DR Diaries: Harvest time on Finca La Paz, Part I

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, where it is harvest time again.

Ripe Typica on Finca La Paz. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.




The world is strange. First of all it is 9:41pm and it is past my usual bed time here, but I feel like writing. I’m in the lumpy bed that is comprised of 4 mattresses laid cross ways with 3 separate pieces of foam on top. It works for sleeping. What is strange is the mosquito net. 9 years ago when I was here as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I only used a mosquito net for the rats. There really weren’t any mosquitos to speak of. There are areas in the DR that demand mosquito nets (and they sell very fancy nice ones). Here in Los Frios a few years ago the mosquitos arrived. Just like Nairobi Kenya – Los Frios had the elevation and average temperature (maybe wind too) to not let mosquitos really be pests. Now, just like Nairobi, mosquitos are a problem. Hence, I’m writing this from under a net designed for mosquitos and tonight it is for both, mosquitos and rats.

I knew this was going to be a good trip. The farm has been progressing and I have been better as a manager to push for results and networking. This year I’ve been able to make more things happen than normal. I finally found a greenhouse supply company that could custom cut the right plastic sheeting in a size that I could check on a plane. I found a distributor for Beauveria bassiana – a fungus used in Broca control. We just planted 100 grafted lime trees. We are fully stocked on saws for the pruning. Lots of great things. But what really makes a great trip isn’t just checking off the to-do list.

I missed the check-in for the first flight by minutes. I thought it was a 956pm flight so I showed up just over an hour before check-in, to find out they had already closed the flight which was actually at 942pm. Wow, there is a first time for everything. Lucky for me there was an 830am flight the next day and I got to sleep in my own bed. I arrived at 1230pm to Santo Domingo to incredible heat and humidity and this really moldy carpet smell that the airport walk way plane connector thing always smells like. I took the bus from Santo Domingo to San Juan to pick up the Beauveria bassiana and swing by a hardware store for supplies to build a level for planting coffee. I had arranged for a truck to pick me up and take me from Guantio to Los Frios that same day. To make the pick up time I took a taxi from San Juan to Guantio. The driver was recommended by a friend. He played really great reggaeton and seemed like a cool dude. While this new reggaeton was bumping we pulled up to the gas station and he had them put $0.50 cents worth of gasoline in the yellow mini van. While the gas was pumping a kid no more than 13 years old walks up with a stack of CD’s. “Look, I got MP3’s, this one has 150 songs of all reggaeton, this one has 200 songs of bachata, and for you. . . 100 pesos”. The driver offered 50 pesos for the 200 song MP3 CD. The kid nodded. By this time the $0.50 cents worth of gasoline had been pumped. The driver digs through his loose change and pays the kid 45 pesos. The kid was pissed and just said something vulgar. The driver turns to me and says the kids here all hustlers, but they have to be that way to survive. We both laughed but it wasn’t funny.

Leaving San Juan we were waved by a Police check point to stop. I never get stopped at these points so I assumed the worst. He stopped us to ask if his two lady friends could get a lift to Guantio. Sure. We take off in a bright yellow van that clearly has acceleration problems, so it is more like we tumbled off.  The driver slips in his new CD and some new Aventura (a Dominica bachata band that I won’t admit how much I enjoy the music) song comes on. The two ladies in the back of the taxi know every word and belt out the next 3 songs like they were on Dominican Idol (not that they could sing well… just that they sang with spirit). There were clouds high and low, a really light rain coming down and the sun was about an hour from setting. It was really a beautiful moment to be alive and I can’t imagine it happening in any other country.

Once I arrived in the DR everyone wanted to know what I thought about the coffee market. “Will we get the same prices as last year?” A lot of people missed the peak of the last big market rally and still are sitting on coffee. Everyone was sure that the price would come back and the prices just kept falling. I had someone offer us some 20 bags of “perfect coffee”. Interesting considering the harvest has barely started. The coffee had a musty smell, it wasn’t perfectly washed and the humidity was 19%. Humm – maybe in Sumatra this is perfect. Here in the DR this is old crop coffee. I gave everyone the same advice. Don’t hold coffee, sell it where you can make money, the market is really crazy right now.

Mixing up an organic fungus spray to control Broca. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

On Finca La Paz some good things are happening and some bad. The coffee in the upper section is doing really well.  The area is responding really well to all the attention. The Broca seems to be more under control than usual. The grafted lime trees are all looking great and Antonio did a great job planting them at a healthy distance. Overall things look great. There are always one or two things that fall in the negative category.

There is this really awful fungus that is attacking the coffee in the whole region. It is this terrible vicious thing. It seems that it attacks the new growth, then kills the branch as the coffee matures. So the green cherries look fine except for the terminal leaves turning yellow and the stem black. Then as the coffee matures, they turn from green to black and some just fall off. I have pictures to ask my agronomist friends about this specific issue. Climate change? Or is this just the initial picking Cabrilla as it is called?

