By Virginia Berman, Fundraising Program Director
Twenty years ago I left my mountain village, Santiago de Puringla in Honduras, after two years of Peace Corps service. It was the two years that changed my life. When I arrived, I was a recent liberal arts college grad, but it was here in Puringla that I got the real schooling I was seeking, living and working with subsistence farmers who grew coffee, corn, and beans.
Beto Osorio (“Don Beto” as he was known to everyone) stood out from the beginning. If he was suspicious of what he could learn from a white suburban girl from Connecticut who arrived in the middle of the coffee growing mountains of Honduras, he didn’t show it. His eyes were warm and had the curiosity of a child. He was eager to try new ways of planting, much like a scientist, though he only had a seventh grade education.
Don Beto recruited his friends to learn the new ideas of planting. We took field trips to observe model plots of other farmers in nearby towns who’d learned organic farming techniques from the master small farmer, Elias Sanchez. He taught us about the “Human Farm,” how we need to use our hands, head, and heart before we cultivate the land.
Then we formed a new group of coffee farmers from Puringla. The purpose of the group was to learn from each others’ successes and mistakes, to encourage and experiment. This type of learning—exposing our mistakes—was counter-intuitive for everyone. They named their new group of farmers, Amigos Todos Unidos Siempre, which means “friends always united.”
When I left Puringla, the farmers were growing in new ways: planting coffee on a level to create natural barriers to reduce erosion; using live and dead barriers to conserve the top soil; reducing their reliance on chemicals by using waste from the coffee mills; discovering the natural cycles and applying integrated farming techniques. As a result, they were seeing improvements in yields. The challenge? The price of coffee dropped to all-time lows.
No matter how fertile the soil or how high the yield, the price of coffee was not enough to cover the costs to farm. I learned of the drop in prices when I returned home and realized the problem the farmers faced was something we could help solve with the U.S. market.
NOW: 20 Years Later
Last month I went back to Honduras for the first time, as a worker-owner of Equal Exchange. My experience in Honduras had gotten me on a path to being part of the Fair Trade coffee movement in the U.S., and I’ve worked with Equal Exchange for the last 15 years. I couldn’t wait to see if Don Beto and friends were there—were they still farming coffee? Were they doing okay? What would this small coffee farming community look like 20 years later? What kind of relationship might Equal Exchange have with this community that I feel so connected to?
I arrived in the nearby town on September 1. I heard from a farmer who knew Don Beto that he was still there. He said that Don Beto had a beautiful farm. I couldn’t wait to see him; my heart was in my throat.
As I drove up the windy mountain road, it was the same wild feeling of big sky and mountains as it was for me 20 years ago: wide open, steep, vast, full of coffee, banana, citrus, and cedar trees. I was home. After an hour of the mountain curves, I saw that the familiar town park that was previously a big piece of grass for grazing cows was prettied up with trees and benches.
I drove around the corner with my new friend from the local co-op. My farmer friends had been alerted that I would be coming. First I saw Don Felipe. Then Don Beto himself drove up in a pickup truck. I thought I was dreaming. Our smiles were so wide and happy they could barely fit on our faces. We hugged and asked how each other was doing.
The music group, or conjunto, consisting of some of the same musicians as 20 years ago, came to serenade our spontaneous gathering of farmers at one of the farmer’s homes. Most of the farmers from the time when I was there looked great and were still growing coffee, although a few had passed away. At last I had returned and could offer to buy their coffee at Fair Trade prices. It was a sacred moment.
And then I got to meet Doña Fidelina again, the woman who fed me every day for two years. The woman who made the best food I had ever eaten, and could never manage to duplicate in the U.S. She ground her corn at the mill, made her tortillas, made the beans, coffee and quajada each day. I knocked on her wooden door and surprised her and my tears of joy salted the beans as I sat at her kitchen table by the wood stove fire, just as I did 20 years before. She’s alive. I’m alive.
Twenty years later our promises to each other are kept. The farmers are surviving on the land, working hard together, growing coffee. I am able to fulfill a dream of buying their delicious, mountain-grown coffee at a price that is good for them, one offers the dignity they gave me when they first opened their doors to me. I, with Equal Exchange, will buy their coffee and share it and the stories of people who taught me humility, hard work, generosity, community.