad. Furthermore, he has developed a scalable business infrastructure for himself in which he recruits cocoa farmers, teaches them proper methods for specialty cocoa farming, then pays the farmers a premium to sell him their cocoa. Under this system, small farmers earn a greater profit in the portion of crop they sell to Jeanmarie and have the option of processing some cocoa on their own, with the best knowledge, training, and equipment at their disposal. Like Sandra Farms' plan, Jeanmarie aims to increase the overall quality of life and product for Puerto Rican specialty producers.
Once leaving the market, we made one more stop at a park, steps for a beach in Rincon. here, Carmelo and I took advantage of the calm air and clear terrain to practice flying his drone. We have already recorded some footage but would like to take high quality videos overlooking the farm. The videos and pictures will be used on their website and social media revamp, launching once they reach the harvest season.
DAY 11: Natural Growers
June 16, 2018 // Guayabo Dolce, Puerto Rico
Before receiving guests then departing for Arecibo, Israel and I began the morning by making a drive over to another small holding coffee producer in Adjuntas. Here, Israel hoped to discus his vision for a sustainable coffee industry in Adjuntas, operating at an increased stable equilibrium as the result of combined efforts to raise the island's image and coffee quality. For the most part on the island, producers are very set in their ways and don't see the value in expending time, effort and money into producing such a grueling and labor intensive product. Additionally, the vast majority of producers do not devote their efforts nor employ anyone to market their products in any meaningful way to the greater U.S. economy outside of the island. For the most part, small producers fight tooth and nail with one another over the very finite Puerto Rican market. This competition often devolves into a race to the bottom in terms of pricing or misleading and dishonest marketing tactics. Like Sandra & Israel, the farm invested in tourism in order to offer supplemental income and stability during this year's dismal season. With expansive lodging offerings, the farm has targeted larger groups for lodge rentals. Unfortunately, the owners (longtime friends of Israel) were not there at the time. We'll be going back letter this week to discus Israel's plan as well as for me to record an interview.
After the morning excursion, we returned to the farm, where Carmelo and I prepared coffee for the farm's wholesale clients as well as stock to have on hand for tourists. Israel and Sandra prepared to receive their guests. When the group arrived, we were in the midst of roasting and packaging. Part of the group continued up the driveway to the house while a few remained to get a peak of what coffee roasting entails.
Once roasting and packaging, Sandra, Israel, Carmelo and I quickly packed up to make our trip to Arecibo Coliseum. Here, we were invited by last week's tour group to see them perform Disney On Ice..as well as deliver 2 bags of coffee to Lumir (a Disney entertainment veteran of 25 years). This is really what drives Sandra and Israel to continue doing what they do without compromising their standards--their pursuit of the highest quality while adhering to their core philosophy has led them to meet some truly extraordinary people. The couple cherish every connection they make, transforming each customer and visitor into lifelong friends. The evangelical nature of their following is not difficult to understand. As we've been jokingly saying around here for the past week-- at Sandra Farms, they grow their business like they grow their coffee: naturally and organically.
DAY 10: Team Work Makes The Dream Work
June 15, 2018 // Guayabo Dolce, Puerto Rico
By 8am trucks made their way back up the mountain and began work, connecting power lines across troublesome terrain using a mixture of heavy machinery and drones. Though their hard work is certainly a godsend for Sandra Farms, today it posed an obstacle for Israel's busy tour schedule. In the morning, William and I drove up to Greenhaven to prepare it for guests that would be coming in the evening. This included cleaning refilling the water holding tanks using rain water from the main house. Unfortunately, the dry spell has continued, with little rain thus far this week. By the time we returned to the main house, it was time for Israel and I to drive down the road to meet with our guests that would be touring the farm.
We pulled up to the first truck blowing the road, then walked to the other side to pick up our guests. The family currently lives just outside of Dallas, Texas but the two men were originally born in Puerto Rico. Intrigued by the Sandra Farms' commitment to sustainability, a few members of the group ventured on foot to green haven. Following our trip, Israel took them to see some cocoa trees along the path that were impressively rebounding from Hurricane Maria's destruction. Cocoa has become an important product for the farm-- originally sold as a Christmas gift idea by Sandra, to send to their boutique clients in San Juan, it has now become a staple alongside coffee. Some expansion and diversity of their product line is essential to creating the growth and stability needed to provide stability, negate risks for investing in labor and machinery, and market to the U.S. specialty market. Gradually, and only with products that they truly believe in, Israel and Sandra are looking to expand their offerings and are encouraged by the outstanding response they have received so far.