The only other mega-negatives are all the horror stories of violence being told. One of Antonio’s sons had a few days of vacation from work in Santo Domingo and was here in Los Frios with us. The stories he told involving people he knew were worse than the 5 o’clock news: murders, people selling drugs, rape, violence, all with details like he was there. He even had a word for getting shot: plomo – lead. The DR has always been violent, but to hear the stories told by a kid in a neighborhood that I’ve stayed in in Santo Domingo hit a little close to home.

More tomorrow from the farm.

DR Diaries: Summer 2012 Part II, Off to the Mill

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.

I spent the better part of today trying to ask the right questions. One of the best lessons I learned in Peace Corps was that if you don’t ask the right question, you won’t get the right answer. A huge assumption that most of us make is that the other person understands our position. Usually people (especially in the DR) they just try and give the answer that will make the other person happy.

For example: Peace Corps Volunteer to a random Dominican in the street: “Where is the CODOCAFE building?”
Dominican: “Oh that is just that way, keep going straight.”  
Volunteer: “Thanks”.
Several blocks later. It plays out with different directions. Several blocks later, it plays out with different directions. Eventually someone actually knows where the building is and gives accurate directions. The first two good Samaritans just wanted to be “helpful”.

Today I had pretty simple plans: get to the export warehouse and dry mill cup some offerings and really dig into what happens at a mill.

The cupping was pretty straightforward. I’ve found that usually when I’m clear on specs or profiles and have previously cupped with a company, the cuppings get smaller and better. They don’t try and show me everything, just the stuff I asked for. So there were about 7 lots on the table. All were solid. The Lagulito was slamming. The acidity was pretty insane. Overall it had everything we wanted. I’m going to try a
few different blends in our lab and build the lot for this year.

I can’t tell you how many dry mills I’ve visited, enough to see all the major brands of equipment and know what each machine does before I’m told. My questions were all about the control that the workers had over the sorting. See, dry mills are all about sorting or “extracting” the good beans from the bad. In the dry mill all the machines are using physical attributes to indicate defective beans. Extracting may not be the best word but it seems appropriate for this analogy.

Dry mills work by a few major steps. All of them are different. But there are some standard machines. Here are some basics that need to be understood.

Pergamino: Coffee dried to about 11% moisture, with the papery parchment layer still on
Hulling: Removes the parchment
Size sorting: Separates the beans into about 8 different sizes
Density table: Separates beans by density (the denser the better)
Catador: Uses airflow to pull out smaller and broken beans
Optical sorter: Uses laser lenses to read the color of the beans and reject beans based on the color

Walking through most dry mills, usually I find a few workers babysitting a couple machines and most of the machines are “self-managed”. Watching the workers, uh, mill around, always made wonder what they were doing. It is like a watching a barista make a shot but not knowing the important controls.

I spent most of the time working with the optical sorter and the density sorter. The density sorter has 4 major controls: feed rate, air flow, vibration rate, and the paddles at the end of the table. Some people call them Oliver tables but that is a brand, just like Kleenex. The paddles at the end direct the coffee into different slots. The worst coffee is pushed out directly on the lowest side. The middle coffee is usually either run again or pulled as a slightly lower grade. The best is usually sent to the optical sorter.

Time is money. When the sales rep is booking coffee faster than they can prep it, that is a problem. When a buyer asks for X Grade of prep, how does the dry mill adjust the machines to fill that grade?

Dry mill equipment is sold on how many lbs or quintals (100lbs) of coffee the machine can process in an hour, and they are all usually connected so no one must move the coffee once the system starts. When
a box has to be prepped the clock is ticking to make certain the coffee is ready before the boat leaves. The natural tendency is to push as much coffee through the system as possible. Run the density table at its maximum “feed” rate, run the vibrations high, run the air medium to low (increases the first grade) and the paddles are left untouched. As the feed rate changes, everything else is affected, much like adjusting the grind for espresso. The airflow pushes the coffee harder towards the lower qualities. So more air means cleaner coffee but more time cleaning. Remember the dry mill only sorts by physical appearance, size and density. So the workers aren’t milling around: they are vigilantly monitoring the quality.

There are only two places in the dry mill that have good light: the density table and the laser sorter. This is because the workers need to be checking the quality as the coffee is flowing by looking at the

The optical sorter had some similar adjustment but it is a lot more complicated. I was working with an Xceltron brand from Costa Rica. First the machine must be calibrated to expect certain defects in bean
color: black, white, red, red/black, and yellow. Each color can be set on a scale of 0 to 94 individually. Setting everything to 94 would make the machine hyperactive and cause it to reject too many beans. Setting it to zero means every bean would pass.

