What’s the secret to the perfect cup of coffee? For the past two years I have tried to formulate quality, specifically trying to draw linkages between high quality coffee production and quality of life of coffee farmers in Veracruz, Mexico. It was a seemingly perfect study design: In 2010 the Agroecological Center for Coffee (CAFECOL) introduced a new certification to assess the quality of coffee on a 100-point Q-score. Any coffee that scored at least 84 points could be sold through an online auction directly to specialty coffee roasters. CAFECOL wanted to evaluate their program by comparing three broad groups of farmers: those who produced high quality coffee and successfully sold through the online auction, those who produced high quality coffee but were not successful in selling through the auction, and those who were unable to reach the 84 minimum point score. They posed the following question: What make the ‘successful’ coffee farmers different than the rest?
The hypothesis: Farmers who make high quality coffee have a high(er) quality of life.
For the first three months I developed an interview protocol with the partnering organizations CAFECOL and the Institute of Ecology (INECOL). For the next nine months I interviewed 40 coffee farmers and their families (including 20 living stays) in the high altitude micro-regions of Coatepec, Huatuasco, and Zongolica. Then I spent the next 12 months cleaning up the data, revisiting the literature, and writing up the methodology as part of my MPhil degree at Cambridge.
Now, degree in hand, I have a sinking feeling that I have failed miserably to address the initial question. The thing is, there is no one typology for a ‘successful’ coffee farmer, and no simple measure for quality of life.
I tried everything. I ran statistical tests, controlling for regions, gender, age, income, and education level. To deal with the issue of too many possible explanatory factors (>300), I ran a statistical analysis called Principal Components Analysis (PCA) to compress these into new variables and search for patterns in the data. From the qualitative side, I coded and re-coded pages of interview transcripts and ran text queries in search of salient themes. While these revealed some important insights (and importantly, methodological limitations), questions remain of how to combine multiple analytical methods.
We had assumed that quality for coffee could be simply measured through the Q-Score. The initial sampling design controlled for farmers with different Q-scores to understand differences between groups. However, we had not accounted for the possibility of variation within the Q-scores themselves. It is hard enough to achieve high quality in one instance, harder still to achieve consistently high quality. Nor was this outcome always an active decision. A farmer may have done exactly the same from one year to the next--harvested from the same plants, using the same inputs, and with the same processing techniques, yet due to uncontrollable factors like climate and disease, not achieved the same level of quality. Just as persistent happiness is not a realistic goal, quality coffee seemed to come in cycles. Thus scoring high on quality one year did not guarantee success the following.
Importantly, how do you relate quality of coffee back to quality of life? That relationship is far more complex than any statistical analysis, for embedded within the notion of ‘quality living’ are the intangible aspects that make life worth living but really cannot be measured: e.g., love, compassion, spirituality, place attachment, and health. Proxies such as income and weekly expenditures can be helpful approximations, but should not be used to assess the holistic notion of human wellbeing.
What is my final assessment? I have no concrete findings, only intuitive “hunches.” Indeed, there was something different about the farmers scored higher on the quality coffee assessment, such as an entrepreneurial spirit, a spiritual connection to their land, and a deep concern for the future generations. On a personal note, living with those farmers taught me to live differently. I learned to relish the simple gifts of life like running water, toilet paper, and a pillow for one’s head. I saw through their eyes the joys of waking up to breathtaking landscapes and feeling the soul-warming comfort of corn tortillas. I listened, feeling helpless, to their hardships, yet inspired by their tenacity to live. Those farmers taught me something very important: quality of living is about being present.
So what is the formula for quality? There is no recipe of success. I may have failed at the initial task, but succeed at a different goal: learning to live and to experience wellbeing. It has not been an easy journey, but that’s what makes it worthwhile. As Confucius once said, “by three methods we may learn wisdom:
First, by reflection, which is noblest;
Second, by imitation, which is easiest;
And third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
Coffee is a bitter story. The journey has been rocky. In the end, I have learned to savor life sweetness and see through different eyes. Perhaps, that was the goal of this degree—and why it’s called a Masters of Philosophy.
 The Q-score is an internationally recognized quantitative assessment of 100 points derived from a composite of factors like the cup profile, body, and aroma
 Coffee plants tend to have three-year cycles of good and bad years. Plants may be working day and night, but that’s not to mean that they are always productive (like us humans).
This article was inspired by the NY Times Article How to Live Wisely and gives special thanks to Corri Taylor, my first Economics professor and ongoing mentor on the philosophy of life.
I have no idea what hobbits eat for breakfast. All I know is that they eat four breakfasts, and they relish each one of them.
Four meals don’t sound so bad when you’re out on the field. It’s all about context. At a discussion with the Gates Cambridge Trust we learned that each person has a “rhythm of life.” Whether that applies to years spent in a job, time it takes to finish school, or even the number of meals you eat in a day, we each have our own rhythm of life.
Over the past year I have been writing the academic work of my fieldwork and am just starting to reflect on the personal lessons learned. There are some similarities, strangely, between that year of fieldwork and the past year at Cambridge. One is the open-ended schedule and limitless activities. How we decide to divide and use our time is about preferences. This brought me to a recent article in the NY Times on living wisely.
Sometimes it can be more productive to be less productive.
