They call this place Terramater – “Earth Mother” – and the coffee bushes on Adeodato Menezes’s small farm seem imbued with that spirit. “It’s like a woman breastfeeding,” the 63-year-old says, bending down to caress the ripe Catuai cherries low down on the bush. “These are her new babies,” he adds, straightening up to touch the tightly furled leaves, green and tender, that will fruit the following year.
It’s not the kind of language I am used to on coffee farms – but Terramater, in the Chapada Diamantina region of Bahia state, in north-east Brazil, is far more than that. Set up as a Findhorn-style alternative community in the 1980s, it partly serves as a residential centre for disadvantaged teenagers from the favelas (slums) who are students of sistema agroflorestal – a farming system that combines the cultivation of commercial crops with the planting of native trees. It’s a way of preserving the forest environment and rekindling skills used by indigenous people. On this subject Menezes is a world expert.
He is also an ardent follower of Rudolf Steiner and his biodynamic methods, which, like organic farming, eschew the use of agrochemicals. These methods involve not just planting at night, and at times being governed by the phases of the moon, but the application of preparados – solutions made from plants, minerals and other natural materials (such as cow manure) which “inoculate” the soil, passing on “information” about how it can maintain a healthy balance.
The big surprise is that Menezes is a scientist with a degree in agricultural engineering. Educated in the era of “the generals”, the military elite that ruled Brazil from 1964-85 and banned all political parties, he at first accepted the prevailing orthodoxy about agriculture – that land should be concentrated in the hands of a few, its productivity maximised by the use of pesticides and fertilisers. “I followed the rules, I played the system,” he says, “but I didn’t believe in it. I knew I couldn’t work that way any more.”
In 1978 he began to experience “other influences” and decided to set up an alternative community near Brasilia, the country’s administrative capital. One of those influences was The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, published in 1973. At its core was the idea that plants are sentient, despite having no brain or nervous system. A few years later he moved to Terramater and realised his dream.
Though partly a lifestyle decision, the main thrust was political. Resistance to intensive, large-scale agriculture was effectively subversion against the fascist regime, and Menezes knew where his allegiances lay. A member of the Communist party, he named his last dog Che Guevara – and the black labrador scampering into the kitchen at Terramater now is Hugo Chávez, after the Marxist president of Venezuela. Framed in the kitchen window, I notice, is a poster supporting “Lula” – the nickname fondly used for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s ever-popular socialist president.
Menezes shows me the preparados he is using – small plastic sachets marked urtiga (nettle), dente de leão (dandelion), camomila (camomile) and casca de carvalho (oak bark), added to compost to give the soil a boost. It’s obvious that these are European plants, the ones used by Steiner in the 1920s.
“What we need is a biodynamic system tailored to the tropics,” Menezes reckons – and the same lateral thinking is evident in his plantation. Strolling around it, it feels like a mad, random experiment in sistema agroflorestal rather than a systematic approach to producing the world’s finest biodynamic coffee.
At Fazenda Floresta, a 20-minute drive away, that is what they are hell-bent on doing. Under a vivid blue sky, workers rake the pale golden coffee beans spread out on the terreiros (concrete patios) to dry against a backdrop of the striated bluff that marks the beginning of the Chapada Diamantina National Park.
Chapada Diamantina means “Diamond Plateau” in Portuguese – and for 100 years this area was plundered for the gemstones embedded in its cliffs. Now it is gourmet coffee that is tempting prospectors of a different kind. Among them are Nelson Ribeiro, the farmer here at Fazenda Floresta; Luca Allegro, a Brazilian of Italian descent who owns Fazenda Aranquan, the biodynamic coffee farm next door; and Menezes, who is regarded as their moral and political compass.
Together they and six other farmers make up the Asociación Biodinámica d’Ibicoara (ABI), which produces a new single-origin coffee called Floresta, grown according to the principles of Rudolf Steiner. This year the association produced its first containerload of coffee for the UK. Instead of the usual “rich dark roast” popular in Britain, the beans are a paler matt brown.
At Fazenda Floresta, I am shown a size grader that separates out the larger beans for export, the smaller ones for the less lucrative Brazilian market; a hi-tech roaster, and a colour grader that uses an optical eye to spot colour differences in beans that have passed the quality test so far.
“Those that don’t match the colour profile are blown away by an air jet and rejected,” says Allegro. “By doing all this and trading the way we do, we are taking three or four middlemen out of the chain – and for speciality coffee, the supply chain is shorter anyway. Compared to conventional production, we are taking six links out of the chain.” In 2001, when he and Nelson Ribeiro bought the wet-processing plant that grades and sorts the coffee cherries and removes their skin and pulp, the savings made by cutting out the middleman enabled them to pay back the money they owed within a year.
