What Haiti’s tall coffee trees reveal about the country, its history, and—perhaps—its future
The following excerpt is adapted from Haitian Coffee Grows on Trees, my short book that uses coffee as a vehicle to explore how things work, or often don’t, in Haiti. After living in the country for four years working as a journalist and later with small-scale coffee farmers, I tried to outline how, despite the fact that Haiti isn’t set up in a way that would help everyday people flourish, small changes still have the potential to add up to real improvements in the lives of ordinary Haitians. The book is available now in paperback and Kindle versions.
COFFEE GROWS ON TREES
For a couple of years I thought that the semi-wild, half-forgotten coffee I’d seen growing in the mountains across Haiti was a recent development. In some places, small mountain houses are dwarfed by 60-year-old coffee trees that produce literally two cherries. And in Haiti, the joke is that if a tree still gives a single cherry, a farmer will not touch it with a machete to prune it, lest he lose the income that single cherry represents, minuscule as it may be. So he leaves it for another year, withering like a nursing home patient who’s been forgotten in the corner of the game room and missed a week of meals.
One of the first Haitian coffee farmers I talked to said he could describe the past 30 years of the sector with one word: “negligence.” But neglecting coffee in Haiti is anything but new. “A person must be somewhat conversant with travelling in Hayti,” wrote James Franklin, a British “man of commerce” who visited the island several times in the 1820s, “before he can discover on his road that a coffee plantation is near him.” Franklin was visiting a plantation in the mountains above a town called Léogâne, just west of the capital, which was the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake that decimated much of the country. He described it as “a very good illustration of the coffee settlements in general, all of which exhibit negligence…” He wouldn’t even have recognized a coffee tree, he said, “growing as it did in a pyramidal form, surrounded by numberless other shrubs,” but for the few red cherries he spotted on a lower branch of one plant. “I alighted from my mule to examine some trees just round the spot: as nearly as I could ascertain, every tree must have exceeded twelve feet in height, and I am convinced that each of them at the time would not have produced two pounds of coffee in the husk.”
In Haiti, coffee grows on trees. Technically, all coffee grows on trees. The brown beans that go into making your morning cup are actually the dried and roasted seeds of a tropical tree fruit. Once a year small red fruits, called cherries, develop on the branches. Inside each cherry are two seeds, or beans. In contrast to Haiti’s farms, intensively managed coffee farms found across much of Central and South America keep trees cut back to a manageable height — more like shrubs. This channels the nutrients and energy plants gather from the sun and soil toward producing beans, which make money, instead of wasting resources sprouting too many woody trunks and branches. As most coffee is harvested by hand, keeping trees short also means that come harvest time pickers can easily reach the fruits.
It’s not out of the ordinary to find 20-foot-tall coffee trees in Haiti. Few farmers have bothered to replant for a generation, and some have given up the crop altogether. Every farmer may not cut down all their coffee trees, but many of them will never take time and energy away from food crops to bother tending the small coffee groves that their fathers planted out back. That’s one reason the average yield in Haiti is now just a third of the Central American average.
If you visit Guatemala, representative of many better-developed coffee countries, you’ll see mills that prepare more coffee for export in a week than Haiti does in a year. You’ll also see a cutting-edge coffee laboratory at the four-story headquarters of the National Coffee Association, whose annual budget has recently hovered somewhere between $6 million and $11 million, funded by a 1 percent levy on exports.
At the other end of the spectrum, Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture can’t definitively say how many coffee farmers the country has. One of the most recent reports by its National Coffee Institute noted that government studies have mindlessly reproduced the same figure since 1983: Haiti has 200,000 coffee farmers. Over the 30-plus years and countless coffee reports since then, coups d’etat overthrew multiple governments, a handful of natural disasters devastated the country, an international embargo undercut the economy, population nearly doubled, and coffee production fell by half. “Thirty years later,” the latest report reads, in French, “it is difficult to accept that these figures have not changed one iota.” In the next sentence it quotes the “very approximate” 200,000-coffee-producers figure anyway.
It may seem bizarre, but after living in Haiti for a few years, the underdevelopment of the coffee sector and its 20-foot trees began to make sense. The coffee sector isn’t really about coffee, at least not entirely. Like much of what goes on in the country, it’s often as much about marketing to aid groups or charities as it is about economic activity. It makes perfect sense if you can make as much or more through temporary aid funding than through productive endeavors. Setting up a coffee cooperative can become as much about chasing grant money, or securing the pickup trucks or solar panels or water filters that might come along with it, as it is about trying to run a viable enterprise that produces excellent coffee year after year.