After the tour, we drove the group back down, having to stop once again and walk the mountain road to retrieve their car. Thankfully, the crew was kind enough to stop what they were doing and move to allow them to pass. As the trucks were moving to the side to let one group depart, the second tour group drove up at a post opportune time. The wife, Cheryl is a doctor and coffee enthusiast whom prefers whenever possible to purchase coffee from organic, ecologically conscious producers. After sampling the coffee and chocolate, Cheryl completely understood: there is a distinct difference in the freshly roasted and rigorously sorted coffee that Israel offers, from the lower quality and commodity grade coffee provided by most other farming operations in Puerto Rico--and that valuable distinction is worth paying for. In fact, the couple purchased 5 bags to bring back home to Wisconsin. Israel Barretto was born and raised in Puerto Rico, on a farm not very different from Sandra Farms. He was delighted to learn that there are good, honest, and hard working people out there, like Israel (Gonzalez) that see a bigger and better picture for Puerto Rico. As they continued talking, conversation quickly became more lively as Israel (Gonzalez) explained the problem with finding pickers and good workers. Israel Barretto is particularly passionate about this topic as we wished to see a strong, vibrant, and self sufficient Puerto Rico. Instead, he laments the dismal rate of labor force participation and decries the extensive welfare system in Puerto Rico which he feels has choked and dampened the flame of the people's sense of dignity and self-reliance. With welfare and food stamp payments, often as high if not higher than minimum wage incomes, there is a lack of incentive for low earners to work. Instead, generations of Puerto Rican have lived without formal employment. Israel explained "ask somebody around here what they do for a living..they'll all tell you they collect...its worse than a crime, can you image growing up and your father never worked? you never saw anybody in your family have to work?". Before returning to remeniscing on the island of their youth, they both came to an agreement that the current dependency model in Puerto Rico has a corrosive effect on the spirit of the island's people.
DAY 9: To Separate The (coffee) from The Chaff
June 14, 2018 // Guayabo Dolce, Puerto Rico
Today, in addition to giving tours, Israel, catapulted forward by the confidence that power will soon be restored, began calling up his partners and friends of years' past to sure up the terms of their relationship. His first order of business was to call a friend (who's name I shall be intentionally omitting) with whom he has established a mutually beneficial relationship.
At Sandra Farms, Israel tries to apply the same principles he lived by as a poor (2nd youngest) child of 13, first living in rural Puerto Rico and then communist Cuba with his widowed mother: waste NOTHING. Israel explains “as a child, food was hard to come by.. most days we would forage through the fields all day, eating anything that wasn’t too bitter”. Consequently, sustainability and resourcefulness are very important virtues that guide the the farm's operations.
The call was to restate the terms in which Israel would sell the local farmer his unripened or damaged beans from the drying process in exchange for bagged chaff. At Sandra Farms, Israel uses the coffee chaff (dried skin of the coffee, left over after being fully processed) as an alternative fuel source to power his machine used to circulate air while ripe cherries are being dried. The machine maintains a steady flow of low heated air to the perforated drying beds in which the ripe cherries are laid. Typically the chaff is a nuisance to roasters and producers, but Israel buys as much of it as he can from local farmers to power his machine. The fibrous biomass is a great, slow burning fuel. Further proof of his dedication is the fact that despite the absolute decimation brought by Hurricane Maria, he and his scrappy core team were able to salvage 500lbs of coffee. This type of effort is an undeniable reflection of his deep dedication to his farm as well as his disciplined aversion to waste. The coffee which was frantically gathered, now provides Israel with a reserve reassurance which allows him to still complete online orders, sell to tourists, and stock only their highest-end boutique clients and close friends.
Following a morning of calls and and an 11am tour, Sandra and I had planned to visit the nearby (approximately 45 minute drive) city of Ponce. However, we didn't make it far before being stopped my linemen who had made it even further up the mountain, reaching the home of Sandra and Israel's good friend and former employee, Pappo. Later in the afternoon, Israel and I attempted to make a trip down the mountain as well, but the men were still hard at work. This time when we stopped, a gathering of neighbors had formed at Pappo's house to celebrate the restoration of power. There, the group sat and chatted, focussing primarily on jokes pertaining to the corruption, inefficiency, and naiveté of government bureaucracy. Though doing so in a light-hearted manner, they all raised issues of genuine concern and hinderance to their livelihood. In the seemingly impossible bureaucracy of Puerto Rico's insular government, most farmers are willing to pay (when able)and official are willing to receive, bribes in order to circumnavigate unnecessarily cumbersome protocols--often regarding licensing and certifications.
