Organic or not?

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Organic or not?

When people hear I started a farmer-direct coffee brand, they often ask me, “Is Eleva organic?”

It’s not, for the simple reason that going organic is not something I’d recommend for a small coffee farmer.

I’ve seen it time and again in my almost 20 years as a coffee trader: Managing an organic farm is complicated and risky. In 2010, for example, there was a massive roya epidemic, a fungus that decimated small farmers from Columbia to Mexico. Since Mexico is one of the largest organic coffee producers in the world, the farmers there were hit especially hard. Unlike a corporate farm, small farmers are totally dependent on the income from their crops. If a plague destroys the trees, they’re left with nothing.

Unfortunately, it’s only getting harder for small farmers to grow organic. Global warming (yup, it’s real) is changing conditions across coffee regions, and while coffee trees above 3,200 feet used to be safe from many pests and illnesses because the temperatures stayed cool year-round, that’s no longer the case. These areas have gotten warmer and plagues are appearing.

Another issue is ensuring the integrity of organic coffee. The reality is that it’s not uncommon for coffee that is not organic to make it’s way into the “organic” supply chain. . When this happens, no one wins. The consumer doesn’t get their organic coffee, and the truly 100 % organic farms face unfair competition that reduces their profitability, making it even more difficult to secure a reasonable income.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for organic products. No one wants an extra helping of pesticides with their food and drink. But I’m passionate about coffee farmers making a living, and, for now, I’m resigned to the fact that a better solution is training small farmers to use fertilizers and fungicides responsibly—especially since the outer layer of the coffee cherry is stripped, and it’s the bean inside that’s roasted, which means that organic farming has no impact on the taste of the finished cup of coffee.

When I see that a large, successful coffee company touts itself as being 100% organic, I think, that’s too bad, because I know it means that, chances are, they aren’t able to work with the vast majority of coffee producers, the small farmers who grow amazing coffees and could greatly benefit from their support. If I had gone organic, I wouldn’t be able to work with the incredible communities of Kossa Geshe, Ethiopia; Santa Palencia, Guatemala; and Peñas Blancas, Nicaragua. And I can’t imagine my coffee, or my business, without them.

About-Us-1

Emilio Baltodano

Founder & CEO

Coffee Shouldn’t Hurt

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Coffee shouldn’t hurt

Last week, I was talking to my cousin about his morning coffee ritual. We’re Nicaraguan, and our family has been in the coffee business for five generations, so it’s a topic we feel pretty passionate about. My cousin is now an entrepreneur living in Brooklyn and every morning he stops into a coffee shop in his neighborhood for an Americano. It’s a great-looking place, all shiny machinery and industrial tile. But when I heard the name, I told him, I find the coffee really acidic.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s true that if I drink it without eating anything first I get sick to my stomach.”

That’s when I first said it: “Good coffee shouldn’t make you feel bad.”

It sounds so simple, but, hearing the words out loud, I realized that too many of us drink coffee that hurts. Coffee shouldn’t churn you guts or leave a bitter taste in your mouth. But these days we’re so wrapped in a shop’s look (or so in love with their free wifi), and so bombarded with messages about their branding (our coffee is the freshest! Rarest! Most caffeinated!) that it can be easy to feel like it’s our fault if we don’t like a coffee that seems, well, cool.

I realized that my advice to my cousin about coffee sounds a lot like the advice I’ll give my kids one day when they starts dating (years, maybe decades from now!): Don’t settle. Trust your taste. Above all, find the one that makes you feel great. And, if you’re looking, I’m happy to make an introduction to my favorite picks…

About-Us-1

Emilio Baltodano

Founder & CEO

Making Friends & Making An Impact

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Making Friends & Making An Impact

When you read the news as you drink your morning coffee, it can seem like there’s so much wrong with the world that it’s impossible to help or effect positive change.

My way of fighting that powerless feeling is to focus on Eleva’s goal of doing a lot of good in a few specific places—namely, the three small farming communities that grow our coffee in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Ethiopia. Eleva’s mission is to connect the people who grow the coffee with the people who drink it, so we can learn from each other and improve each others’ lives.

I got to see the interaction first hand last month when 12 students from McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin came to Santa Palencia to spend a week refurbishing the schools that the community’s children attend, a trip organized by Eleva, McCombsBuilding Bridges Worldwide, and Mercon Coffee, and funded through the efforts of the students.

The schools are much improved—walls were painted, the roof repaired, and the foundation strengthened. But what impressed me most was seeing the people of Santa Palencia and the McCombs students grow to know each other as they shared meals, worked together, and played soccer at night.  Every day, the volunteers, farmers, and people from the community ate delicious meals prepared by Doña Lucia, who also happens to be the town representative. The students slept in the local coffee mill of Don Gregorio, as did his son, who acted as their guide. Before the students arrived, Don Gregorio insisted on building a wall so that women could sleep on one side, men on the other, in privacy, and installed an outdoor shower where everyone could rinse off before hitting the air mattresses on the floor.

It was the first time the people of Santa Palencia had a group of foreigners living with them and sharing their day-to-day activities. For the coffee farmers, it was also the first time they met someone who had drank their product. This was a major source of pride for them. And for me.

The MBA students loved seeing the results of their work, eating lots of rice and beans, and playing baseball with the kids, but they told me their favorite part of the week was the Q and A session with the coffee farmers, where they were able to learn what it takes to produce coffee, and what it’s like to live in rural Guatemala, where high school isn’t an option for most children, as local public schools end at 8th grade, and the most affordable private schools start at $30 a month—too much to spare for the family of a coffee farmer earning $100 a month. The MBA students learned about the difficulties the farmers face, but also their joy and pride in their work and their community, and their hopes for future generations.

My hope for the future is that Eleva will continue to drive these interactions between coffee farmers and coffee drinkers, whether that’s through social action trips with university students or other volunteers, or just by inspiring coffee lovers to take a trip to visit the people who start their mornings off right, making the wide world feel a little smaller.

I’m confident that neither the children of Santa Palencia nor the students of UT Austin will ever forget this week. And that makes me feel that if anything has the ability to change our world, it’s the power of connecting with each other.

About-Us-1

Emilio Baltodano

Founder & CEO