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John Wittig

Responsibility through Intimacy: An Experiment in Participation

My earliest recollection of community was experienced from my father’s shoulders on Avenida del Libertador, Buenos Aires. I was six years old when the Argentine national soccer team defeated our German rivals in the World Cup Finals: Champions!

 

Pot and pan in hand, I clanged them feverishly in unison with a euphoric mass that stretched in either direction as far as I could see. Over thirteen million people lived in Buenos Aires at the time, and it seemed that every one of us had hurled ourselves onto the streets to celebrate with reckless abandon. It was bliss. If it’s true that we all arrive somewhere together after this life is over, I believe it will be just like this, heaven.

When I was eleven, we moved to Costa Rica, a paradise on earth. Naturally, coffee would grow in such a place, and so started my lifelong love affair with this beautiful fruit. Coffee plantations surrounded my house, my school, the park; it was everywhere. Life was simple there, PVC pipes and stolen coffee cherries made excellent blow dart guns and I’m not sure what else you could ask for as a kid. As I grew older, my heart grew larger and I no longer saw fruit as ammunition, but the means for humble people to scratch a living from the land. I was undone by realities of poverty and the human struggle. Even writing these words my heart drops and my chest feels tight as countless dear ones flash through my mind, beautiful souls who only knew a difficult life, hard work, and an unfair draw at the birth lottery.

 

I wrestled with these realities and found myself drawn to the humble human spirit in people wherever I went. By twenty-one I’d lived in five countries on three continents, a motorcycle diary experience of sorts, always attuned to Che’s proclamation, “When the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I will be with the common people.” It took me a long time to recognize the grace, communion, joy, and beauty that often flourishes in these difficult life circumstances. But the wrestling helped me recognize my second great love affair: people.

While in Costa Rica, my dad told me about a group that traveled to Latin America every year to do mission work at a local church. Although the church and its members had obvious and tangible needs, this group had made it their mission activity to paint the church, each year. After several annual coats of paint, the dissonance between the real needs and the perceived need became untenable, and the group was asked not to return. Our inability to take cues from those in need disqualifies us from partnership with them. I determined never to be blind to the real needs or perpetuate this self-referential savior mentality.

Today, I am the COO of an incredible coffee company, Coffeebar. Here I’ve found a place to integrate these two lifelong loves, bringing coffee and people together in a way that makes life better for hardworking people in coffee-producing countries. I’m privileged to have a vantage point from which the connection between coffee farmer and coffee drinker is intuitive and clear. Similar to the farmer in Guatemala who grows for others to drink, my role is to grow opportunities for you to participate in this precious connection. This is what makes the work sacred, to transform the simple need for coffee into a conscious interchange of monetary and qualitative wealth. Generosity produces abundance. In giving we receive.

So, here’s the thing. There’s a concrete opportunity we’d like to make available to you: to participate with us— hand in hand— with our Guatemalan importer De La Gente (From the People) and the community at La Suiza. If you’ve followed our blog series, you’ve heard about La Suiza, our best example of what Vertical Sourcing is designed to achieve: to help young producers develop higher quality coffee and move toward a self-sustaining future. Being with these farmers, we’ve heard from them about a need we’d love to resource, not as saviors but as partners. We’d like to buy them two coffee de-pulpers, the basic machine that removes the coffee seed from the red cherry prior to drying. Why these machines are needed is a story in itself…

As David described in his blog La Suiza: Measuring True Impact, the post-civil war Guatemalan government, hoping to restore the agricultural sector and spur economic growth, sold off reclaimed lands, offering long-term, low-interest loans. In the late 90s, a group of 112 families from all over Guatemala, many of them from displaced indigenous communities, pooled their resources and bought La Suiza. These families then drew straws for their land allotments, and each was responsible for growing and processing their own beans. Some received level lots in the valley, some were assigned more distant, hard to reach high-elevation plots. Both with advantages and disadvantages.