With the small gatherings, as well and his earlier phone calls, Israel understands the value of cultivating a compassionate, proactive, ambitious community in Adjuntas. He sincerely hopes his efforts can be used as a model to convince other farmers of the benefits of ethical, sustainable, and socially minded practices as well as a shift to thinking of coffee and cocoa as specialty value-added products.
DAY 8: Se Levanta
June 13, 2018 // Guayabo Dolce, Puerto Rico
For the first time, after 9 months without power and no estimated time of restoration, the brigada (crew) finally made its way to Guayabo Dulce. The linemen, traveling from the city of Mayaguez, over an hour away from Adjuntas, began work farther down on the mountain. Though a herculean task to restore power to this remote and poorly maintained area of the grid, working a full day everyday day, there is hope that the crew will restore power to Sandra Farms by the week's end. After having the fields cleared by the CATerpillar a few days ago, it seems that things are finally falling into place for Sandra and Israel. Although perhaps, "falling into place" does not really describe fairly the rigor and persistence in which Israel pursued assistance and plead his case through countless phone calls, emails, letters to the mayor's office and visits to offices which proved to be dead ends. Likely, the crews would not have arrived yet at this time if not for his efforts. Certainly, Israel was justified for is sense of urgency, as his solar system is not equipped to run some of the heavy processing equipment of the Torrefacion and Beneficiado.
With this tremendous relief, Israel is ready to move forth into earnest preparation for the upcoming harvest with peace of mind that his investments will not go to waste. His beneficiado will have power to operate--meaning, he will be able to pick and dry his coffee. .
After discovering this great news, we began work on repairing the beneficiado roof which was damaged by a falling tree. We climbed up onto the roof and measured the area that new zinc sheets would need to cover. After, we drive down to a local hardware & supply store that Israel has been doing business with for years, to order a zinc roof. His son-in-law (a builder & carpenter by trade) and a few workers will be repairing the roof later next month.
While at the hardware store, I noticed a large shipment of bananas. Upon further inspection, I found that the bananas were import from Costa Rica--right there, in a remote agricultural mountain town. It is obvious, Puerto Rican agriculture, under its established political-economic configuration cannot compete in a commodity market.
Later that day, the local couple staying at Greenhaven finally ventured down. The said they were feeling absolutely refreshed and wished to book an extra night. Following their departure, a group from Pittsburg arrived for their scheduled tour. both husband and wife are clinical cancer researchers studying potential cures. After some coffee and conversation, the couple bought multiple bags of coffee as well as a bag of chocolate. Once they left, Israel rejoiced in the fact that tourism had increased at just the right time-- after the good news that electricity would be back soon, he would need to hire more workers and for longer hours. With the profits made from tours and the Air BnB's this week, he would be able to increase productivity and pay his workers.
DAY 7: Building Bridges
June 12, 2018 // Guayabo Dolce, Puerto Rico
For Sandra and Israel, it is difficult being one of few farms on the island that see specialty coffee production and experiences as the only path to sustainable growth na d community development. However, along with Sandra Farms, there are a few other likeminded individuals in the neighboring mountain municipalities that also seek independence from the government controlled commodity market. In Puerto Rico, the government imports over 85% of coffee that is domestically produced and sets the price in which green bean commodity coffee is purchased. Kurt and Eva of Hacienda de Cafe Pomarrosa are another husband and wife team taking on risk to invest in producing higher quality coffee. I have spoken to them intermittently through phone and email over the past year while compiling research for my thesis. They have been friendly and forthcoming. Today, I spoke with Eva on the phone and scheduled to meet with her next Wednesday. They will be staying in San Juan over the weekend after delivering coffee to some of their wholesale clients. On the day I visit, Hacienda Pomarrosa will be visited by a local government agency tasked with reforestation of Puerto Rican coffee regions. They will receive coffee seedlings and assistance from specialists to properly plant them. Israel is longtime friends with the couple, and has often done business with them. This season, they plan to continue their business relationship. It is truly amazing to see the common bond made by people with a passion to achieve greatness in their chosen fields of endeavor.
