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Sweet Honeydew Jasmine Dreams

An interview with Byron Holcolmb

Images: Paul Newbold
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It’s 5:30pm on Tuesday 20 October 2015 and Courtney Snowdon, Head Roaster of Ozone Coffee Roasters UK, is making the three-hour drive from Fazenda Santa Izabel to Fazenda Monte Verde, two farms owned and operated by Nobletree Coffee – a FAL Coffee company. Courtney is on the road with Byron Holcomb, the head of Agribusiness at Nobletree who oversees operations at the two farms.

C: Byron, a couple of days ago we were at the Brazil Pulp Natural Cup of Excellence (COE) Award ceremony and your farm Santa Izabel placed 11th, its first ever Cup of Excellence Award. Congratulations to you and the team, you must be thrilled?

B: Yea, we’re extremely excited. Two years ago, Santa Izabel was a national winner with an organic Yellow Icatú variety, but we never made it through the international jury. Paul and James from Ozone were a part of the jury so I’ve always held them slightly accountable for kicking Santa Izabel out the first time, and now that they’ve sent you, the coffee got through! So I’ve got to give you some credit.

C: You’re welcome. Very cool. We would like to start off by getting a snapshot of how your coffee journey began? Are you ready for us to hit you with some questions?

B: Yes, hit me!

C: So I know you grew up in Northern California – how did you end up running two award winning farms in Brazil?

B: I guess I could start with my degree in college. I studied Biology and I was one of those students who was very passionate about their degree and literally, two to three weeks before I graduated, I was like, I have to get a job?! But school is so much fun and I was really passionate about Biology. I knew right away that I didn’t want to work in peer science, I didn’t want to work in teaching and I didn’t want to go into the medical field. For somebody with a Biology Degree, that pretty much means you have to go into something environmental – environmental science, hydrology, soil science, air science.

"I realised that if you don’t take care of people, there’s no way they can take care of the environment."

In order to delay making that decision, I joined Peace Corp, a program where they send you as a volunteer to a developing country. I spent two years living in an incredibly remote rural community in the Dominican Republic working in the Agroforestry sector. The shortest definition of Agroforestry is: looking for creative ways to plant trees. I lost count of how many avocado, lime and coffee trees I planted in that time. I earned $200 a month and that was the beginning of my coffee career before I was even aware of it.

I came back to the States, worked for 6 months in the non-profit world, got totally burnt out very quickly and I had, what I call, my ‘coffee epiphany’ – I realised that everything I wanted to do was in coffee because as much as I thought I was on a career path to do environmental sciences, I realised that if you don’t take care of people, there’s no way they can take care of the environment. Coffee is a product that’s both good for people and good for the environment (when done right) and I felt like that was something I could really dedicate my life to. I started researching the coffee industry and ended up getting a job with the production team of Batdorf & Bronson.

C: Roasting coffee?

B: No, I literally said to the owners “if you give me a mop I’ll clean the floor”.

C: Starting at the bottom?!

B: That’s what I asked for. I wasn’t even a full-time coffee drinker.

C: That’s cool, a lot of people come at it downstream, working as roasters or baristas first.

B: I made a very conscious decision to move into the industry.

I started asking around, trying to evaluate how the coffee really gets from remote mountain-top farms and communities, all the way to the consumers. I quickly learnt about the different links within the chain. I thought: if someone could understand what each link needed, that person could become a very valuable advocate for all sides. That’s what I set out to be. I told the people at Batdorf & Bronson that I would be happy to sweep the floors and bag the coffee all day for $11 an hour, which is what I did for two years. Part of that time I was able to work as a Barista, which was extremely valuable for me to spend time inside the shop and behind the bar. Half way through that job, I purchased a small coffee farm in the Dominican Republic, where I had been living for those two years. I wanted to understand the process, and take on the risk of coffee production, before asking farms to take on that risk themselves.

I was also a Sales Rep for Counter Culture Coffee for one year. After that I did some consulting for about 6 months and then I started working as a Coffee Buyer for about three years for Dallis Bros Coffee in New York City. Around that time, I was offered my current position. One of my coworkers said he was starting a new project and needed someone on the ground who understood quality. He also wanted to help award-winning farms to move forward, not just maintain what they had.

C: So you’ve literally worked in every link of the chain?

B: At some point, yeah!

C: What was your biggest personal challenge in the first year? I guess there is not much difference between professional and personal life for a young business?

