Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Art of Cultivation

Those who know me well know that I'm always thinking about the farmers. Over the past week, I have been doing even more thinking about farmers than usual. It began last Friday, when I had a group of students with me for an EarthView program, and decided to stop by our local CSA farm with them. At first they just politely got out of the van and followed me, but once we were on the farm itself, we were transformed as our connection to the earth -- which up until a few moments prior had been mediated through tires and roads and buildings -- became palpable. We enjoyed a brief chat with Connie, one of the farmers and a long-time friend. Of course, the connection was made even more enjoyable by the ornery goats and wicked cute new lambs at the farm!

I have also been thinking about Alfredo, one of my very favorite coffee farmers, whom I had invited to our campus this semester. Had it not been for bureaucratic hurdles, he would be arriving next week. I am starting to work on next year, when I will visit his farm in Nicaragua in January, and will prepare the visa materials even before that!

What really got me thinking, though, was an article in Costco Connections magazine about Howard Schultz, who is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Starbucks and its recent financial recovery. I combed the article for any reference to farms or farmers. Images of coffee beans are spread over all four stylish pages of the spread, but coffee farmers are not mentioned. And just as a picture framer might try to take credit for an attractive painting, Schultz congratulates himself repeatedly for improving the business by several changes that are very late in the chain of events: changes in roasting, in brewing, in decor, in barista training. As with a good picture frame, all of these matter, certainly. But none of these matters as much as the bean itself, and good beans do not appear by magic. They come from farmers.

We watched a film about farmers this week in which Freddy Rodriguez delivers a beautiful paean to farmers. The film is Bottle Shock, in which Rodriguez plays Gustavo Brambila, one of several California grape growers who helped to put Napa on the proverbial map with respect to wine. In Brambila's character, he complains to his boss, a farmer he views as a latecomer who he believes does not take the work seriously enough:
You have to have it in your blood. You have to grow up with the soil underneath your nails and the smell of the grape in the air you breathe. The cultivation of the vine is an art form. The refinement of its juice is a religion that requires pain, and desire, and sacrifice.
All of these thoughts were brewing while I attended an event known as Arts for Advocacy on our campus last night. Nikki, a student who has worked in a coffee shop and taken both of my coffee classes, is a leader in the fair-trade movement on our campus. She had told me that she would be reading a poem called "Campesino." I knew it would be good, but I was not prepared for how perfectly she echoed my own feelings about the people who make coffee -- and everything else we eat and drink -- possible.

Afterwards, when I congratulated her on the poem, she simply said, "Thank the farmers!"

The most important coffee cup at
Casa Hayes-Boh, a planter
created by a local ceramic artist.

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