To that point, today, Sandra and Israel had the pleasure of receiving a very lively and diverse group of ice skaters, currently traveling around the world as part of a Disney entertainment group. Countries of origin for the group ranged from the U.S. and U.K. to Austria, Russia, and Czech Republic. We’ll be traveling to Arecibo, Puerto Rico this Saturday to see them perform. As Israel gears up to prepare for the mayhem that will come in September when the first wave of picking begins, tourism in the form of Farm tours and stays at the Air bnb have thankfully picked up steam over the past week. This will provide much needed relief and income in order to hire workers for additional hours in anticipation of the harvest.
If you are interested in volunteering to pick for any period of time over the 3-4 month harvest season beginning in September please contact me by PHONE, EMAIL, or INSTAGRAM DM
During some free time between tours, I ventured down to Charco el Mango--a beautiful river with clear, deep pools. Its relatively remote location is nearby the Agricultural Experimentation Center. This station is one of 6 on the island. Here, I was able to see the seedling being grown by this government agency (an extension of the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez campus). Although the station provides the beneficial service of delivering free or affordable seedlings to farmers, the station grows cultivars mainly bred for their favorable yield and resistance characteristics and not taste. Furthermore, representative are generally misleading and biased, seeking to push their current supply to farmers instead of what is best for them.
DAY 6: Off The Grid
June 11, 2018 // Greenhaven in the Clouds
Following hurricane Maria, Israel and Carmelo couldn't sit around waiting for the government to rescue them—if they had, the farm certainly wouldn’t be here today..and neither would they. As I mentioned in earlier posts, it took them 15 days to clear a way to civilization and 9 months later, most of the farmers in Adjuntas are still without power.
Sandra Farms operates entirely on solar power (which neighboring engineers helped install) and harvested rain water. They use a gas generator to power their roaster but are praying for electricity to be restored soon, as their Beneficiado (processing station) requires more power. Without power by September, Israel and Sandra will surrender a full year's income. Though Israel believes they will have power restored by then, the timeframe is certainly too close for comfort.
In addition to their main home, Sandra and Israel have also been running a highly successful Air bnb. The structure is truly a shining testament to the Sandra Farms staff's dedication and a representation of Sandra and Israel's core ideals. Up above their home at one of the highest points in all of Adjuntas, stands Greenhaven in The Clouds. Here Israel, Carmelo, William, his sons and Israel’s brother-in-law brought Sandra’s vision to reality: a peaceful haven for naturists, do-gooders, and people just looking to get away. Sandra was inspired by the missionaries and socially conscious people often passing through to visit the farm. She wanted to cultivate a space in which the wonderful people who often find their way to Sandra Farms could feel a peace and inspired to continue on in their passionate endeavors. Up in the clouds, Greenhaven is truly “off the grid” relying solely on harvested rain water, solar panels, and planted fruits & vegetables. A trip to Greenhaven usually requires a ride in Israel's jeep due to its steep incline.
The Air bnb rental has proven very helpful in providing a passive income stream to Israel and Sandra. The steady income proves stability in tough times and allows for increased spending during peak harvest times wherein picking and processing the ripe cherries is a labor intensive and time sensitive operation.
After the Greenhaven guests were received and given a tour, we wrapped up the day's work on the farm. Today, I had experimented with some drinks using all products produced by the farm (with the exception of cashew milk). I made a Golden Milk drink--a beverage increasing in popularity at health-food establishments around the U.S., but renown since ancient times in India for is anti-inflamitory effects. Israel is a sort of health food and nutrition enthusiast who firmly believes in the benefits of an anti-inflamitory diet. Along with turmeric from the farm, I also added honey extracted by Carmelo from beehives on the farm as well. In addition to the golden milk, I used some Sandra Farms coffee to make a Sandra Farms Cashew Golden Milk Latte. The greater point in all of this is that Sandra and Israel understand the potential utility of developing a slightly wider diversity of product offerings, utilizing what they already have on the farm. Many of these value-added products can retail locally or on the mainland for considerably more than they would in their raw for. By creating new products, Sandra Farms can access new markets and provide stability to their core operations with substantial streams of supplemental income.
