Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In Venezuela, Plantations of Cacao Stir Bitterness

Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Chocolate and coffee taste great together -- I like a roasted coffee bean covered in dark chocolate, or an extra-dark bar with the coffee chopped up in it. And of course there is mocha!

The two share more than caffeine and rich flavor, however. Coffee and cacao can grow in similar climates and can have regionally distinctive flavor like wine. Most of all, they share a similar political economy. This New York Times article focuses on Venezuela, but it is true everywhere that cacao, like coffee, is rarely as lucrative for the grower as it is for those process it for gourmet markets.

On my next coffee tour, in fact, we will include a day or two in the nascent cacao cooperatives of northern Nicaragua. There, independent farmers are just beginning to get organized and to take control of the production chain, so that they can share in the profits. Otherwise, post-colonial trading patterns persist, ensuring a wide gulf between producers and consumers.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Almost Utopia

Yesterday we were enjoying a visit to the small Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, Vermont. I was pleasantly surprised to see that in addition to the expected "folklife" items of quilts, duck decoys, and the like, the center celebrates the contemporary cultural diversity of Vermont. Working with refugee communities, the Center has brought, for example, Congolese drummers to the State House in Montpelier.

We were admiring the diversity of offerings in the gift shop when the attendant there invited us to the "Almost Utopia" exhibit upstairs. It is an excellent example of mid-twentieth century efforts around what is now called sustainability. Through old photographs and recent interviews, the exhibit describes the 1950s intentional community of Pikes Falls.

Middlebury itself is a delightful place to visit, full of shops that support local artisans and farmers. A visit any time would be worthwhile and should include a stop at the Folklife Center. Get there before September 5 to see the Pikes Falls exhibit.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Cardinals go Amtrak!

The Cardinals baseball team found an economical, convenient, and environmentally-friendly way to get from Washington to Philadelphia: Amtrak. For short and middle-distance trips, this makes much better sense that air for several reasons:
1) Security screening is faster.
2) Train stations are often easier to reach than airports.
3) Trains use a lot less fuel per passenger-mile than planes or cars.
4) Trains contribute a lot less to climate change per passenger-mile.
5) The view is more interesting.

Ticket prices are often not as competitive as they should be. The Cardinals organization is doing its part by stimulating demand; Congress and the President should step up as well and invest more in trains, relative to air and highways.

Coffee Planting Month -- Philippines

Thanks to my colleague Henry Lucas for finding this article about efforts to make the Philippines self-sufficient in coffee. The Philippine Coffee Board is promoting a return to coffee production throughout the country -- not for export, but just to reduce dependence on imports from Indonesia and Vietnam.

Depending on the practices adopted, this could be very good not only for the economic condition of Philippine farmers, but also for wildlife, water quality, and the carbon cycle. The program encompasses many parts of the country and includes both high-quality and lower-quality varieties.

Throughout the world, small farmers and their communities have been displaced by low-cost competition from abroad (as described in the film Food, Inc. I must admit that everything I know about the Philippine coffee business I learned from this article, but I do know that the competition in Vietnam is pernicious.

The Philippine model would serve farmers in other coffee-growing regions well. I have been pleased to see that the coffee served in cafes and hotels in Guatemala is often (though not always) local, but the coffee served in most places in Nicaragua is imported -- low quality junk that has been processed by multinationals. One important barrier is that processing requires capital and specialized knowledge that have traditionally been lacking within producer countries.

Congratulations to the PCB for its coffee-planting campaign!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Food, Inc. the Movie Site - Hungry For Change?

Official Food, Inc. Movie Site - Hungry For Change?

We saw this film Saturday at Coolidge Corner in Brookline. It is a great piece of environmental geography -- explaining many of the connections between humans and the land. I have seen a lot of films about food, and I think this is among the best for making the case for local farming in a clear way.

Shared via AddThis

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mas sobre nopales

Looking for an image of nopales for yesterday's post, I was fortunate to find this amazing sculpture by Susan Shelton. Explore the rest of her site for more amazing works and insights.
Her discussion of the piece iluminates one of my favorite songs, ¿Donde Esta Mi Raza? by Bobby Pulido and Frijoles Romanticos (from our previous hometown of McAllen, Texas).

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Food is an important way that people identify with place. This is why it is best to avoid chain restaurants when traveling!

This story about nopalitos took me right back to Tucson, where I lived from 1990 to 1994. Nopal is the prickly-pear cactus, and as with several other food items, it is common to use the diminuitive suffix in the name. The prickly-pear is, I have been told, the only cactus that grows in all U.S. states. I have not confirmed this, but I learned this when looking at them in Kentucky, which is not known for its cacti.

Despite its broad geographic range, prickly-pear is certainly more abundant in the Sonoran Desert than anywhere else I've been.

This story is about the green part of the plant, but the fruit is also quite interesting. During our 1989 summer in central Mexico, we came upon an ice cream stand whose flavors included "tuna" ice cream. What? What? This could not be, and indeed it was not. "Tuna" is the Spanish name for the fruit of the nopal. The Spanish word for tuna, by the way, is "atun," which I have not seen in ice cream so far!

The tuna fruit is a delicacy. We once sent a jar of tuna preserves to friends who were hiking the Appalachian Trail. They picked it up at a trail-side post office, and ate it directly from the jar -- no spoons, even!

Wherever they go, geographers try to learn about local food (and drink). This NPR segment is a terrific example of geography on the radio!

See my mas sobre nopales post for information about the significance sometimes attached to the nopal.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What Exit?

This is a great example of "sense of place" -- ways that people create or express identity with a place. Playing off a stale joke about New Jersey identity, brewer Gene Muller is developing distinct beers for many -- perhaps all -- of the exits on the New Jersey Turnpike (aka, my home away from home).

As mentioned in this Boston Globe article, some people see this as a way to promote drunk driving -- neither Muller nor I see it that way. Rather, it is a way to express pride of place. Next time I have a chance to have a meal near the turnpike, I'll be looking for a "perfect pairing" -- a beer that captures the essence of the location, to go perfectly with a meal there. The idea of choosing a local beverage to go with a local meal is something I first understood from the book What to Drink with What You Eat.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Disappearing Mississippi Delta

This is a great example of environmental geography -- understanding the connections between natural systems and the activities of humans. I first started learning about the problems of the delta in the book The Control of Nature by John McPhee. It is one of the first environmental books I read, more than two decades ago. Now the topic is covered on one of my favorite NPR programs, Science Friday. Learn why this is happening and why it matters.

Fair Trade in Media, Pennsylvania -- just outside Philadelphia. This is a perfect example of thinking globally and acting locally.