And coffee isn’t a special case — what happens in the sector is just a byproduct of the wider Haiti context. The political and economic foundations of the country aren’t really set up to help common people prosper. But while that fundamental structure makes life difficult for many citizens, small changes on the margins have the potential to add up to real improvement for ordinary Haitians. And for those who live in the country’s mountainous rural areas, coffee may provide an avenue to that sort of improvement.
The majority of Haitians are farmers, and for the foreseeable future agriculture will remain the default economic backbone of the roughly 6 million people who live in rural districts. In addition to coffee, two other significant cash crops for Haiti’s farmers are cacao, the raw ingredient for chocolate, and mangoes. Like coffee, cacao grows in mountains, but at lower altitudes. Mangoes grow across the country, but some of the best production areas — especially for the sweet Françique variety that accounts for most high-value exports — are in the flatlands of the Artibonite and Plateau Central regions. My first foray into the coffee sector was with TechnoServe, an organization that works with farmers in about two dozen tropical countries and is known for its coffee expertise; one of the group’s biggest efforts in Haiti, however, involves helping rural farmers get organic mangoes to Whole Foods stores every spring.
After living in Haiti for a few years writing about economic recovery following the 2010 earthquake, TechnoServe hired me to research the country’s entire coffee sector. That led me to decide to spend another year helping set up the Haiti Coffee Academy, a venture that works with small-scale farmers in the southeastern mountains. One impetus for the initiative is because in economic terms, coffee is known as one of the best cash crops for a tropical farmer, especially one with a small plot of land who has few resources beyond hand tools, organic fertilizers, and sweat. I remember a TechnoServe claim, that with just one-third of a hectare planted in coffee, about 0.80 acres, a smallholder in East Africa could be profitable. But there are plenty of challenges, which is why so many Haitian farmers have chosen to neglect or abandon coffee over the years.
If there comes a day that coffee no longer works for a Haitian farmer, then it only makes sense for him or her to turn to the next-best option, whether growing another crop, migrating to the city to look for work in a factory, or any other better opportunity. But for small-scale farmers in the mountainous areas across the tropics, coffee will likely remain an attractive option for two reasons: it can be profitable at such small scale, and global demand for quality coffee is skyrocketing.
Franklin, the 1820s visitor, noted that the coffee plantations he was used to seeing on British colonial islands were laid out neatly and precisely. “In Hayti,” he wrote, “the scene is different: what is denominated there a coffee plantation, is neither more nor less than a large tract of land, throughout which grows spontaneously the coffee tree; not planted there by the people, but sprung from the seed which has fallen from those planted by the French and which escaped destruction during the revolution.”
When it comes to those tall and neglected trees, little seems to have changed in 200 years. Most Haitian farmers pay little attention to their coffee plants, which still stretch to towering heights. And they have some very good reasons for it, as I understood more and more over time.
A MODEST LUXURY
The way Americans drink coffee has transformed in recent years. There’s a good chance that you’ve noticed the change even if you’re not a coffee drinker. Seemingly normal people line up on streets outside cafes in places like San Francisco, Manhattan, and Portland, patiently waiting for espressos and pour-overs and not batting an eye when the tab is as high as the price of a newsstand magazine. At many of these shops baristas use digital scales to make sure the dosages of coffee and water are just right, preparing each brew by hand and with exacting detail, one serving at a time. Many of their customers drink coffee because they like the taste of coffee, as opposed to, say, drinking it as a vehicle for milk and sugar, or as a socially acceptable alternative to freebasing caffeine.
These taste-centric coffee nerds have become a lot like wine nerds. They really care about the country, region, or even farm where their coffee was grown. Some customers want to know about the agricultural and socio-economic conditions of where the coffee grew, as shown by the rise of programs like certified-organic and fair trade. Then come the real geeks — the people interested in the variety of the coffee plant, the altitude of the plantation, and how the beans were processed, all of which can influence how it tastes in the cup. And there’s a lot of overlap among these groups. After all, the people who care most about how their coffee tastes are most likely to care about how the person who grew it was treated. And they’ll probably also be willing to pay more for it.