Crucially, the farmers also own the distribution of their coffee, loading it into shipping containers at Fazenda Floresta and sending it to the UK. By the time it has been roasted, packaged and sold as a finished product, moving it higher up the value chain, it realises 43% more income and three times the profit that the farmers would make if they sold their “green” (unroasted) coffee on the open market. This model – which they are calling Direct Trade – also generates twice as much income for the finished product as they would get under the organic Fairtrade label.
It’s a bonanza for the Ibicoara farmers but a sad indictment of the way in which speciality coffee is traded. In this rarefied world, the margins are among the highest of any industry. An importer might typically pay the farmer £2.25 per kg for an entry-level speciality coffee. It is then sold on to a roaster, such as the Monmouth Coffee Company or Union Hand-Roasted, for £3 per kg – a 33% increase. The roaster then sells it to a coffee shop for £10 per kg, or it goes on sale at a retailers for £14-£16 per kg – nearly seven times what the farmer was paid for it. By the time you drink it, you will be paying the equivalent of £200-£250 per kg – a 10,000% mark-up and, in Allegro’s words, “a very nice business”.
Normally, that vast profit would be creamed off by the participants at every stage. Under Direct Trade, a significant amount still goes to the speciality roaster – a company called Has Bean Coffee, based in Seighford, Staffordshire – and to Armando Canales, the man who is singlehandedly promoting Floresta in Britain because he believes passionately in the Direct Trade model. However, the rewards are significant. If these farmers merely sell their green coffee on the open market (at a price that is already 40% higher than the organic Fairtrade price), they struggle to make a 20% profit on their activities. Under the organic Fairtrade model, they make no profit at all – and go bust. In either case, that is the end of the story as far as added value is concerned.
If they have part ownership of distribution, the farmers continue to make money. By Canales’s calculation, the profit on every tonne of roasted coffee is £2,800, of which 40% (£1,120) goes to them. Add this to the £2,612 per tonne they receive for their quality crop, and they earn £3,732 per tonne – £1,856 more than under Fairtrade, or a 101% increase.
In the Cup of Excellence grading system – the yardstick for top-end gourmet coffees – blended batches of Floresta achieve scores of 89 or 90. The very best beans from Allegro and Ribeiro’s farms score 92, the mark of an exceptional coffee. That is why the association is investing in “micro-lotting” – separating out very small quantities of beans by quality, size, price point, varietal, the type of fertiliser used and who grew them. It’s a way of helping Steven Leighton, the artisan roaster at Has Bean Coffee, “tell the story of every batch,” says Allegro, and sell it into a suitable niche market. This maximises the price the farmers get for every single bean they produce.
It’s a sophisticated, 21st-century approach to marketing, but the scene I am about to witness at Fazenda Floresta could be from the Middle Ages. At the end of a row of coffee shrubs, Ribeiro and two of his workers are digging a hole. Ribeiro scrapes away the soil to reveal a cluster of cattle horns. “This is chiffre-esterco,” Allegro explains, “one of the preparados we use to boost the soil’s fertility. It’s not the physical material in the horn that does it, but the information – a bit like homeopathy. Cattle horn is something that grows but it doesn’t have a practical function for the animal any more; it’s an excess of energy, a plus that we can utilise. You send the living soil a message to activate the energy.”
This horn is filled with fresh manure, which also has to be from a cow, not a bull. “You bury it under the soil for six months to cure, like a cheese,” Allegro says. “On 21 September – the beginning of our spring – you take it out and make a solution, a ‘dynamisation’ that you to apply to the plant. You add water and mix it for 20 minutes. We each take a turn for three minutes, so everyone is a part of it, which is important.”
At this point, Menezes chips in to explain the social benefits of biodynamic agriculture. “It was Steiner’s view that it should also help human consciousness to blossom,” he says. “At my farm I try to make my relationship with the people who work there as healthy as possible. On a daily basis we respect each other and we respect nature. It’s something spiritual, to do with the soul.”
Ribeiro, who hires the workers at Fazenda Floresta, agrees that treating people fairly is part of the ethos here. “Some families have been coming back for eight harvests in a row. Here, we have no foreman because there is trust. They have enough water, they have enough to eat and somewhere decent to sleep. They’re very happy.”