Optical sorters take coffee from a hopper, run it straight down a channel of by two rotating cylinders and then at the last second the bean flies straight off the end in to the air where the coffee’s color is read by a laser and a blast of air pushes defective beans out of the path the good coffee into the path of the defective coffee. This all happens very fast.

Again, time is money. Running a coffee twice through the machine adds a couple cents to the dry mill’s cost. They can be run at different rates because they are built just like a weigh-and-fill machine. The lenses need to be cleaned often. Dust is a major issue in dry mills. When dust covers the optical lens, it can’t read the color and defects are allowed through. Once again, these machines are baby sat. If all the
sudden they stop rejecting any coffee. . . something changed. Either the coffee became perfectly clean or some dust covered some lenses or the machine fell out of calibration. Often times the machines just
keep running until someone steps in and fixes it. This is why sometimes people exporters and importers say, “oh you just found a bad bag of coffee.”

The optical reader and density table will keep running until told otherwise. And if out of calibration, they could be pushing the wrong quality into the export silo. The dry mill workers are the final custodians that bring the coffee from a seed to green coffee that can be roasted. Once the coffee goes into the burlap bags and is put on a sealed dry container, that is it. You can’t really re-run the product once it gets to the United States.

So if someone is taking a long lunch and comes back to find a machine pushing the lower quality coffee in the “first” quality slot and they just adjust the machine and pretend like bags of coffee weren’t just
compromised it is hard to say if anyone will catch it until it gets to the roaster. That is where one sample from the same lot should show brilliance and the other defects.

The dry mill processing cost is typically not a huge percent in the final green price but it is incredibly important. From what I hear, the dry mill costs range from 7-30 cents per pound for prep. It depends on the
defect percent going in, level of automation, and whether you are looking at the real cost or the charged cost.

Even though it was only one day, I feel like I’m starting to grasp where the quality control points in a dry mill are and how they are manipulated to produce brilliant coffee. Dry mills make the coffee dance in a million different directions to try and shake out the dirty from the clean beans. The attention of the workers and the calibration of the machines is paramount to quality coffee.

Again, it just confirms that any delicious cup of clean coffee is a miracle.

Farm Diaries: Finca La Paz Part One

Besides being our esteemed Director of Coffee, Byron Jackson Holcomb is a licensed Q grader, meaning he’s able to evaluate cofeees and calibrate his palate with the best in the world. And when he’s not in Ozone Park, he’s managing his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in the Dominican Republic. Byron recently checked in from Finca La Paz and sent us these dispatches from the front lines of coffee. Keep checking back for further installments.

23 September 2011: The Journey

I got the bump to First Class. The weed eater got through security. I took a public bus to San Juan and listened to the usual loud hilarious conversations that happen on those buses. It all started because the guys who sell roasted corn apparently don’t wash their hands after going pee. Then a guy accused all women of using all 5 fingers to wipe. The woman (about 40 yrs) who started the gender war demanded to be called Senorita. A name reserved for young virgins. I will spare you what the bus discussed after that.

It was hilarious.

Now I’m at a hotel in San Juan, tomorrow I take the weeder to a welder’s shop to get a metal guard fitted. I need to buy some supplies for the parabolic drying bed then catch the only truck to Los Frios in the market at 12 noon.

26 September 2011: Arrival

When the owner isn’t present things take more time. When the owner has no idea what to do things take even more time.

It feels like that, now that my farm is 4 years old, I have a pretty good idea about making this farm work for me. I’ve made almost every mistake so far. Wrong cleaning methods. Paid too much for coffee in the tree. Wrong planting methods. Letting Antonio “prune”. Not planning far enough in advance for farm work.

Anyway. It feels like now I have the horse under control. Aida Battle sent me a picture of a weed-eater-guard her workers use to protect the coffee trees from a renegade weed wacker, which was the missing piece of technology I needed. Now I have one installed on mine. Today Antonio and I covered the basics on how to use the weed wacker that served as my checked bag en route here. This might save me a ton of money in cleanings.

Antonio has put dried bean plants tied up and hung them in different parts of the farm to encourage the growth of a fungus that kills the broca. It actually seems to discourage the growth.

I’ve been told by many that banana is not beneficial to cafe. Wrong. I’ve allowed Antonio to plant many many bananas in the areas we are re-establishing coffee. A friend told me that we need to plant even more. I’m happy to. Fill every inch. I don’t care that I can’t sell the bananas. Let em rot with the rest I can’t sell.

There are a lot more examples, but I will spare you the details of happy lime trees which could pay the rent, and chayote and passion fruit that only cost me money.

No’ vemo’ pronto.

to be continued…