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A History of Harvests

Ozone Coffee Roasters has purchased coffee from the 2015, 2016, and 2017 harvests of Munyinya Hill, a Long Miles farm.

Words & Photography: Kristy Carlson
Diary Entries : Ben Carlson

Long Miles Coffee Project was born out of a dream to facilitate direct and meaningful relationships between roasters and growers by producing great coffee and telling the story of the farmers who grow it. In the pursuit of this dream Kristy and Ben Carlson relocated their famiy from the US to Burundi and today live and work alongside the farming communities they support. Each year, the harvest season brings new challenges that the Long Miles team must overcome in order to keep their dream alive and realise the potential of people and coffee in Burundi. The piece that follows, is Kristy’s captivating account of the 2013-2017 harvests, interspersed with actual diary entries from Ben.

Every harvest is difficult. I think that’s what farmers the world over would say if you asked them, “What do you wish people knew about farming?” Every time you hold a cup of coffee in your hands, you hold someone’s sweat and tears… maybe blood too.

The same goes for everything we consume. Sure, there are the corner cutters out there who use pesticides and growth hormones to make production easier, but true farming and producing takes more grit than I ever thought it did.

I have a reverent fear of harvest. At the beginning of each one I wonder just how broken we will be by the end. Who will collapse first and what will be the thing that brings us to our knees?

2013

Our first ever harvest was in 2013. In January of that year we had a crazy idea to build a washing station. We wrote a blog post and 48 hours later we had several donors who were willing to help us start. We couldn’t believe it. Harvest was just eight weeks away and we were walking the bare land of what would be the washing station. We were in a race against time. Building began in a fury and even now, traces of that fury remain. Stairs of every width and depth grace the station as if someone was being chased by a tiger while attempting to lay cement.

The community didn’t know us and we wondered if they would trust us with their coffee. As it turned out, most decided not to. Our shiny new McKinnon depulper, the one machine needed to produce washed coffee, got stuck in customs. We bought two old hand crank depulpers and processed everything through them in our first season. Wet cement dried right alongside the coffee that year as the Bukeye station was still under construction as the coffee trickled in.

As harvest came to an end, The McKinnon finally cleared customs.We produced just 80 bags of coffee that year, just a quarter of one container. We didn’t export our measly harvest until seven months after it was produced because we had to figure out how to get the twenty seven stamps and signatures needed to export coffee out of Burundi. Needless to say, our coffee that year didn’t taste very good. We begged roasters to stick with us, but in the end many of the lots were rejected by roasters upon their arrival in the States.

18th January.

Our vision to start Long Miles Coffee is about to be birthed. I’ve never started, let alone run a business anywhere in the world, we have only our meager life savings, and seems that no bank is ready to finance us. All these challenges can’t stop me from feeling that we have a chance to change Burundi, to impact a community and to create the best coffee in all of Africa right here. So I guess we leap and find out if I’m right.

2nd May.

Last night we were attacked by bandits. They stole some coffee before we chased them off. Now our guards are making spears to protect themselves.

12th December.

Our cupping scores are 84-85 points on our best lots. I know we can do better. I can taste in the cup that the river water we’re using is an issue.

28th December.

I’ve hired a drill and we’ll have well water for next season to wash the coffee. I know this will increase our quality by huge strides. I had police and local officials stop me twice. They thought I was mining for gold.

3rd April.

We don’t have our license to produce at the new washing station at Heza. The Technical Director of the Burundi coffee board pretty much has shut the door on any hope that we will get a license. Did we just sink our whole investment into a site that we can never use?

22nd May.

I expected so much out of this year. I’m pretty sure I set myself up for disappointment. I can’t say this year, this station, LMC is a failure because I have too much hope in the potential but I don’t see the light yet. We were attacked again last night by bandits. Luckily our guards made bows and arrows this year and repelled the bandits.

7th June.

A neighbor washing station has bribed local leaders and youth. They set a burning blockade to stop farmers from delivering cherries to us. A tense standoff ended when the local hill chief supported us and the farmers were allowed to continue to Long Miles.

11th August.

