On a coffee farm high in the Panamanian rainforest, Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell stand out among the local farmers and indigenous workers who have gathered in a circle at a ceremony to bless new housing for the farm’s employees. The two women – blond, Bay Area residents – are owners of Equator Coffees & Teas, which is a coffee roasting company based in Mill Valley, California. They bought this steep piece of jungle, which they call Finca Sofia, to grow what they hope will be the best coffee in the world.
By “best,” they mean much more than taste – though they are planting Geisha coffee trees, a variety whose jasmine-scented beans command nearly $100 per pound on the “ultra boutique” coffee market. Equator aims to make “good” coffee in every sense, by creating a coffee farm that aims to be a model of sustainable practices for everyone and everything involved, from farm to cup. That includes growing pesticide-free plants, protecting virgin tropical hardwoods on part of their land, maintaining a bird habitat, providing health care and housing for the workers who plant and pick the trees along with education for their children, and supporting the local indigenous community.
“People don’t think much about what goes into a cup of coffee, but it requires an incredible amount of human effort,” says McDonnell, who blends Equator’s coffees, which are served at such high-end restaurants as the French Laundry, Bouchon and Jardiniere. It’s rare for a coffee roasting company such as Equator to buy and run its own coffee farm, rather than buying beans from wholesalers. Equator bought its farm because, as co-owner Helen Russell put it, “we want to be a model in the business.”
The coffee business increasingly resembles the wine business, with connoisseurs focusing on single estate, gourmet beans, and exact, almost fetishistic methods of brewing – all of which Equator supports and provides. But very little attention, McDonnell says, has been paid to what goes into the beans before they reach the roaster. Coffee commodity prices recently hit a 34-year high, yet worldwide the people who grow and pick coffee cherries typically live in squalor.
“We want to make the process transparent, and pull back the curtain so the consumer can see that really good coffee involves good practices with the land, the plants, and the people,” McDonnell says.
That explains the worker housing ceremony, in which a priest leads the group in a prayer and sprinkles holy water on the door of the new building. “We hope this farm will be a model for a new generation of coffee farmers,” Russell tells the group gathered at the ceremony. “We want Finca Sofia to maintain the highest standards for the people and the environment.”
Russell and McDonnell, along with Willem Boot, a Mill Valley-based coffee consultant who is their partner in the farm, bought this 40-acre parcel of steep land as an experiment in growing the best beans in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. The top priority when they began the project four years ago was to build humane housing for their workers, most of whom are members of the indigenous Ngöbe Buglé group. In an area where most workers live in shacks, with dirt floors, no light or running water, and smoky stoves inside, the housing at Finca Sofia is clean and modern. Cheerfully painted and filled with natural light, the building has running water, flush toilets, a large community space, smoke-free cooking stoves, solar-powered lights and individual rooms for workers. For the indigenous family that lived on this land before Finca Sofia, the house is a grand step up from the crumbling shack they used to live in down the hill.
“When we bought the land, we basically inherited the people who live here,” says Russell. “This family has always lived on this land, and in some ways we’re responsible for their well-being.” The building will also help create a beneficial long-term relationship with the family and other coffee workers. “If they have a nice place to live, they have incentive to stay, and more at stake in the farm,” Russell says. “That translates into better coffee.”
The mother of the indigenous family stands shyly apart from the group in her bright orange native dress. Her daughter Angela, 9, who carries a bouquet of calla lilies for the occasion, and son Melquiades, chat more easily with strangers. Angela walks with a slight limp; when the Finca Sofia owners discovered that she had a badly deformed leg from an untreated infection, they arranged for her to see a specialist in Miami, who recommended amputation and a prosthesis. Angela smiles broadly when asked about the airplane ride and proudly points out her new leg. Since the steep terrain at the farm makes walking difficult with her prosthesis, the owners bought her a horse – named “Barista” – to take her to school, to insure that unlike most of the indigenous children in the area, she learns to read and write.
“It’s amazing to see how she has been transformed from a glum, shy child into an outgoing little girl,” says Russell.
Kelly Hartmann, the farm’s manager and a third-generation Panamanian, cuts the ribbon to the new housing after the priest has given his blessing. The neighbors and workers clap and head inside for coffee and sweets. “What makes this farm special is the idea of a chain of well-being,” Hartmann says in Spanish. “It extends from the workers to the owners and consumers. If the workers are happy, they take more care with the coffee, and it will be better quality and bring better prices, so ultimately everyone will benefit.” Hartmann’s parents own a large coffee farm nearby, and the Finca Sofia owners have been careful to work with local farmers – buying seedlings from them, soliciting advice, employing relatives. They also are partnering with another local farmer, Maria Ruiz, to support programs that help the workers learn to read and write Spanish. “The people here have been wonderful mentors to us,” says Russell.
After the ceremony, Hartmann leads McDonnell, Russell and others up the steep trails around the farm. The coffee plants, dwarfed by taller trees that provide habitat for birds and shade for the finicky plants, are still small after two years. They also are spaced more widely than on most coffee farms – 1,500 plants per hectare, as opposed to 2,500 – to allow air to circulate, which reduces mold growth and the use of fungicides. Each of the 13,000 coffee trees on the farm has to be meticulously pruned and tended, in order to stay healthy in the absence of the pesticides that most farms apply.
The top of the hill provides a splendid view of a volcano and rolling hills of farms. At 7,000 feet, this is one of the highest coffee plantations in South America – an altitude the Geisha variety likes. Hartmann says that the Finca Sofia experiment offers another benefit to the local community, by providing jobs. Nearby Boquetes, with its splendid weather and a profusion of flowers implied by its name, has become a magnet for North American and European retirees, who buy large tracts of former agricultural land to build vacation homes. “There are very few gringos who come here and keep the land and the people productive,” Hartmann says. “The people here have a tradition of farming, and they want to keep those jobs.”
Back downhill at the worker housing, McDonnell and Russell see the first handful of red coffee cherries to have been picked from their farm. The first real harvest won’t come until next year, and the farm won’t start producing in quantity for perhaps another four. But they’re giddy with excitement at what their farm has already produced. “Before this, neither of us could keep a house plant alive,” says McDonnell.
In Boquetes, they visit Maria Ruiz, whose family has farmed in the region since 1914, to try some of her Geisha coffee, which sells at $40 a pound locally. Ruiz pours it ceremoniously into small cups, like tea. Visitors are warned that adding milk or sugar would be an affront. Swirling the cup, the coffee has an aroma unlike any other: it smells of jasmine and jungle, of a profusion of flowers and clean, dark soil. “Geisha is for people who want to take the time for quality,” says Ruiz. “It is a whole experience.”
“An experience, and an adventure,” adds Russell. She and McDonnell look forward to the day when they taste their own Finca Sofia coffee, but they have much still to do: an irrigation project, more temporary worker housing, a bank loan, funding a fellowship for someone to help with the farm and assess community needs. “It’s a huge challenge to create a farm with the highest standards of quality and responsibility,” she says.
“But,” says McDonnell, inhaling the aroma of the Geisha again, “when you know your coffee has been fairly and sustainably produced, that’s when you can really enjoy a good cup.”
Laura Fraser is the author, most recently, of the travel memoir All Over the Map, which comes out in paperback in June.