In Seattle, at The Event 2015 held by Specialty Coffee Association of America, it was hard to gauge the level of seriousness attendees paid to impending coffee supply issues facing the industry. While many roasters and baristas defined trends, most producers discussed the problems impacting their side of the chain. Stories about quality coffee plants crippled by pathogen, bean prices falling short of the cost of production, and the rising average age of the coffee farmer all met faces of momentary concern.
This article was originally published on Eater.com.
Marcos Croce is a passionate businessman-turned-farmer eager to talk about the projects on his family’s farm, Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza (FAF), located in the São Paulo state of Brazil. He, too, had dire stories to tell, but much of his talk was tempered by a positive attitude. His friendly demeanor rides along a throaty Brazilian accent, which takes on a certain gravitas when herding a point across.
"Agriculture of the world is fucking up our water," Marcos stated plainly. "Especially the way they do coffee in Brazil. It’s the same way they do corn and soybean in Illinois, Ohio, etc."
The rise of factory farms, to which Marcos alluded, is widely believed to have spurred the decline of numerous insects and animal species by reducing their potential habitats. The Bobolink, for instance, is a migratory bird species which makes an annual six thousand mile journey from North America to South America and back. Its breeding population has suffered substantial decline in the last fifty years for lack of habitat, which is essentially little more than tall grass.
To a conventional farm this might not be of immediate concern, but as the Croce family hopes to elucidate to the coffee world, a farm is a microcosm for the entire planet and therefore must reflect a more diverse ecosystem. "If you go into nature and cut everything to one crop, you create a lot of imbalance," Marcos explained, elaborating with a few of the following facts.
The Mata Atlântica, the rainforest spanning much of Brazil’s coastline, has diminished by 85 percent in five hundred years of human settlement. Deforestation that occurs in mono-culture has caused the decreased rainfall of the recent years to leave São Paulo’s water reservoirs dangerously low. In February they were at just 5 percent.
These are just a few of the reasons Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza decided to address the sustainability problems facing not just Brazil, but the specialty coffee industry as a whole. Even though Brazil produces a third of the world’s coffee, a figure that amounts to over six billion pounds of green coffee every year requiring large scale production.
Through the practices of their farming collective, FAF is looking at environmental, social and financial incongruities facing the industry and they're hoping to cultivate solutions through their Bob-O-Link project. A partnership between FAF and other farms who together work to cultivate coffee though sustainable and organic practices.
In 2001, Marcos and his wife Silvia acquired a two hundred acre farm which they promptly renamed from "Fazenda Fortaleza" to "Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza"—roughly translated, from Fortress Farm to Environmental Fortress Farm. Previously, the land had been owned by Silvia’s father who had produced ten thousand exportable bags of green coffee to Illy Espresso every year.
Upon taking over the farm, the Croces immediately discontinued the use of agricultural chemicals. Instead they switched to organic growing standards. But the abrupt change to fully organic practices proved drastic. Before Fazenda Fortaleza had made the environment a priority, it had relied on external fertilizers and pesticides to make large-scale production possible on an expansive swath of farmland covering nearly three square miles. As a point of reference, the farm often produced more than a million pounds of coffee annually—a figure roughly equivalent to the amount of coffee Blue Bottle sourced from across the world in 2014.
When the Croces began to embrace organic farming methods, they experienced a severe drop in production, which nearly put the farm out of business. Even hired consultants and organic certifiers at the time failed to consider the shock of quitting conventional production cold turkey.
"They switched from conventional to organic in one day," says Marcos and Silvia's son Felipe, now in charge of the FAF’s coffee production. "You can’t do that. You can’t just take drugs out of a drug addict like that …"
FAF simply didn’t have the amount of naturally-occurring nutrition needed to feed a farm of that size.
"How will you do your compost—all the things that you mix to give the food to your plant?" Marcos asks rhetorically. "In conventional farms everything is brought from outside. At FAF, we really have to have permaculture to create those things on the farm."