We’ve “survived” the harvest. The last cherries came in as we literally ran out of money. We’ve emptied our savings, there is nothing left. It’s now time to dry mill and I don’t have anything to pay salaries, for the third month, let alone the dry mill or even pay for a truck to take our coffee to the mill.

2014

We thought we finally had it all together. We would be prepared for this harvest. We took on an investor and broke ground on another washing station. This one would be bigger and better.

We found a piece of land in one of the most remote regions of Burundi that took our breathe away. We called it Heza, which means ‘beautiful place’ in Kirundi. The mountains surrounding Heza were covered in coffee trees up to 2250 meters above sea level. We hustled to get everything in place for harvest, but again we fell short. This time, we were overwhelmed by problems we had not foreseen. Heza did not have enough water. Without water, there would be no coffee production.

With harvest looming just days away, we drove up to Heza. We saw the half built Heza in the distance and suddenly our car came to a thumping stop, broken in the middle of the road. That was the day it all closed in. Our investor said Heza was, “A great Taj-Mahal white elephant.” The words stung because they were coated in truth. We were out of money and out of time. As harvest came our station sat silent. There was no whir of a generator accompanied by the clacking of a McKinnon. There was no water. No matter how well built the new rinse tanks and tables were, we could not produce coffee.

We decided that we would collect a harvest anyway. We had told the community we would begin and so we began. We trucked coffee cherries every night from Heza over switchback mountain roads to our Bukeye station forty-five minutes away. We produced nothing from unique hills on Heza that season. All the trucked lots were combined into one hill that we simply called “Heza.” It was all we could muster and to our surprise, those who drank it appreciated it.

2nd October 2014.

I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but we made it. Our coffee is being milled and exported. I had no idea when we started Long Miles what to expect, but the intensity of running a business in East Africa, harvest, cash flow, government restrictions and regulations, along with working with over 1,000 families nearly broke me. I hope, pray and believe the worst is over and the best is yet to come. Because I don’t think we can take a year like that again.

25th March.

One of our best days ever. We finally got our license to produce coffee at Heza! The US ambassador came to officially open the station. We tapped a spring and have enough water for some fully washed now too. Lots of wins.

7th April.

Someone threw a grenade into our storage shed and blew it up. Everyone is scared but it’s amazing to see the whole team lean in and support each other. Rumors of protests, blockades and rebels popping up daily.

14th August.

Maybe the best day ever. We just won 3rd place and 8th place at the Cup of Excellence! I didn’t know if I should cry, cheer, or just hug the amazing team of LMC who helped realize our vision for quality. I don’t have much time for any of those…. racing home straight after the ceremony to be with Kristy as we’re about to have baby #3!

22nd August.

We’re on track to have our best year yet. Quality is finally consistent across all our lots and we’ve got over 4,000 farmers delivering cherry hitting all our quality control targets. Despite that, my big fear is that no one will want Burundi coffee with all the security threats. Also, we still do not have enough water at Heza.

7th May.

I’m overwhelmed with frustration and awe all at once. Not sure those can co-exist but seems to be where I’m at. New regulations took away permission for farmers to carry their cherries to our washing stations. Police are stopping farmers on the roads. Despite these challenges we have nearly 5,000 farmers now pouring into the stations. More attempts to drill a water source for Heza failed.

16th May.

More regulations are crippling our ability to operate. It’s been outlawed to receive outside funding to operate and then regulations changed last night force us to pay tens of thousands of dollars in two weeks. I’m not sleeping.

3rd September.

We finally nailed our natural protocol. Results are amazing. We ended the season with better quality all around and a team that has been galvanized by pressures beyond anything I imagined we would face.

2015

It began with protests and tear gas and escalated until bullets and grenades rang through the air every day and night. There was no school for the kids. I baked cookies in the kitchen with them most mornings, the radio blaring to drown out the sound of gunfire. We kept a “go bag” near the door with our passports and money inside. We stood ready to flee but our feet felt like led.

As harvest reached it’s fullest a coup d’etat graced the capitol city where we live. Overnight, our world changed. Most Burundians and ex-pats with the means to do so began to leave the country. Over 250,000 refugees were reported. We retreated upcountry to the safety of the farmland and coffee harvest but even there, cracks in Burundi’s thin shell of peace were appearing.