B: Correct. The biggest challenge of the first year was that I felt like I landed on the moon to a certain extent. Being basically a start up, both the farms that we run were already farms before we got here. However, the setting up was difficult. Simply setting up bank accounts doesn’t mean walking into a bank and saying I want to open a bank account.

For me it was just the basics that were the challenge, the basics of understanding how to pay bills, understanding all these different taxes we have to pay every month because it’s not something the government wait to accumulate over the year, it’s every single month, dozens of taxes that need to be paid. Then there are the labour laws which we have to comply with and it’s so complicated you end up spending more much time trying to figure out how to comply than actually getting on with it! It was extremely difficult.

"To produce something, which people drink to wake-up first thing in the morning, is a very special privilege."

C: Do you prefer the term Farmer or Producer?

B: I don’t know, that’s a good question. I think farmer is such a romantic word and romantic notion, ‘We’re farmers’. Producer sounds a little bit more mechanical, like a factory, and you know when you work in production in a roastery you’re roasting and bagging coffee, when you work in production in coffee you’re producing something. You’re starting with the most raw, basic ingredients you could ever imagine. You’re starting with carbon dioxide, water, sunlight and some nutrients in the soil and you’re making coffee beans out of it. I think, that’s probably the most beautiful miracle we get to see everyday on the farms. You start with these basic ingredients for life – to produce something, which people drink to wake-up first thing in the morning, is a very special privilege.

A farmer, in the romantic sense, is someone who wakes up every morning and tends to his crop, works really hard, makes a little bit of money and has a small family and that’s kind of this romantic farmer notion. What happens now is a lot of farmers have had to get incredibly savvy, we use GPS technology, drone mapping, precision agriculture. We use cutting edge technology just to make the whole system work because the old systems aren’t working. The ability to produce just ‘whatever’ and then have it pay the bills is not happening anymore so farmers are really having to become savvy, agribusiness managers.

C: Multi skilled?

B: Very multi skilled. It’s no longer if you just have two strong hands and a strong back, you’ll be OK. Now, if you really understand Excel, have some good weather, have a decent structure on your farm so that you can actually get the coffee off when you need to, manage it well, maybe even produce quality, then there is a good chance you’ll do OK. So, it’s complicated.

C: We could always call you a Profarmer? A Producer and Farmer..

B: A Profarmer, that’s kind of hilarious.

C: Nobletree/FAL Coffee purchased Santa Izabel in 2013 and Monte Verde in 2014. What appealed about these two farms with respect to production of specialty coffee?

B: FAL Coffee actually bought Santa Izabel in 2012 and were looking at basically the pedigree of the farm. The prior owner, Marco Suplicy, had many barista champions that went and competed in nationals. They won several Brazil Barista comps with quite often an Icatú from Santa Izabel. At that pedigree there was a lot of excitement and push for the owners to buy Santa Izabel, and continue that tradition of producing quality and maybe take it to the next level.

With Monte Verde, the pedigree was even more defined, the amount of times that coffee from that farm has placed in COE is pretty staggering. It is one of the most winning farms in COE for Brazil. Many people just after we bought it said “Byron, you guys just bought the best farm for quality in Brazil”.

C: And they are only 3 hours apart?

B: And they are only 3 hours apart, which for me is nice because if they were even further I would spend even more time on the road.

C: Nobletree/FAL Coffee has already made a significant investment into Santa Izabel when you arrived on the farm in 2012. How did you begin to prioritise what investment was required and where?

B: Talking about, what I like to call, a three legged stool of quality, there are three fundamental points that you need in order to produce quality – you need proper genetics, which means genetics that have the potential to produce quality coffee. You need proper terroir and then you also need proper processing.

Getting to Santa Izabel and seeing the history of the farm, two things immediately popped out. Number one, how genetics pair with terroir, is in my opinion, one of the biggest opportunities and is the holy grail for coffee farmers. So if you have the right genetics on the right farm it’s pretty much a home run, but the reality is you don’t know until you’ve tried it.

We immediately installed three variety gardens. The only way to really test genetics and terroir is to test it on your farm. We have one high altitude variety garden that’s almost 1200m, one low altitude variety garden, which is at 1000m and we have one low altitude organic variety garden at 1000m as well. This gives us the opportunity to not only compare genetics within our own farm but also to really test this variety on this section of land – how is it going to do? Then, if you find something really special, we can then start to incorporate it as we renovate the farm, as we move forward in our annual planning and replanting in certain areas.

