Coffee and the Secret Laws of Nature
The mission at Fika Coffee for the year 2021, “To cultivate beauty through our work”, is a daunting task. To begin with, it demands that we avoid the assumption which lives so commonly in our approach to beauty. The assumption which states most principally that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. After all, a synthesis of this expression would leave us with nothing to do. The statement is testimony to the aspect of beauty which is subjective and personally perceived. An aspect of beauty nonetheless which we are all individually compelled to defend.
More to Beauty
Obviously though, there is more to beauty than my mere sentimental subjectivity. How else could something like the Sistine Chapel, or the Grand Canyon, consistently impart the experience of awe to every onlooking individual? With great works of art and wild expressions of natural grandeur we are reminded how beauty quickly extends beyond subjectivity into an objective realm. It is more along this line, on the objectivity of beauty rather than the subjectivity, that our mission is inspired towards.
Secret Laws of Nature
Along this same line, these words from the great German literary figure Johann Wolfgang von Goethe seem highly relevant, "The beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of nature - laws which, but for its appearance, would have remained eternally hidden from us." These words imply that although beauty may be sensibly perceived in its manifestation, the more fundamental understanding of beauty comes from the hidden forces which guide it into manifest form. The question is how did such beauty arrive here on earth to begin with? Or, in Goethe's own words, what are its “secret laws”?
Coffee is Nature
Excuse me for the pomp and a choppy transition, but I actually believe coffee may be an apt enough guide towards the secret laws of nature which govern the manifestation of beauty. Coffee, a fruit, is most essentially nature after all. So let us get down to the ground, where its journey begins, in order to understand it as nature.
A Trip to an Organic Coffee Farm
Throughout a coffee origin trip to Guatemala in 2019, amidst the plentiful pleasant experiences, there was one experience of unease that I persistently noticed. It was an experience of my personally held ideals being in conflict with an aspect of the coffee industry. The experience culminated after a trip to an organic coffee farm with a group of coffee professionals.
On the Farm
The farm we went to was a very small farm located on a gentle hillside overlooking a wide valley. In surface appearance, the farm was unimpressive to the eye. Especially when compared to many of the well-known coffee farms around the world. Still, the organic farm was wholesome. It was quiet. There was no machinery in operation and not many people to be found. Children passed by on the dirt road. Eventually the farmer found our group and began to explain a little bit about the farm.
Battling Coffee Rust
What most captured my attention was when she explained their farm’s process for battling against roya. Roya, also called coffee rust, is a fungus capable of wiping out an entire farm's crop very quickly. It is currently the most persistent and serious threat to coffee producers. One report estimates a combined loss from 2012 to 2014 of 80,000,000 pounds of peeled coffee beans and 100,000 jobs in Guatemala alone.
What the organic farmer explained is that the way they manage the roya is quite different than the conventional methods. The organic technique for roya management involves the application of a solution made from the fermentation of a specific plant root. The plant whose root they harvest grows at the farm. Similarly, they ferment the roots in a pit which is dug next to where the roots are harvested.
A Heartening Revelation
Learning of this process was a heartening revelation. Previously, the farms we had visited had all spoken to roya prevention the same modern, technological way. That is, the use of heavy chemicals purchased from a national bio-chemical corporation, and sprayed upon all the coffee crops at various times throughout the year. Chemicals which are so potent and dangerous that the person applying them is required to wear a hazmat suit.
The Differences in Method
The organic method described by the farmer seemed so much more practical economically. Additionally, it was obviously more environmentally conscientious, humane, gentle, and even aesthetically beautiful. The organic method demonstrated the necessity of biodiversity. It also required that the knowledge of that biodiversity is upheld by the farmer and its community. The necessity for the coffee industry to transition to more widespread use of organic practices seemed obvious to me.
(Side note: According to 2012 numbers, organic coffee which is coffee grown with no synthetic fertilizers or chemicals, accounts for only 6.6% of world coffee. FiBL Report)
Conversing on Agriculture
After leaving the farm and sitting down to lunch with the other coffee professionals, the discussion inevitably turned to the differences between organic and non-organic coffee. I kept mostly silent, lacking confidence as a neophyte in the coffee world. But when I witnessed the group quickly conclude that there is no definitive benefit with organic practices I had to enter the conversation.
What I heard as a conclusion seemed to me a blatant admission of preference and an acknowledgement of power. Put simply, many coffee professionals prioritize flavor, and subject agricultural integrity to that end. After all, most of the highest graded (i.e. best tasting) coffee in the specialty coffee world is not certified organic, and very likely not grown organically.
