Interview: Mary Halbrooks

This audio was recorded at the Coffee Roasters Guild retreat in Stevenson, Washington in 2018 and was later transcribed from the recording.

Mary Halbrooks
All Beans Considered
Recorded: 25 August, 2018
Transcribed: 4 September, 2018


[Beginning of recorded material]

Michael: You have a very interesting background. You’re like me; you’re an immigrant to coffee and how you got into it, where you came from, and where you are going is all very interesting. So can you tell me a little bit about that?

Mary: Well thank you. I think it’s pretty interesting. I was a horticulturalist. I got my graduate degree in horticulture and kind of went on the university track and climbed the tenure ladder and did all these things. And I enjoyed research, did a lot of field research in vegetable crops, grapes, enology for a lot of years. And then I got more into the teaching side and kind of away from the research, because I wanted some time in the summers. I was raising my children, you know? So I got more broadly, you know, I expanded what I was teaching, beyond horticulture. I started teaching environmental biology, general biology, a number of things. So I’m sort of a science geek and a horticulture geek, but plants are my first love.

So after a number of years, I started giving some thought to just doing something else. Academic life was interesting, but not as interesting as it was, you know, at the beginning. So I thought ‘what could I do?’. It just seemed to me that I had always been a coffee geek and a person with a lot of interest in coffee and the more I learned the more I wanted to know. And because coffee is a horticultural crop, it seemed like a really natural segue for me to start essentially learning everything I could about coffee and decided it was also really natural segue for me to become an educator in coffee. So that’s where I am now.

Michael: Excellent! And we met at the AST course last November.

Mary: More education, right?

Michael: Yep, more education.

Mary: So Authorized Specialty Coffee Association Trainers [AST] we both are.

Michael: Yeah, it’s a mouthful! And then you have something going on in Costa Rica, and you have a new partner there; Hortensia and this is another very interesting story.

Mary: Yeah, well in addition to wanting to teach the sensory module for SCA [Specialty Coffee Association], I knew that to really educate myself I needed to take the next step. So I went on an origin trip with SCA and on that origin trip I met a woman who’s Costa Rican and her name is Hortensia Solis. And I was very interested in her story. She’s educated in agriculture and coffee, did graduate research in coffee—was a project she did in Costa Rica, sponsored by the German government, under the umbrella of NAMA, which is an organization that promotes carbon-neutral farming in Costa Rica. And what she really realized what she wanted to do was to set up her own travel business. So she did, it’s called Viaje con café, which means ‘vacation with coffee.’ And she did a lot of research on the potential for coffee tourism, much like wine tourism, where it started and where it is now, it’s a fairly big business worldwide. And she really wanted to take people back to Costa Rica, her home country. So she started investigating how to set up a travel business. She’s currently based in the Netherlands and is reaching out to people in the UK and Europe and the Middle East.

And so when we were talking, I said ‘well, who’s working with you in the United States and North America?’ and she said ‘nobody,’ and I said ‘well, let’s do this together. Let’s collaborate, ‘cause I really like what you do, and I’m very interested in the fact that you’re focused on education at origin, not sourcing.’ And all the importers, who offer trips to origin, they’re focussed on sourcing, developing relationships between a buyer and a producer. And that’s great, but that’s what they do. And they also, as someone was pointing out here at the conference, have limited resources for budgeting that kind of travel.

So she’s focused on education and culture and building relationships based on understanding better what is the producer trying to achieve, why is Costa Rica a special place, because it is very special, and what can we, as people in the coffee industry gain from that, and bring back to our own coffee businesses.

Michael: Yeah. That sounds great. I’m very jealous.

Mary: Well join us on a trip!

Michael: You have a couple trips coming up…you have one in January and one in February.

Mary: That’s right. We have a January trip and that is for the coffee enthusiast—for the person who, perhaps is just getting their toe into the water of coffee, so-to-speak. They are interested, perhaps they want some more knowledge and they’re excited about travel to origin and they might also be interested, for example, in seeing a cacao farm and a little more time to go to the beach, watch the sunset, eat great food.

Whereas the February trip is really for the coffee professional, so we’re really moving on that trip. We’re seeing three farms a day. We’re going to mills in the afternoon. We’re cupping. And we’re getting into long conversations with producers, for understanding the processing, post-harvest processing, and how it affects flavor in the cup. So we have that whole follow-through from the seed to the cup all in the seven days.

Michael: Wow, that’s great! So that’s seven full days and you’re hitting about three farms a day. You are moving!