In contrast to a vacuum-sealed tin can of pre-ground coffee from the grocery store, coffee sold to these fanatics often retails for $12 to $20 a bag and might come straight from a local roaster. Much of it is “single-origin,” meaning that instead of being blended with different coffees from all over a country or the world, the beans come from either the same farm or a group of farmers from the same community. The bag label features the country of origin, if not the name of the farmer or cooperative group who grew it. Coffee used to be simply a commodity — any one bean was more or less interchangeable with another from anywhere else around the world. Today it’s become much more.
The industry’s fascination with origin leads to a lot of those comparisons with wine, which has an appellation system to label where the grapes that went into a particular vintage came from. Both coffee and wine are agricultural products with consumers who obsess over their origins. Both stress the subtleties of the plants’ growing conditions and microclimates. And both focus on the importance of tasting — or cupping, as it’s called with coffee — to evaluate quality. Professionals frequently cup an assortment of coffees side-by-side to compare quality and suss out the flavor notes that show through in different beans. Those flavors can be as diverse as blueberries, brown sugar, and bergamot. All the soil, climatic, and environmental conditions surrounding a coffee’s cultivation — what French people and the wine industry call terroir — can influence that taste.
The comparisons between coffee and wine are probably spot on when it comes to drinking culture. But when it comes to the evolution of the U.S. market, a better comparison might be the rise of craft beer.
For about 50 years after Prohibition ended in 1933, beer was just beer — a yellow, fizzy, corn- or rice-based beverage that tasted watery and got you buzzed. A decade before the ban on alcohol, small breweries across the United States had made distinct styles of beer and served their local communities. Once alcohol was again made legal, big breweries were best-poised to ramp up production and meet the huge demand for beer. Their brewing and marketing strategies were identical — appeal to the masses with a lowest-common-denominator product — and they maximized profits with volume instead of striving for quality or differentiation. Beer became a bland, uniform beverage, and abundant and cheap corn and rice from America’s grain basket provided perfect ingredients.
In 1978, Congress legalized homebrewing, which had remained forbidden even after the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition. In the coming years, a new generation of DIY brewers flourished, eventually transforming the industry. Their mission was basically to make good beer that they’d like to drink in their own homes and with their own friends. The craft forerunners used high-quality grains and aromatic hops in their recipes, experimented with weird ingredients, and produced an endless assortment of beers — sours, wheat beers, IPAs, fruit beers, stouts, honey beers, and many, many more. A lot of homebrewers went on to start small breweries, and their ethos opened up a new world of choice and quality for customers.
In 2000, craft beer’s volume was still just 2 percent of the market. Today, one in every 10 beers sold in the country is a craft, and in dollar terms, craft accounts for almost 20 percent of the value of all American beer. And even though the fizzy-yellow, lite beer market is currently shrinking, the craft segment continues to expand each year.
The American coffee market has a similar story, especially its recent history. Today, the lower-quality segment of the coffee market — the tin cans that lined the pantries of my grandparents’ generation — has completely stagnated at zero growth. In stark contrast, the specialty coffee sector — the high-quality, pricier segment of the market that’s something akin to craft beer — has been exploding, growing by an estimated 10 percent annually for the past 15 years. Now, one out of every two coffees drunk in the United States is a specialty coffee.
Like with craft beer, the boom has brought amazing diversity — from coffees that look more like tea and give off citrusy flavors, to coffees that taste almost chocolatey and have the consistency of whole milk, to everything in between. If you enjoy coffee and are interested in going full nerd, find a cupping to attend at a roastery in your area — many have regular public tastings. I never realized what coffee could be, or the wide and interesting range of flavors it could have, until I tasted six coffees from six different countries back-to-back. That diversity is on show in upscale cafes today, and not just in big cities on the coasts. Burgeoning coffee cultures in smaller towns like Chattanooga, Oklahoma City, and Louisville attest to the sea change. But for a long time, coffee was just coffee — a dark, sludgy beverage that tasted burnt and got you buzzed.
As Mark Pendergrast explains in his coffee history for the layreader, Uncommon Grounds, early-20th-century housewives roasted raw coffee beans in their homes across the country. Which is pretty much the same thing as saying that housewives across the country used to ruin coffee, because it’s difficult to roast well or consistently on a stovetop. About a century ago Maxwell House and Folgers were two of the first companies to address that issue — they perfected roasting standardization, mass production, and distribution, putting a pot of coffee in every kitchen in America. The beans were bad by modern coffee-geek standards, but the roast quality was probably an improvement on many home roasts. It was also cheap, and it delivered caffeine — the only two criteria for many coffee drinkers both then and now. Coffee was all about market share — the national roasters that emerged in the coming decades fought for volume and competed mainly on price. U.S. consumption peaked in 1946, when every American drank an average of more than 2 cups per day, a level never reached again.