DAY 5: Caffeinated Connections
June 10, 2018 // Guayabo Dolce, Puerto Rico
Today Israel and Sandra made a trip to Rincon; an historically popular surfing and tourist destination in Western Puerto Rico. This was in order to deliver coffee to one of their longtime clients, pick up chocolate which had been processed and packed from their cocoa and meet with a researcher whom had spent the last 12 years studying the development of coffee varietals in Puerto Rico.
First, we stopped by Paraiso--a bakery and cafe in Lares, Puerto Rico. It is said that many Italians first settled in Lares. As with many other shops, Paraiso proudly advertised "cafe puro 100%". However, as in the previous instance the prices of the retail bags offered inspire speculation, just as their very existence in such abundance do, since the last years harvest was all but entire destroyed by Hurricane Maria.
With their limited supply of high quality coffee, cocoa and other specialty produce, Sandra farms maintains connections with some of the island’s most visionary and discerning people. beyond those select few, Israel has had to severely cut back on his client base due to scarcity of supply and unwillingness to compromise quality and purity by blending with imported green bean.
Alex Windover, an alumni of some of the world’s most innovative kitchens, along with his wife Sarah run Carta Buena, an ambitious food truck that serves its patrons directly in front of their own gardens. The couple have a vision beyond running a successful food truck-- they believe in people, community and doing things with passion. All food offered at their truck comes directly from their garden and local producers. They’re providing Western Puerto Rico with fresh food, juices and smoothies, as well as beautiful communal space. A meal at Carta Buena is a show of support to the local farmers working to improve the quality of produce in Puerto Rico while preserving their way of life. Not only this--they are a proof of concept that Puerto Rican consumers desire a higher quality product and care about the well being of their island.
Following our delivery, we were then on the receiving end. We met at a nearby shopping plaza with Paul, who processes and packages Sandra Farms' cocoa. The industrious young man has a background in engineering and puts it to use in inventing new processing methods, building his own equipment and creating his own proprietary molds. Many young Puerto Ricans are well educated and pursuing STEM careers. Unfortunately most jobs in these fields require a relocation to the mainland United States or offer significantly lower salaries in Puerto Rico despite the equal (and sometimes greater) cost of living. Paul has been able to carve out a lucrative and interesting career for himself and will be collaborating with Sandra Farms to experiment with a possible coffee & turmeric chocolate bar.
Finally, we made a stop by the home of a Puerto Rican author and researcher whom has spent the last 12 years tracing the origins of coffee in Puerto Rico. He has meticulously scoured government and colonial records in order to piece together the puzzle. As it persists today, Puerto Rican government reporting has long been subpar. Much of this may be due to the island's status for centuries and subservient to a greater power--wether it be Spain or America. As a result of this relationship, government officials often have made false, erroneous, or excessively ambiguous reports in order to appease. Mr. Sotamayor believes he may have solved the puzzle of "Seleccion de Puerto Rico's" identity. In Puerto Rico, it is believed that coffee originating in Yemen was brought to France and then from Franc to Puerto Rico. The varietals brought over were allegedly Bourbon and Typica. However, according to Sotamayor, a mistake in 1948 government reports may indicate that the coffee referred to Selecion De Puerto Rico may actually the variety Mokha. This seems likely, not least because the very town we were in, where early Europeans once settled and introduced coffee has long been named "Moca".
DAY 4: Israel Breathes a Sigh of Relief
June 9, 2018 // Guayabo Dolce, Puerto Rico
Following a frustrating week of dealing with endless government bureaucracy, dead ends, and unabashed uncertainty, Israel whom had already been feeling under the weather, began to feel a deadening wave of resignation. "I'm getting older", he thought aloud. He punctuated his plans with, "That is--if we're able to do coffee this year". Like many other farmers in the mountains of Adjuntas, who rely on electricity to process their coffee cherries, Israel had no idea when government vehicles would be able to make it to his farm and cut through the fallen trees to reach the destroyed power lines. For weeks he had been asking around to see if any locals had CATerpillar machines that could clear his trails so that when (more realistically, if) people came to repair is his power lines, they could reach them without obstruction and delays. Unfortunately, with countless others in his same predicament, most estimates were to long or uncertain. Finally, a local father and son team reached out to Israel and said they would come by to clear the trails. Though government has often been a story of "too little, too late" in respect to their Hurricane response, the outpouring of kindness, compassion, altruism and community displayed by the residents of the two neighboring mountain towns of Castaner and Adjuntas has been not only inspiring, but essential in these hard times. In 3 hours, the men and their machine completed work that may have taken weeks by sheer manpower alone. When they finished, Israel invited the men up to try some chocolate and coffee. He payed them the agreed upon $300 and tipped an extra $100 for their great work and willingness to travel to this remote farm.