The philosophy of economics may strangely explain the secret to success, and shine light on this burning question: Why do some coffee farmers produce higher quality coffee than do others? Perhaps because they’ve figured out how to allocate their time and limited resources doing the most productive activities, not only in terms of the coffee itself but also in terms of their own wellbeing. Though I cannot test it by any statistical means, and it would be unethical for me to judge whether one farmer is “happier” than the next, it seems that there is something about balance. No doubt, farmers who make great coffee work really hard. But they also play, love, and laugh really hard.
Take, for example, the concept nonseperability of labor: time spent at work is not all “work” or conversely we work when we should actually be relaxing at home. We are all guilty of mixing the two. For farmers, this is especially true, though it is not necessarily a bad thing. They might stop halfway through pruning coffee bushes to pick a fruit, nourishing the body and taking a pause to enjoy the sounds of the birds. They might wake up early in the morning to put coffee out on the patio to dry before joining the family for breakfast. For this reason it’s really hard to estimate how much time they actually spend “working,” and how productive they are relative to those hours. But perhaps that’s not the important question.
It seems to me that high quality coffee farmers have figured out their own rhythm of life, how to ride the waves of ups and downs, of seasonal changes and market fluctuations, as is the nature of the business. Just as persistent happiness is not a realistic goal, quality coffee seemed to come in cycles. Coffee plants tend to have three-year cycles of good and bad years. Plants may be working day and night, but that’s not to mean that they are always productive (like us humans).
How we choose to allocate our scarcest resource of all—time—could be one of the most important facets in determining our wellbeing.
Bananas: the perfect complement to coffee
I love bananas, don’t get me wrong. But I hardly eat them in the UK. Bananas represent, to me, both the perils of globalization and the opportunities of local production. Let me start with the former before moving into the dark side of bananas.
Much of worldwide banana production goes to local consumption. Especially for smallholder farmers, bananas can be a staple food and important source of income to local markets. While living in Mexico, I learned about all about banana diversity: the diverse banana species, the diverse uses of bananas, and how bananas even promote biodiversity on the farm. Bananas are one of the more common shade-trees on coffee farms in Veracruz. Unlike the more seasonal fruits like oranges and guavas, it seemed like bananas were available year-round. That’s because banana is not one fruit; eight species of banana are commercially grown in Mexico and during my fieldwork I encountered 15 banana species on the coffee farms.
I grew to love each for different occasions: the small, firm plátano roatan to quench the sweet tooth after a meal; the creamy plátano morado early in the morning to satisfy the morning fast; and the plátano tabasqueño when I wanted a hearty afternoon snack. Also true for many farming households, bananas were a staple part of my diet: I consumed one, two or sometimes three each day. Bananas are also a cheap form of food security. When money runs out to buy fruit from the market, there are usually bananas on the farm.
This is the variety plátano cuadrado (also known as 'bolsa').
Bananas have an incredible diversity of uses apart from food: the leaves can be commercially sold for uses in cuisine (such as the steamed Mexican tamales or Puerto Rican arepas) or as a vehicle for offerings on festivals like Día de los Muertos. Different bananas have different nutritional value, and even cultural significance. The plátano morado, for example, is claimed to alleviate gastritis, but some believe that it should only be eaten in the morning because it could harm the body eaten later in the day. Nutritionally packed with Vitamin C, high in potassium, and excellent source of carbohydrates there are many reasons why these locally grown bananas are so good for farming households in Veracruz, Mexico.
The story is different in Costa Rica where large banana companies convert vast areas of land to banana monocultures. Costa Rica has a history of logging and deforestation associated with bananas since the early 20th century. After a spell of devastating fungal disease, the Standard Fruit Company (more commonly known by its banana brand, Dole) began to increase plantations in the 1950s. Soon other large companies began to join in, and Costa Rica experienced a massive banana expansion in the 1990s. This was in part aided by trade agreements with the US, which supported infrastructure like roads and bridges to ultimately favor expansion of the banana companies.
Today, these large companies are criticized for interrelated social and environmental damages like deforestation and pesticide abuse that have consequences to human health. A case in the 1970s showed that thousands of banana workers were rendered sterile due to negligence of the fungicide DBCP (dipromochloropropane). Increasingly workers are also coming from other countries like Nicaragua and are drawn into rural wage labor.
What’s the solution? Shall we smash our demand for bananas? But then, would we grow hungry for some other exotic fruit? Bananas are not unique—for countless tropical fruits are becoming mainstreamed into global diets. But perhaps there is a way to find a happy balance with this diet: bananas and coffee. Bananas and coffee, when grown together on small-scale agroforestry systems, could help feed the people without costing the planet.
 “Eight types of bananas are grown commercially in Mexico.” Geo-Mexico, the geography and dynamics of Modern Mexico. http://geo-mexico.com/?p=10972. 20 March 2014.
Vandermeer JH and Perfecto I. (2005) Breakfast of Biodiversity: The Political Ecology of Rain Forest Destruction: Food First Books.
An itsy bitsy banana (unknown variety).
A short poem about the bitter life of coffee.
Why coffee tastes so bitter
Because it is good for you
Some like it sweet
Some like it neat
Some leave it on the pot to overheat
But those who know coffee at its best,
Drink it black, fresh, and undressed
Because good coffee is purity
Pristine like clean water and rejuvenating like fresh air,
Rich like the colors of an artist’s palate,
Complex like emotions, from rage to compassion, from sorrow to love
Coffee is dark.
It sometimes makes me want to cry
Because, for many, del café vivimos
Coffee is life.
Why coffee tastes so good
Because it is bitter
© Madeline R. Weeks