DR Diaries: Summer 2012

Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his latest dispatch from a trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic, earlier this June. The 2012 crop of Finca La Paz has just arrived at our roastery, and it’s better than ever.

Los Fríos. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Currently I’m sitting in a Washington, DC airport en route to the Dominican Republic. I left Camp Pull-A-Shot at 9am, I will get to the DR at 2am. It will be a long day. Tomorrow I leave (hopefully) from the capital, Santo Domingo, at 6:30am to Los Frios arriving there about 3pm on Friday (hopefully). I’ve already been de-planed once. Thankfully it looks like I’ll make my connection.

In my CHECKED BAG are hand pruning shears, large pruning shears, and a 12″ bow saw with 3 replacement blades that i bought in Brooklyn from one of those hardware stores that always has pregnant cats in it. The Dominican Republic was built on agriculture: rice, sugar, coffee, beans, mahogany, and coffee of course. It seems they have forgotten about their farmers. It has been so dang hard to just find a good pruning saw in the nearest big city. I resisted bringing tools because I don’t want to depend on US tools for a DR farming operation. But part of my pruning this year was done with machete, something I hate to see on other farms, much less on my own. (Using a machete opens huge cuts on shade and coffee trees exposing them to attacks from fungus and other plagues common in tropical climates. Furthermore it is not good for the tree because it doesn’t know it was pruned, it just feels like someone took a machete to its arm.)

The DR has a terrible broca problem (destructive bean borer beetle). The DR has embarrassing production levels per hectare. The DR has leaf rust (fungus). The DR has ojo de gallo (fungus). There are about 160 agronomists here that are supposed to work with coffee. And do we have the tools to build broca traps? no. do we have access to the natural fungus that kills broca? No. Are there another 3 technologies I could list that would help that is not available in the DR? Yes.

So also in my checked bag are 25 empty 2oz vials so that i can make and create my own broca traps. while I’m there I hope to install a bunch of these and start to control the broca problem on Finca La Paz.

On the second half of my slam-packed trip I will be tasting through the better coffees from the North of the DR that have just finished their harvest in late May. The coffees will be fresh, but I will have “first dibs” on the best of the best. In the North of the DR there were some really terrible rains that damaged some of the coffee during the drying process. I hope that we are shown some really stand out coffees like El Lagulito from last year and I can get some of that moving toward NYC for our customers.      

Flash back about 8 years ago when i was a peace corps volunteer. I was on my way to El Tetero which is a neighboring community that was about 4 hours away on mule. I was traveling with Miguel from Los Frios. Miguel knows everyone. Miguel greeted someone on the trail by name. As we rode away on our mules I asked Miguel, is that guy from La Cucarita?

It was so clear that he was from La Cucarita because polygamy and land were both very abundant about 80 years ago. Often these tiny remote towns were founded by only one man, maybe two and several women. There was plenty of land. Slash and burn agriculture was an effective way to produce cash crops and food crops. Each town has a few of these men still around. They are easy to spot because they look like they fathered the entire town. They didn’t but their fathers did.

People in La Cucarita have really interesting foreheads (big and boxy), high cheek bones, really dark skin, dark round eyes, and huge forearms.

One of these older men that founded Los Frios had a heart problem and was really sick and bedridden these last few months. All the neighboring towns were on alert on Sunday morning because he was really sick. Just after lunch we heard that he passed. People from every tiny town made their way to see him for one last time before he was buried today. He was always really sweet to me and I really like his kids and his grandkids. Two of them I hadn’t seen in years. They drove from Santiago Sunday and I had the chance to see them as they passed through Los Frios on their way to La Cucarita. I could still see hints of their grandfather in their faces. Their eyes still showed his warmth.

Children in Los Fríos. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

This has nothing to do with coffee, this I know. But this is how communities grow. This story isn’t totally different or unique. I think it is a reflection of how these towns were built.

And now on to coffee. Climate change is real. One of the effects of climate change is weird weather. June is supposed to be the rainy season here in the DR. Not the crazy intense rain but the softer rain every couple days. It is good for coffee development. It works for short-cycle bean crops. Two weeks ago the rain wouldn’t stop. Los Frios, in the South of the DR, was drowned in water for several days in a row. Now the rain has stopped for a week and it was crazy hot. The path down to Finca La Paz is rocky, loose, dry and dusty.

Nerva (my Dominican mother) told me, “we didn’t need ice in Los Frios because the water was always cold”. Now on this trip the cold water shower didn’t take my breath away and the drinking water from the filter wasn’t even a little bit cold. Very strange weather.

I spent Saturday walking the farm with Antonio (my farm manager) and planning where to plant the grafted lime trees. We also checked the progress on this year’s coffee harvest. It looks bigger than last year. The 4 flowerings went well. The gas powered weed trimmer saved me about a 4/5th of the price on a weeding verse weeding with machete.

The upper section of the farm looks great. The two-year-old coffee already has fruit on it.

Coffee growing at Finca La Paz. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

There are a few trees that have died in the weirdest way. They just try up from the bottom. It takes a few weeks. I think it has to do with how they were planted. The tap root which pulls up the water basically either gets a fungus or just dies. The result is that the tree has nutrients but no water.

The farmers that we bought our new “Los Vecinos” lot from are very happy. They sold to Dallis just as the market came off and walked away with the last good prices of the year. Those that had quality were rewarded. Those that had “decent” parchment were paid the normal market rate. If things go well this year, we could expand the program and build a larger lot.

On Monday I travel from Los Frios to Bonao. Then Tuesday I finish the loop around the island to Santiago to meet with my exporter from the DR to build the next lot of Lagulito and see some of the better offerings from the North of the DR.

To be continued…