Earlier in the day, one planned tour group arrived at 11am. This was a group consisted of a minister from Puerto Rico along with his wife and children. The couple considered themselves to be specialty coffee enthusiasts and were delighted to take a tour. While the scheduled tour was underway, a family from Georgia and another group of locals stumbled upon the farm. They were all invited up to the front deck where we would sample coffee and chocolate. Carmelo prepared two large french presses while Sandra delivered a story of the farm's history to the large group. Once the first round of coffee and chocolate came out, I prepared a pour over with the equipment I had brought for Sandra and Israel's use. **Pour over is a method of coffee brewing in which water ranging in temperature from 195 degrees to 208 degrees is slowly poured over a bed of medium ground coffee through a filtered funnel.** I brought the equipment outside and presented the pour over process to our guests, explaining each part of the extraction process, including the initial "bloom" in which gases from the roasting process are released. After, I poured the coffee into stemless wine glasses and passed them around so that they could examine the coffee's clarity and truly appreciate the experience.
By the day's end, Israel was with renewed enthusiasm and a greater degree of confidence in his farm's ability to produce for the upcoming season. With compassionated and hardworking locals in the community and a devoted legion of enthusiasts interested in quality as well as sustainable practices, Sandra Farms certainly may a viable path to success.
DAY 3: Welcome to Sandra Farms
June 8, 2018 // Castaner, Puerto Rico
After another morning run, I returned to the farm and found Israel ready for his first cup of coffee. After planning out the days agenda with Sandra and Israel over coffee, Israel and I set out for the town of Castaner in the neighboring mountains.
We drove to the agricultural supply store and picked up some fertilizer. Our next stop was down the road at Casa Castaner, a low income housing project primarily occupied by abused or widowed women. For years, Israel has maintained a mutually beneficial relationship in which he pays the women to rigorously hand sort his green bean coffee. This gives the women, otherwise dependent entirely on government transfer payments and food stamps, a way to gain supplemental income and a sense of personal dignity. After picking up two 30lbs bags from the women, we stopped by a popular Panaderia (bakery) & Restaurant. Here, I could see that they sold a local brand of coffee by the pound for $3.99. This alone clearly demonstrated to me that the coffee regardless of its quality (or lack thereof), was not produced in Puerto Rico. Any coffee grown in Puerto Rico could not possibly be sold for such a low price, as basic common sense, adherence to minimum wage laws, and knowledge of production costs would dictate.
Once we returned, we prepared for the tour group coming in the afternoon. A couple raised in New York, living n New Jersey and of Puerto Rican heritage arrived at 2pm, along with the woman's father. Evelyn was raised in the South bronx and currently works for JP Morgan as an Executive Assistant while her husband, also raised in NYC, buys and sells classic cars. Israel gave Evelyn, her husband and her father a proper tour: they were enthralled to learn of Sandra Farms' dedication to to ecological consciousness and quality product. Israel gave Evelyn a lovely collection of exotic flowers and assortment of wild fruits grown throughout the farm lands. After a thorough tour, Sandra delved deep into the history of the farm. Then, we all gathered on the front deck to share great laughs and great conversation alongside great coffee and great chocolate.
June 7, 2018 // Guyabo Dolce, Puerto Rico
On Thursday, I woke up at 5am and crept out onto the front deck. Laying in the hammock and looking out at the 360 degree foggy mountain view, I researched some of the multitudes of things I had taken notes on from the day prior. However, as the sun rose by 5:40am, I was compelled to stop and take in the view. After going for a run through the mountain trails which extend far over to another mountain top, I returned to find Israel eager and ready to begin the day-- though not before a cup of coffee, of course! This morning, I told Sandra and Israel I would make coffee for them by pourover. When I came in on Wednesday, I brought them a few coffees from one of my favorite shops from home: Neat Coffee in Darien, Connecticut. The coffee was roasted by Head of Coffee at Neat, Kyle Bellinger but also produced by a farm owned by himself and Jose Losada in Colombia. Luckily, I brought along my Stag kettle, by Fellow-- my single favorite piece of coffee equipment, the counter balanced handle ensures a consistent flow rate while the built-in thermometer allows one to pour at optimal temperature for extraction.