Later I speak to Jucelino Carvalho, a migrant worker who is picking coffee with his wife Jucinete and his children Tatiane, 17, and Mateus, 14. Two more of his children, one of them married, are working elsewhere on the farm – and all have been coming back every year for the past five.
Migrant workers are paid on productivity, earning R$3-R$5 (£1-£1.70) for every 20-litre bucket of cherries they pick. A strong, energetic male might manage 12-15 buckets a day, earning R$1,000-R$1,200 (£340-£408) a month – more than twice the legal minimum wage of R$465 a month – plus free basic accommodation and training. Wages here are geared, too, so a woman or a teenager can easily earn the minimum wage – and a family of six, such as Carvalho’s, together earn six to 12 times the living wage. “It’s a reserva, a big saving for us,” Carvalho says, “so we’re pleased to be here. We’re all here together, and because the farm is small, we know everyone.” The other big advantage of working here is that there is shade. On 99% of Brazil’s coffee farms, the bushes are grown in rows with nothing to protect workers from the searing 40° heat. Here, where Menezes’s sistema agroflorestal is helping to recreate the landscape that existed before intensive agriculture, thousands of trees have been planted between the rows of coffee bushes – saplings that will, over time, make this and Allegro’s farm resemble mature orchards with coffee growing in the shade of mighty trees.
“We have four varietals of coffee,” says Allegro, “to boost biodiversity. We mainly grow red and yellow Catuai, but also Bourbon, Acauãn and a new experimental crop called Obotãn.” In the roots of the coffee bushes, I spot fragments of animal bone, sprinklings of silica (another preparado) and a carpet of animal manure and other fecund organic matter – sweetcorn husks, avocado shells, mango pips and citrus peel – that makes it appear as if the earth is literally being fed. The lustrous, unblemished nature of the coffee plants suggests that it is a healthy diet.
At Fazenda Progresso, a 600-hectare coffee farm at the other end of the scale, there is none of this. Some of the coffee shrubs – laid out in serried ranks with no shade trees at all – appear ragged and dehydrated, while the paths between the rows look like sterile dust rather than soil, because artificial fertilisers have replaced organic matter.
It’s puzzling, since each 100-hectare plot (meaning two would swallow up Allegro’s entire farm) is irrigated by a “pivot” – a vast length of galvanised pipe mounted on wheeled towers with sprinklers positioned along its length. The shocking amounts of water it uses are pumped from a nearby lake. So enormous are these pivots, you can see the circular patterns they create on Google Earth, butted up against those of other Progresso farms growing mainly potatoes (for McDonald’s), the crop that has provided the revenue to build the next Brazilian coffee empire. In three years’ time, this property will comprise 1,000 hectares (six of Allegro’s farms) and Progresso hopes to be producing 50,000 sacks of high-quality coffee for export (Allegro produces 600 in a good year). This represents 1.5% of Brazil’s entire green coffee production – and Brazil is the biggest producer of green coffee in the world.
One reason why some of the coffee plants look battered, and why the soil between them appears dry, is that Progresso has been experimenting with mechanical harvesting. One of the new vehicles is parked close to where we are standing, designed to straddle each row of bushes, knock the cherries off the plant with paddles and suck them up like a giant Hoover. It’s as far from Menezes’s breastfed “babies” as it is possible to get.
The disturbing thing is, the green beans produced are of a very high quality, considering the volumes involved. Somehow Progresso is extracting the modern-day equivalent of diamonds from the impoverished earth, creating a challenge for the Ibicoara farmers. If coffee good enough for export and commanding decent prices can be produced in this way, why do it their way?
The answer lies in the Bahia landscape, where anyone can see what is happening on the mossy plateau, not far from Ibicoara, where intensive agriculture takes place. With their pivots, pesticides and McFries factories, the big hitters are acquiring land from small farmers who have failed to make ends meet – mainly because they cannot access lucrative markets. The result? More pivots, pesticides and McFries factories.
It’s exactly what Adeodato Menezes was opposing more than 20 years ago, and coffee – grown sustainably, and with due respect for plants, animals and humans – is one of the few crops that can preserve the natural landscape rather than destroy it. That, plus a duty to help poor farmers, is why President Lula has committed R$15bn (£5bn) this year to the type of small-scale, sustainable farming known as familial, promoted through his innovative Ministry of Agrarian Development. One initiative has been the publishing of a simple pictorial booklet outlining the basics of biodynamic agriculture. What the booklet doesn’t explain is how to convert mysticism into money, but the Ibicoara farmers are working on that. If their Direct Trade model takes off, it could provide a blueprint to be followed throughout the developing world. OFM