Coffee Business Values
Therefor, if a coffee business values most highly the flavor of the coffee, the business leaders are caught in a predicament when they visit an organic farm and learn even the most basic methods of organic farming. For the coffee which is grown from the organic methods so often scores lower in the cup than a neighboring farm relying on chemical treatments. Yet the organic farm works to sustain, regenerate, and ideally harmonize, the environment in a way that conventional agriculture just can’t.
Organic vs. Conventional
An individual learning about the various coffee farming methods would therefore have to acknowledge the stark differences in the integrity of the organic vs. the conventional agricultural processes. And they would have to acknowledge that most of the specialty coffee world looks principally to quality, relegating environmental integrity to a distant place in their purchase decisions.
A Foundational Inversion
You can see what this equates to: the consumptive culture of coffee is being thought of as more foundational to the production of coffee than the agricultural and economic reality. The fundamentals have been replaced by eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. There is a foundational inversion taking place.
Foundational Inversion and Agricultural Obsolescence
A recent blogpost from Long Miles Coffee, one of the coffee importers we partner with, exposes this same predicament. If you take the time to read this post something should become obvious - coffee farmers around the world are bound to positions which make obsolete the agricultural practices necessary for sustaining a vital earth. As Antoine, a farmer from Burundi's Gaharo Hill explained, "Thirty years ago, the soil was good. Even without fertilizer and mulch our production was enough. Now the soil is not good."
Valuing the consumer over the producer
The blog post goes on to demonstrate how the models which facilitate global economics have sequestered true agricultural understanding. Something not unique to coffee either. One inherent quality of these models is that they all tend to favor and empower the consumer over the producer. Coffee farmers around the world are being leveraged (to put it kindly) to relegate their own understanding of the production process to the desires of distant consumers. New technologies, often presented as harsh chemical additives, are often the mechanism of leverage. For the artificial additives allow sustained production for a time. But as Antoine points out, the real cost catches up eventually. When it does it is the soil, the earth, and the local people, which carry the burden.
Ultimately, the economic system we have developed and now employ is one which allows an unconsciousness to exist (and grow) between consumer realities and producer realities. Because of this unconsciousness, the principles necessary to facilitate regenerative and sustainable agriculture are being transgressed for the sake of the consumers sustained pleasure.
Destruction Through Agricultural Obsolescence
Even more saddening though than the destruction which has already occurred from our agricultural obsolescence, is the increasing inability for current and future coffee farmers to move towards non-polluting agricultural methods. Even those farmers who truly long to move towards organic methods of growing, are finding the path there to be with insurmountable challenges.
Finding Harmonized Relations
So how does an organization such as Fika begin to address this dilemma? The systems of global economics are deeply entrenched and will not be overturned at this point. Still, we believe there is an opportunity to find ways around the global economic machine, and back to the ground. Education, and an education which expands one's awareness through a greater attention to harmony, may be a starting point.
In this regard, a concept presented by the work of Rudolf Steiner called associative economics has recently captured my attention. Associative economics works to consciously coordinate the needs of both producer and consumer. In this system of economics it would not be the invisible hand of the blind market, nor would it be the government, responsible for management or manipulation of the economy. It would be the responsibility of the individuals on the productive and consumptive side and the associations they build with each other. But what could coordinate this tenuous responsibility for harmonized relations between people so distant, in many regards? Could beauty be our guide? Could the secret laws of nature be our common wonder?
The Weight of Beauty
In a recent Fika blog post, Ruth Ann Pszwaro thoughtfully presented our mission. She did so in part by conversing with a quote from Elaine Scarry. I too find this quote quite meaningful, and relevant. Scarry says, “How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.”
The importance of developing new perceptions
The “shifting weights of beautiful things”, I believe though, is an act of new perceptions, not new beauty. It is an act of shifting our perception to where weight already truly resides - that is the enduring processes of nature. It is an act depending on an invitation to wonder about the simplest, yet most secret laws of nature.
Acknowledging the Limitations of Nature
Eventually, if this wonder finds earnestness, the objectivity of beauty will become the leading force of earthly processes. Our subjectivity, however perfectly suited to our own goals it may be, will have to take a back seat to the magnificent and mysterious interplay of Earth, Sun and elemental forces. This is perhaps our starting point, that more of us begin to internally acknowledge the limitations so beautifully imposed by the secret laws of nature.
Our goal at Fika Coffee
Throughout 2021, Fika Coffee will continue to explore how we can best work within the coffee industry to support the transition efforts of small farms towards sustainable and regenerative methods of agriculture. It is the work of facilitating this transition, rather than the ease of merely adopting a new organic purchasing plan, which we strive for. And it has to be, for we strive to cultivate beauty, not simply claim it.
I hope to write more about this topic in future blog posts, so please stay tuned, and share your thoughts below. This predicament is all of ours!