In Puerto Rico, it is often stated humorously though accurately that "Puerto Rico is always 20 years behind the trends" (Notwithstanding, hairstyles and fashion). This has been the case for specialty coffee or the "third wave". Over the last couple of years, and still climbing to its peak, specialty coffee shop culture has finally reached the island. With shops springing up all over in urban centers such as San Juan, and now even Ponce and Mayaguez, you may mistake Puerto Rico's trendy urban pockets for Portland or California. While thought to be primarily supported by wealthy American, European, and (to a lesser extent) Asian tourists, Cafe owners attest to the enthusiasm and patronage of local regulars. Equipment like specialized kettles, filters, and grinders such as the ones I brought over have come into favor, as the consciousness of the Puerto Rican coffee consumer rises.
By the time coffee was ready, Israel had headed down to the Torrefacion with long time friend and worker, Carmelo. They were roasting some of their natural-process coffee for an order made by one of their most loyal customers in Rincon. Both men carefully watched over the coffee, well aware that the natural sugars present in coffees dried by natural process make the coffee much more sensitive and liable to be over-roasted, while overly cautious under-roasting would deprive the bean of full sugar development.
Once the roasting was done Israel, Carmelo, and I discussed the challenges they face in elevating their outstanding coffee to the highest tier in the world specialty market and to the full capacity of their fruits' potential. Among the many issues ranging from institutional neglect to lack of certainty and risk, a lack of labor supply was perhaps the most alarming. Ideally, Israel estimates 50 pickers are necessary during the harvest season. In contrast, Sandra and Israel have employed up to 26 pickers at their peak and have not seen more than 10-15 in recent years.
Puerto Rican Coffee Roasters, a very small subsidiary of Coca Cola, which controls nearly 85% of the island's consumed coffee is able to pay their pickers far more than is economically feasible for local farm owners. However, Israel has matched their wage of 10 dollars per cuerda (unit of measure to weigh bags of picked coffee) , Regardless, farm labor is very scarce. As I discuss in my thesis, much of the Puerto Rican population and particularly in depressed rural regions such as Adjuntas, people receive very generous government assistance in the form of direct cash transfers, food stamps, and disability compensation. Often, it is clear from a simple cost-benefit analysis on the part of locals, that it simply is not worth it to work--especially when you are not highly educated, skilled and located in a vibrant urban setting. Here, the work certainly is intensive and understandably, the agricultural minimum wage of $4.25 is not sufficient incentive to nudge welfare recipients into the fields to lug cuerdas of cherries around in the sun or wield machetes in the early morning hours. In its current configuration, low income citizens are financially penalized if they obtain a full time job, by immediately having their benefits drastically cut or entirely taken away.
When coffee was done, Israel, Carmelo and I drove down to the fields. Israel continued further down the path by foot to investigate the damage while Carmelo and I cut up trees blocking the trail and moved them out of the way. A few days earlier, Israel had finally gotten positive word that crews would come soon to attempt to restore power to a line which affects Sandra Farms as well as six other farms. Since only a few farms were dependent on the line, the government agencies had placed their power low on the list of priorities, never providing estimate for power restoration. In clearing the path, we hoped to facilitate the crews' access to the power lines that they would be working on as well as to work towards restoring the plantation in order to continue producing high quality crops.
Before wrapping up the morning work, we stopped by Carmelo's former residence. Carmelo, who spent a significant portion of his adult life (24 years) in Germany while serving as an Information Technology Specialist for the U.S. Army, now lives close by in one of the countless homes that was abandoned following the hurricane. The practice of "squatting" is widespread throughout Adjuntas and the island as a whole-- even prior to the hurricane induced mass exodus from the island. to traditionally. In Adjuntas, it is not uncommon to see homes that have been abandoned, remain so for decades. Often unmonitored by government, people often move in to these abandoned homes without official government title ownership. Often engaging in a patronage system as seen elsewhere in Latin America, individuals who eventually desire legitimate ownership pay bribes to government officials in order to obtain official property titles without penalty.
June 6, 2018 // Guyabo Dolce, Puerto Rico
After arriving at Sandra Farms around 6am, Sandra and Israel treated me to a tasting of their naturally processed coffee as well as their proprietary chocolate made from the cocoa that their farm produces and mixed with their coffee. As Israel explained, they dry a portion of their coffee using the "natural process", which is also referred to as "dry process", While more labor-intensive and necessitating greater scrutiny or attention to detail over the drying process, they believe allowing the beans to dry within the original coffee cherry provides a sweet, fruity taste that is well worth the effort.