In the 1960s, a Dutch immigrant named Alfred Peet started roasting his own coffee in the Bay Area. Peet had started at Hills Bros., a 20th-century coffee institution in San Francisco, and once on his own, he turned his attention to the particulars of the roast process. Instead of using the cheapest raw materials he could find, he bought high-quality beans, used dark roasts favored by Europeans, and insisted on selling his customers only freshly roasted coffee. In 1970, the three people who would go on to start Starbucks were drawn to Peet’s coffee because of his focus on quality. Peet became their original supplier, and they traveled from Seattle to the Bay Area to apprentice under him, learning about his roasting techniques and coffee strategy. Largely thanks to Starbucks and its massive growth — the company now has about 13,000 U.S. locations — coffee started to become something more than a brand name on a tin can. Customers focused increasingly on the beans inside — French Roast, Breakfast Blend, Dark Roast. Peet and Starbucks helped shift emphasis toward roasting methods and quality differentiation. Eventually, Starbucks added a large helping of milk- and espresso-based drinks. In the process they turned millions of Americans into coffee drinkers over recent decades.
Around the same time that Peet was getting his start, a Norwegian immigrant named Erna Knutsen was blazing her own path into the California coffee scene. She started as a secretary with an importer, fought her way into the cupping room, and carved out a niche paying high prices for great coffees from places like Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Yemen at a time when the rest of the industry was still obsessed with volume. It was Knutsen who coined the term “specialty coffees,” in a 1974 interview with the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. “There is an emerging group, largely young people…who value good coffee,” she said in the interview, as relayed by Pendergrast in his book, “and I am certain that our end of the business will grow.” She saw coffee evolving into one of “those modest luxuries,” as she put it, “that most can still afford.” Once people like Knutsen started to seek out the best beans at the beginning of the supply chain rather than commodity-grade coffee bulked into shipping containers, there was a natural evolution at the end of the chain: lighter roasting.
When you roast coffee, you’re essentially cooking the dried, jade-colored coffee seeds — what’s known as “green coffee.” When you cook steaks, you probably cook them differently depending on the cut. Most people would take a filet off the grill long before they would a sirloin — the filet is better meat, as you can tell just by looking at the price tag. Cooking it rarer lets more of the natural beef flavor, and maybe even the grass the cow ate, shine through on the plate. But with the sirloin, you might not just cook it longer, you may even cover it with sautéed mushrooms or a thick sauce.
Roasting coffee is a similar concept, as George Howell explains. Howell opened a coffee roasting operation near Boston in 1975, where he focused on excellent quality and fresh roasts. He bought his beans from Knutsen. And if you’re using the best beans, you don’t want to cover up their inherent attributes, you want to let them come through in the cup. “The message starts to be, for single origin, you want to do a light roast…,” Howell explains in the 2014 documentary A Film About Coffee, “…the awareness that dark roast covers things. It’s like a heavy sauce.”
People like Knutsen and Howell laid the foundation for today’s coffee evangelists, who focus on quality, origin, and light roasts. Roasters like Stumptown, Counter Culture, and Intelligentsia were in the vanguard of this wave in the 1990s. Once this small segment of the industry shifted toward light roasts that accentuate where coffee beans come from, there was a natural corollary: doing due diligence to see for yourself exactly where those beans came from. A catch-all term developed to describe this practice: “direct trade.”
Direct trade has become a muddied descriptor, much in the way that George Orwell felt politicians and officials abused the word “democracy”: everyone agrees that it sounds nice and evokes positive connotations, but it’s been used by so many people to mean so many different things that it’s lost much meaning. There is no industry-wide standard or official definition for direct trade. Many companies “certify” their coffees as direct-trade, which means that, in their eyes, it qualifies as such. But most coffee industry people would agree that direct trade boils down to transparency and traceability throughout the supply chain. And instead of having a third-party stamp your bag with a label like “fair trade” to signal that a product was produced responsibly, a company tries to directly show and tell its clientele how its product was produced. The term is mostly used by smaller roasters — Starbucks, for instance, has its own set of so-called “C.A.F.E.” standards that it holds itself to, which have to do with quality, financial transparency, and worker and environmental conditions.