Mary: Yeah. Premiere coffee regions of Costa Rica. And because Hortencia grew up there, she has a lot of relationships already established with the people in coffee.

Michael: And she speaks the language, so you have a translator. She knows the culture—and that’s really where it is. Like you were saying; when you have sourcing trips, it’s easier in the sourcing trips to miss some of the really good stuff that you could be getting while you are in origin. And with you guys focusing more on culture and more on learning the process and what it means to the farmers to actually grow that crop and produce it in tandem with the West, or the buying countries, is a little bit more valuable, I think.

Mary: And I think it is really valuable. For me it was just eye-opening. I mean as a horticulturalist I loved getting back onto a farm. I love stomping fields. So that was, for me, really enriching. But also, we saw small farms, where people are managing eight acres, and they’re trying to achieve the best quality they can—and they’re even subdivided those into micro-lots. They go to great lengths in Costa Rica for quality. They are not a quantity country. They produce very little of the total percentage of coffee, world-wide. They decided a long time ago, ‘we can differentiate ourselves by focusing on quality.’ And producers go to great lengths there to do that. So you’ll see a small farm and then we’ll see a larger farm. And we’ll see cooperatives, where they share the mill and we’ll see micro-mills on specialty farms where it all belongs to that estate, and they’re processing their own coffee’s.

One of the things that really was surprising to me, for example, was most of the farms, if not all, unless they’re very, very small, set aside hundreds of acres for conservation. I mean the heart-beat sort of Costa Rica is that the environment, they value it already. They don’t need to be convinced. The know it. So they protect their water, they set aside their land—they’re proud of it. They’re very, very proud. Two hundred acres starts right there [indicating to an imaginary wood-line]. All of that is set aside for the birds and the bees.

Michael: And do they do a lot of forestry farming, where the trees are in with the natural forest or do they, is it more, a lot of rows; you have a coffee tree then you have the shade tree rows, and then you have a row of coffee trees?

Mary: The farms that we saw, that were utilizing shade to get higher quality, were interspersing a native trees, so when they planted or re-planted, they tended to conserve the native trees. And if they did plant trees, they were trees that they knew were either native and being reintroduced—in other words they weren’t growing there at the time, you know, that the coffee, was…they may have planted it but it was still a native tree. And trees that also they knew were compatible with coffee, in some way. We saw some intercropping as well but there isn’t, there are rows, the coffee does grow in rows because they have to be able to move up and down the rows efficiently for picking, or fertilizing, or whatever management practices but it’s not large scale at all, like for example Brazil. And a lot of it is terraced on the mountain-side.

Michael: I bet that’s beautiful.

Mary: Yeah, it is beautiful. It’s absolutely beautiful.

Michael: In my experience in Indonesia, has been kind of a mixed-bag as well. So you’ll find, like in Bali for example, you’ll find one farmer who’s just planted his trees out underneath the natural forest; they aren’t organized, they aren’t in rows. They’re all in one area, but they’re out with the trees that were there. And then you’ll see another guy who has, he’s cleared a whole area and they usually start by planting, in this one region, oranges—they’re the intercropping crop. And they’ll let the oranges grow for two years and then they’ll plant the coffee in behind that. So the oranges will grow for two years and they’ll start producing and the oranges are actually a better money-crop than the coffee.

Mary: Yeah, and I think there are some farms in Costa Rica where avocados are more profitable than the coffee. I mean it’s not a luxurious situation and there are some beautiful farms, family estates that have been handed down, where there is more affluence behind the coffee but there are also many small farms where the farmers are barely making a profit and they’re willing to work very hard for the potential of making more. But very often it’s because they have a diversity of other crops that they are actually having to grow. They don’t have the luxury of growing only coffee.

Michael: Yeah, and you and I talked a little bit earlier about, it would be nice, this was something that you had mentioned that I thought was a great idea; it would be nice if we had kind of a floor price for specialty. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Mary: It’s actually something I learned from the woman named Marianella Jost, and she has bought a farm after many years of living in the States, [she’s] Costa Rican, moved back to Costa Rica and decided that she would pursue coffee farming. And she bought a farm called Café Con Amor and realized quickly that the struggles that most of the farmers in her area faced. So we had a discussion at the Buckman Coffee Factory of Portland after the SCA Expo, she was presenting there with some of her other farmer-colleagues and the group they have formed is called Farmer’s Project. So if you’re ever interested in reading more about it you can go to Cafe Con Amor and look for her page [swatting at insects] (sorry we have some insects) her page on Farmers Project.

