Coffee is no mere drink. It can be a crutch, sometimes a drug, a social lubricant and a cash cow, the tissue of many a first date and a multitude of jittery sleepless nights. Throughout history, it’s been both banned and consecrated, outlawed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, shunned by many Seventh-Day Adventists, and elevated to a sacrament by 16th century Sufi mystics. It’s one of the most traded commodities in the world, as well as one of the most valuable, second only to petroleum.
Santa Cruz-based Community Agroecology Network (CAN) hopes to expose Santa Cruzans to their beloved coffee’s origins by serving as the link between Santa Cruz and a small coffee-farming community in Costa Rica. In partnership with the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company, they’re announcing a new initiative, the AgroEco Coffee line, which features single-origin coffee from a small cooperative called Coopepueblos in Agua Buena, Costa Rica.
AgroEco coffee beans begin their lives in Agua Buena, where they’re grown and harvested by a small cooperative of about 80 families. They’re then shipped to Santa Cruz, where the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company roasts and packages them before selling them directly to customers. This stands in stark contrast to conventionally grown coffee, which can travel through many hands and many countries before ending up, months later, on grocery store shelves. But AgroEco coffee is also unique because it’s grown according to ecologically sound principles, ones that enrich the soil and enable the farmers to produce coffee for generations to come.
The goal of the partnership is to create a close interaction between the people who grow the coffee and the people who drink it, with as few intermediaries as possible and as little negative impact to the land. This allows the coffee growers to get the most money for their product, and re-acquaints customers with the revolutionary notion that they can know exactly where their beans were born.
“It’s really exciting,” says Sarah Albuquerque, general manager of SCCRC. “It’s going to be a really interesting opportunity for roasters and consumers to learn a lot more about where their coffee comes from, and to be more engaged in direct contact with coffee farmers.
“It’s not just a certification like Fair Trade or organic, where maybe somebody we don’t meet or know goes down and visits the farm and certifies it according to a set of rules,” she continues. “This is a direct relationship with a network of people who are involved in a long-term sense with the community in Costa Rica.” Nick Babin, a graduate student at UCSC and a researcher for CAN, adds that the program is comparable to a “sister-city” relationship.
CAN, without whom AgroEco coffee wouldn’t exist, was founded by UCSC environmental studies professor Stephen Gliessman. Gliessman is a leading expert on agroecology, which uses the study of ecology to build agricultural systems that are productive but also conserve precious natural resources. He founded CAN in 2001 with his wife Robbie Jaffe, an environmental educator. Gliessman worked on a coffee farm in Agua Buena from 1972 to 1974; when Jaffe and Gliessman returned to the region in 2001 on a sabbatical trip, the bottom had dropped out of the coffee market. Overproduction had led to drastically lowered prices, and desperate poverty was affecting the entire area. Many farming families had grown only coffee – when the market failed, they had no other source of income.
In 2004, the last large coffee mill in Agua Buena closed for good, taking with it much of the livelihood of the town. CAN made it their mission to work with small-scale coffee producers in Costa Rica, as well as Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Mexico, to redevelop more sustainable and diversified farming practices. Through the program, researchers and student interns from the U.S. can also visit the farms to learn more about agriculture and conservation. The AgroEco Coffee line is a literal fruit of their labors, one that is purchased by the SCCRC at a premium, bringing farmers about a 35 percent profit above Fair Trade brews.
But one question remains: how does it taste? Gliessman, holding a dark, fragrant cupful, has an answer: “I can taste the sweetness of the soil that the coffee’s grown in. I know that soil’s been cared for, built up, that it’s healthy, that it’s alive. With that foundation, the plants that grow in it are in the same condition. It ends up concentrating in the beans that form the coffee. I can taste the sweetness of it.”