Our boys had been out of school for nearly a month and in that month we trespassed upon the hospitality of nearly everyone we knew who lived in a more remote region. When we were in the city, we trolled daily social media reports to assess the security situation before we went out the door. I was pregnant with our third baby at the time and every time I left the house I questioned it… Can we make it to school today? Can I get to the market without getting caught in crossfire? It became evident that life in Burundi was no loner sustainable for our family. With harvest still ongoing, we made the decision to leave. We didn’t know how long our exit would be for and we were leaving a team of people behind us to carry on in the chaos. It felt wrong, but we’ve always said that the safety and health of our family has to be a priority and so, during mid harvest, we made it one.

Ben continued to fly in and out of Burundi while the boys and I, and a growing baby girl, stayed firmly in South Africa. in the end, our 2015 harvest was better than any before it and the growing demand for Burundi coffee left us feeling hopeful about the future, if only peace would return.

2016

The dust had barely settled from a large scale military base attack in the city of Bujumbura when we touched back down in Burundi. It looked like the same old Burundi, but nearly everything and everyone had changed. People were being taken and there was no finding them. Police were searching the homes of whomever they wished and they did not come in peace. There were whispers of mass graves. Everywhere there was fear. Was this the start of war?

The first time I went upcountry and left our five month old in the city I panicked all day. What if I couldn’t get back to my kids? What if they closed the roads? What if they decided to search our home while I was gone? I dropped the boys off at school with trepidation. Was it a good idea for them to be a fifteen minute drive away? I asked the school what they would do in case of an attack. I began to feel lost in the sea of sad stories that surrounded me. Stories of torture, disappearances and injustice.

Harvest began. All went well until we had more coffee than those in power thought was necessary. Our oldest son was with us one evening when we were surrounded by a dozen armed men and told that we had to stop the farmers from delivering their coffee to us. “This coffee,” the leader told us while waving his gun in the the direction of the coffee trees, “no longer belongs to you. Tell your farmers to take their coffee elsewhere.” Our hearts raced at the thought of the damage these men could do to our team or our family. Harvest carried on and we decided to pray and keep our doors open to any farmer willing to deliver their coffee to us.

2017

Ben calls our current harvest the hardest one yet. I’m not sure what to call it, but the image of my husband in tears at our kitchen table will be with me forever. This was the harvest that frayed us to our very last emotional thread.

Our biggest challenge was navigating a country-wide fuel shortage. Power and water are the most basic needs of coffee production. In order to produce coffee in remote regions, fuel is necessary to power the generator that in turn powers the coffee depulper that is the key to washed coffee. We also needed fuel to get people and other resources up and down the mountain.

Our Operations Manager was glued to her phone, hoping that one of her contacts would tell her where there might be fuel. If a text came, she would race with fuel canisters in tow, to the fuel station. Often, she would wait for hours in a line only to get to the front and be turned away because there was none left. Our lives became all about fuel until the fumes of it stuck to our hair and drenched the interior of our cars.

When our attention wasn’t on the fuel crisis, it was on our water crisis. Heza, after three years and many attempts, still did not have a working well. Our water supply was critically low. We have tried to solve the water issue at Heza in so many ways that I have lost track of how many attempts we’ve made. On several occasions we declared that, “The well is finally working!” only to discover hours later that the pipes had given way.

This season we faced a new set of ever changing seasonal rules. Right before harvest commenced, collection points were outlawed. We could no longer go to farmers to collect coffee, they had to bring it to us. It became commonplace to meet farmers on the road who were carrying their coffee to us from their homes which were often ten to fifteen kilometers away. Ben asked a farmer named Jean why he had brought us his coffee from fifteen kilometers away. Ben was especially curious because Jean had passed two other washing stations on his way to us. Jean said that for twenty years the others stations had been taking a portion of his harvest for themselves. Ben and Jean calculated together that unjust scales and the people behind them had taken six point six pounds of every twenty pounds of his coffee cherries, and they had been doing it for twenty years. Jean pointed to our coffee farms which cover the mountain above our washing station and said, “Your scales are fair and I see that you are also farmers. We are in this together. Twese hamwe.”

"Your scales are fair and I see that you are also farmers. We are in this together. Twese hamwe.”