C: You said these variety gardens were planted a couple of years ago, so would that mean the first harvest should be next year?

B: Yeah, they were planted a couple of years ago and so the first real little tiny picking is going to be next May. We have already seen a decent flowering on a couple of the variety gardens. We’ve seen the little buttons, as we call them, so there’s going to be a little something next May that we are going to be able to pick. That will be really neat, and that will be our first little test. After looking at the genetic element, the other thing we saw that needed to be improved upon was the processing. The farm didn’t have enough patio space to manage the crop. The wet mill really needed to be updated, partly because we didn’t have the capacity but also because there was a lot of new technology available that we didn’t have. So we really prioritized processing and genetics. For the processing, we completely installed a brand new wet mill, we increased the drying capacity through a new patio but also two new dryers.

C: The new patio is awesome – I’ve seen it, it’s massive.

B: I’m really proud of it, in all transparency.

C: What do you call it?

B: In Brazil we call it an ‘estufa’ which translates to Greenhouse. It’s basically just a covered patio but it has some really neat elements in terms of ways to increase airflow without letting rain in. I tell the staff who work in there, use your body as the first indicator whether or not you need to open a flap or close a flap – if you’re not comfortable in there, then we need to make changes to that patio… because you, just like a coffee bean, are uncomfortable when the temperature gets over 40 degrees. Those were our priorities. Right now, our priority on Santa Izabel is to start to focus on the administration of the farm, really dig in and start to look at new models in terms of social projects.

C: Does that coincide with the building of the new office?

B: That’s exactly what the new office is about, we think that being able to centralise things on the farm should increase our ability to be there with the workers and tractor drivers and everybody, but also to increase the security of the whole farm.

C: You carried out extensive soil surveys at both farms, as an agronomist what are you looking for in the subsequent reports?

B: I’m not an agronomist, just so you know..

C: You’re a Profarmer..

B: I’m an over educated farmer I guess, not over educated but “well experienced” farmer.

 

C: You’ve already touched on this, but given the seasonal nature of coffee production, I guess you experience different pressure points throughout the year. Can you talk through the challenges of the last 6 months for you and the farm?

B: I think one of the things that’s both fascinating and wonderful and exciting but also a little frustrating with coffee is you only get one shot a year. A friend of mine from Guatemala likes to say “you have 365 chances to mess up your harvest in a year”. I couldn’t agree more.

The lifecycle of coffee is a challenge. Last year was the worst drought that Brazil has ever experienced, the water shortages were really horrific. In the springtime, there were lots of people telling me that in the last 3 generations water supply had never dried up. A few months later it did. The municipalities were delivering water to houses that had no water left. Later on families had to be escorted with armed guards because of the violence around getting water.

In Brazil you get one harvest a year. The crop year ends when the last harvest finishes, and the new one starts the day after you stop picking coffee. We were coming out of a really rough season, we had counted on a lot more coffee coming in off the farms. The quality was solid but it wasn’t really the level that we wanted.

Following a harvest you immediately look for flowers – no flowers no fruit. In order to have flowering you want some hydraulic stress on the trees – a dry spell – but then you want consistent rain to come, because with that you get flowers to open, which means the flowers will self fertilise.

It’s crazy beautiful and the air smells of sweet honeydew jasmine.

 C: The flowering is a beautiful time.

B: Yea, it’s crazy beautiful and the air smells of sweet honeydew jasmine. But, it only lasts for 2 or 3 days and then the coffee beans start to develop.

The rains were ideal last year – October, November, December was pretty great, but in January it stopped raining. All of a sudden we went from ‘thank goodness things are going to be normal’ to ‘I’m going to put my hand on the panic button again’. January was very scary – it was extremely dry and extremely hot. The bean was being starved of water. Thankfully February, March and April were wetter. At that point we were like OK that’s enough rain, even though we actually needed more rain to hit our annual numbers. We needed this coffee to start to ripen and it wouldn’t, because there wasn’t any sun. It stayed green, but we were close to harvest.

Finally in July, the weather came right, the sun came out, all those trees that had been sitting suddenly started to ripen all at once. We couldn’t get the fruit off fast enough to capture all the cherries.

A lot of the time with coffee farming, you don’t really feel like you’re in charge of anything. You wake up and you look outside, and that tells you what you’re going to do that day.