So, they’re actually importing their own, and the reason they are is because—her argument is, and it’s a very solid one, and I keep reading more about it, so I known she knows what she’s talking about, is that the floor price in what they call the C-price or the commodity exchange price for coffee, does not reflect the amount of effort and work and and investment that goes into specialty coffee. Because we define specialty coffee as anything that scores on an SCA cupping or evaluation of eighty and above, why are we talking about a C-price of a dollar, which has just dropped to a dollar, for producers who are distinguishing themselves as always scoring eighty and above and the C-market was designed for coffee seen as a commodity, which is like talking about a grain, or corn, or other agronomic crops. Clearly this is a specialty, horticultural crop. You offer much more per-pound for lettuce or grapes than you do for grain. And yet in coffee, here we are in this antiquated system, in my opinion, and I think a lot of other people who are already saying this, not just me; here we have a C-price for generic, agronomic, bulk commodity crops, and we’re applying it to the price we’re paying growers, and at the same time we want them to produce specialty coffee that scores eighty and above.

Michael: And we can’t tell them what that’s, what the value of that is for us.

Mary: No! Unless they are lucky enough to win a Cup of Excellence auction, or if they are able to establish, for example, a relationship with some buyers that have made a commitment to not go under, there are a few buyers who are signing-on to a commitment ‘we will pay no less than 2.35 an hour, I mean a pound, green. Things like that, like Kickapoo coffee in Wisconsin has made a commitment; they never offer less than a certain price. So that’s the kind of change that is incremental and I think its going have to happen because they also tell me that in Costa Rica the young folks don’t want to take on the coffee farming. They’ve seen their parents struggle, so they’re leaving the farm.

Michael: Yeah, that’s one of the things we talked about in Colombia at the World Coffee Producer’s Forum, was generational take-over and how do you make it more appealing for the the next generation when they have so much available to them now, especially in the cities.

Mary: And the money’s just not there and the only thing that would really turn it around is if they started seeing that they can earn good, a good wage, you know and have a good living, a good standard of living.

Michael: And I think Costa Rica going down a good track for them in that regard, where they’re pulling in eco-tourism or coffee-tourism into it so that you can bolt things on to the farming aspect. And I personally think modernizing farming more would help bring in the next generation. So, you know we in the specialty coffee industry, we like to see things metered. We like to see things measured and accurate and precise and to achieve that you need to bring in technology. And you need to bring in some knowledge. And the tricky part is supplanting some of the tradition with modern techniques and not erasing what their generations before them did, but improving it. And it’s difficult.

Mary: I think some of that is happening. There were a couple of places that we visited that are…there is a place called Gaia, and they are essentially, kind of doing what you are talking about. They are establishing what’s called a demonstration farm and we were able to visit them. Now they haven’t…it’s not very far along, we have, I have some pictures on my…from my journey and I can post them on my page, on my website. But at the Gaia demonstration farm, they’re trying to not only put in cultivars that, they’re trying to look at cultivars that are actually adapted to different regions of Costa Rica and now they’re also trying to look at best farming practices. And they’re also looking at putting investment into propagation of hybrids so that tissue culture and and other micro-propagation techniques that will allow farmers to bring in hybrids. Because we know that a lot of the currently popular cultivars are rust, are not rust-resistant.

Michael: Yeah, rust-susceptible.

Mary: Yeah, and so this disease, of course as you know, has wiped out a lot of the crop. So there is some of that going on in Costa Rica and there are some very modern agronomists who are doing really good work there. And they’re trying to bring up, you know the level of technology on the farm. For example; one of the farms we visited, that is Hacienda Tabosi, they have thermocouples throughout their farm. They are constantly managing the farm and seeing where they’re having problems with heat and that’s why they’re doing a lot of work with shade. They want to see how much quality improvement in the fruit they can get from shade. And one way to measure shade is temperature. And so they’re looking all throughout their farm and seeing where they have shade and where they don’t and what the temperature differences are and then they follow that all the way to the cup.

Michael: Wow! That’s great.

Mary: Yeah. So there is some of that going on.

Michael: We need to spread that around.

Mary: Yeah.

Michael: Well listen; I appreciate it. You have, there’s another class that’s getting ready to start and it’s the women in roasting so I wanna…

Mary: Yeah, I want to go to that.

Michael: I want to get you free so that you can go to that.

Mary: Okay.

Michael: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Mary: Thanks Mike, I like it. It’s fun. I had a good time.

Michael: I did too.

[End of recorded material]