Prior to Hurricane Maria, Israel employed 5 full-time workers. One longtime friend and worker, Carmelo Rodriguez lived in a small structure on the farm. However, the storm destroyed the building, leaving it entirely uninhabitable. Though things may appear to have gotten better, once you reach Sandra and Israel's home, they--like many other residents of Adjuntas, are still without power. Creative, resourceful, and resilient, they run their home for most of the day entirely on solar energy. To take hot showers and to operate their torrefacción (roastery), they use a gas powered generator.
After settling in, by 7am we hopped in Israel's jeep wrangler and drove down through the trail leading to his coffee plantation. However, we didn't make it far before stopping due to fallen trees (left by Maria) obstructing our path. Israel, his two workers (William Rivera--an older friend who has been with the farm for many years, and the other, his son--a young but experienced helper), I got out and explained to us the work that was needed. As they waged war on the unwieldily overgrowth and obstruction, we headed back up the trail, as Israel planned on attending a meeting scheduled at the Center of Agriculture for Adjuntas.
He was unsure of exactly what would be discussed at the meeting, as he had just heard of it from a friend, the day before. Just this week, farmers in Adjuntas received new from the Secretary of Agriculture would be doing away with much of the incentives and nearly all major subsidies for farmers. In essence, as the Puerto Rican government takes austerity measure to alleviates its fiscal woes, agriculture is near the top of the list for programs to defund. On the car ride over, he became increasingly impassioned and was eager to contribute to the town forum.
However, we discovered that the gathering was one of the many presentations done by academics, scientists and scholars. Every year the Universario De Mayaguez and Colegio De Ciencias Agricolas receive grant funding to carry out research which they are then required to present to the community. While their findings are often interesting and potentially beneficial, little is done by researchers nor the Department of Agriculture to work on implementation methods or quantifiably judge adoption rates.
With the entire community of finca and hacienda owners; scientist, researchers, and academics; government officials, representatives, and agencies, all packed into a rather hot warehouse, presentation after presentation was given. Beginning at 8am and running straight past noon, barely half the audience remained when Israel and I decided to leave. While good intentioned, Israel expressed frustration at the disconnect from the intellectual community and the reality that many farmers faced. At a time where the community was under tremendous strain and particular uncertainty following the government's recent announcement, the University event was understandably met with underwhelming enthusiasm and palpable frustration.
However, its not all doom and gloom for Puerto Rican coffee. People like Israel and few others understand that the only way to free themselves of the limitations and hurdles posed by government bureaucracy is to market honestly and produce the highest quality possible in order to command higher prices in the specialty coffee market. As he and his workers would go on to tell me today, most coffee producers on the island have supplemented their reduced crop yields (due to the storm, and prior to that, due to little government assistance) with coffee imported from Mexico, Costa Rica. However, they often still market it as pure Puerto Rican coffee or "Cafe Puro".
June 5, 2018 // Hector Borrero
Before leaving New York and heading to Sandra Farms, where I'll be staying with my gracious host and friend, Israel I sat down with my grandfather, Hector Borrero. A child of the great depression in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Hector grew up on one of the island's largest farms with his grandparents and cousins. His grandfather, the farm owner, was an immigrant from Spain. Here, Hector walks me through an agricultural history of Puerto Rico in the 20th and 21st century from his perspective.
INTRODUCTION: WHO & WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT?
June 4, 2018 // Domenico Celli: The Collective Perspective Project
I'm currently a Global Studies & Public Administration student at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. My passion is social entrepreneurship and it is what has given me hope that real change can be made within a lifetime. Inspired by my experiences as a child, visiting my family in Puerto Rico, I have spent the past year and a half researching and developing an understanding economic, political, and social issues that have historically plagued the island. This summer I will be traveling to the central mountain region of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico to live on a coffee farm devastated by Hurricane Maria. I believe a transition to the specialty market and away from traditional commodity agriculture is the only way ti make agriculture in Puerto Rico economically sustainable and socially beneficial. Over the next 6-8 weeks, I'll be meeting with the people speaking with people in the industry--farmers, workers, government officials, organizations, consumers and credit loaning institutions. Follow my podcast page to view clips and interviews that I'll be posting in the upcoming weeks.