The upside of the high-elevation lots is that they have the potential to generate superior quality beans. This advantage is offset by the fact that some farmers and their entire families must hike for more than an hour up the steep hillsides to reach their land. After harvest they must transport 100 lb.+ bags of ripe cherries in white sacks strapped to their backs and foreheads back down the slopes. This situation creates several coffee quality challenges. For one, harvesting for each plot generally happens in 2-3 day spurts, several weeks apart. Farmers want to pick as much ripe coffee as possible on the same day to produce a similarly ripe and consistent fruit. Hillside farmers are limited in how much they can harvest in a pass by how many family members they have, their age, and their ability to carry downhill. Secondly, the hillside farmers can’t take advantage of the one fertilizer (an organic one, at that) available to them. The practice at La Suiza, due to the prohibitive cost of commercial fertilizer and the inaccessibility of this region, is to use vegetative leftovers of the pulping process as fertilizer, returning valuable nutrients to the ground. While this works for the level lots in the valley, the hillside farmers must de-pulp the cherries after bringing them down the hill. And it’s simply not feasible to return this wet, fermenting gold back up the winding cliffs and hard-to-maneuver terrain to fertilize their plots.

We asked the co-op leaders if there was any way to counter this dynamic. Leonardo, the co-op’s president, took a risk and proposed the preposterous (in his mind) – could we provide two de-pulpers, one for each side of the valley, so they could be placed at the top of each range where the higher lots are located? De-pulping closer to the fields would allow these farming families to (1) pick more coffee per harvesting pass, (2) transport much more coffee for processing as they would no longer need to carry the cherries downhill, and (3) the ability to use the byproduct as organic fertilizer. (Do you think I should have just stopped at families not needing to carry 100-200 lb. sacks strapped to their foreheads miles down a steep mountain?) We’ve seen some of the highest cupping scores come from these higher-elevation lots, which means it’s very desirable coffee and we want to buy as much of it as can be brought down the mountain. This is a great example of the mutual interest we have in each other’s work and lives, potentially a massive mutual benefit— if we could find a solution.

I’ve described Vertical Sourcing as “responsibility through intimacy.” These two words are chunky in our lightning-fast, rapid-fire, click-and-buy culture. Intimacy takes time. It’s the fruit of healthy relationships and is preceded by lengthy co-op meeting, dozens of dinners in homes, respectful formality, politeness, and tiptoeing toward an unfiltered conversation about real needs. Responsibility requires sustained action in the same direction, a steady posture toward the other; it’s a proving ground where commitment is lived out more than spoken. It’s taken years to earn their trust, to demonstrate our faithfulness, to feel like family, to be bonded. But now the bond is strong, one of our hands clutches theirs, and the other is outstretched toward you.

At the end of the day, Coffeebar can ensure La Suiza will get these two de-pulpers. Another Guatemalan Farmer we work closely with in Antigua, Wilker, can build them and coordinate the transport to La Suiza for a total of $1200. This is an astronomical sum for the community, but very doable for us as a company. Yet we believe that by opening this opportunity for you to add your tile to the mosaic, to stand with and be of the people, we are building community and connection. We want to support their dream, lighten their load, smooth their path, and open doors with them, and we invite you to join us in that pursuit.

So Coffeebar will match dollar for dollar every contribution you make until we hit our target. And if we raise more than the cost of the de-pulpers, we will use that to seed our next dream: to start a micro-loan program to help with future needs and champion growth among our coffee producers. If you’d like to participate now, head over to our online store and select “La Suiza De-pulper Fundraiser”  and the amount you’d like invest in the community. It’ll be exciting to follow this story at each step toward a self-sufficient and promising future for our friends at La Suiza. We’ll share pictures, personal accounts and community updates along the way.

Contribute here: La Suiza De-pulper Fundraiser

Looking back now, having spent the majority of my life in the pursuit of coffee and community, the 1986 World Cup win feels a lifetime ago. I’m grateful for the indelible impression it made in my mind, like a coffee bean planted in fertile ground. To experience that level of unity, of shared elation and of true togetherness, with those who were once strangers, has taught me two very important lessons:

Anything is possible.

We belong together.

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