For Stumptown, a fundamental part of direct trade is buying “directly from the people who are making the coffee,” instead of purchasing it in bulk on a commodity exchange. Counter Culture has specific criteria for a coffee to qualify as direct trade, which include visiting growers every couple of years, paying suppliers a relatively high export price for green coffee, and meeting a minimum quality threshold in cupping evaluations. Geoff Watts, a co-owner of Intelligentsia, describes direct trade partly by what it’s not: “It’s not a matter of flying in, taking pictures, filling out some forms, shaking hands and making some vague commitments.” He goes on to describe direct trade as mutually beneficial, transparent, and about long-term relationships between coffee producers and buyers.
A direct trade roaster sees for itself where beans come from, as opposed to simply calling up a coffee importer down the road or in another state and getting the story from them and them alone. Still, these roasters aren’t flying back from the tropics with their coffee orders. Most roasters, even direct-trade pioneers, purchase most of their coffee from an importer that’s based in the U.S., even if the roaster visited the farm and sat at the table hammering out the terms of purchase. It only makes sense — importers can specialize in the financing, logistics, and 12-month relationships that it take to move a product from tropical countries around the world to the American market. In practice, direct trade can be the difference between a buying relationship that goes only as far as the exporter in the capital city of a coffee growing country, whose owners maybe went to college in the United States or Europe and speak fluent English, and having a relationship down to the farm level. That may mean a single coffee farmer, or it might mean the management staff of a co-op of small growers in the remote hills of Colombia or Uganda.
Direct trade can definitely leave room for opportunistic behavior, a sort of coffee equivalent to green-washing, or slick-but-empty marketing. Releasing a pristine company report about how much you pay farmers for their coffee doesn’t guarantee that you’ve actually paid them much more than they would have been paid anyway. Even for well-meaning companies and their customers, it can be difficult to figure out how much your purchases are helping the people at the beginning of the supply chain. Parts of the coffee chain are extremely fragmented, far-flung, and murky. Just posting the prices paid for green coffee, for instance, which some roasters do in a quest for transparency, doesn’t necessarily give customers a good idea about how much of that price actually trickles down to farmers.
A related trend borne out of direct trade is that it makes a lot of coffee people want to, as one industry professional put it to me, “play Indiana Jones,” traveling to exotic locales and taking Instagram pictures of themselves beside ripe coffee cherry. One of the co-founders of La Colombe, a Haiti Coffee Academy supporter, is a pretty good example of this sentiment. On his Travel Channel reality show, “Dangerous Grounds,” the gregarious founder comes off as a sort of MacGyver-meets-Mario Batali as a camera crew follows his exploits sourcing coffee around the world. I watched just one episode of the show, the Haiti one. In it, he plays up non-existent danger in a Port-au-Prince street market, talks about a guy called “the president” who supposedly doesn’t let anyone buy coffee from his side of the mountain, and sleeps underneath his broken-down jeep because, he tells the audience, Haitians would steal it in the night if he didn’t. It was pure fiction.
I asked one of our Haitian employees who does logistics and mechanical work what he thought of the final product. He speaks good English and had actually been the driver and fixer during the film shoot. “It was great!” he told me, laughing. He had loved the whole action-figure-hero ridiculousness of it all.
But what about the show’s fabrications? Or the tropes about his country being nothing but a dangerous and dark place?
“It’s a show,” he said. “Everybody knows it’s not real.”
But it doesn’t bother you that it’s presented on TV as a true story, and to an audience who may know little about Haiti?
“No. It’s just a show.”
LET’S TALK COFFEE
Pierre Sanon looked to be at least 60 and wore black gumboots, a secondhand bomber jacket, and a toboggan hat — all par for the course for a Haitian farmer during the tropical winter. He had a question — he wanted to know about getting fertilizer, by which he meant chemical fertilizer, which the government subsidized and came into the country via importers in the capital. Sanon claimed that farmers needed chemical fertilizer to grow coffee properly, or to grow any other crop for that matter. Which is also par for the course when talking to a Haitian farmer.
I told him that chemical fertilizer can give really impressive and immediate results. But I also said that we weren’t an aid group or NGO — a non-governmental organization, the charity and non-profit groups that often stumble over each other to work in the hot and sticky places around the world — and we weren’t there to hand out fertilizer. It’s possible to make fertilizer from kitchen waste, cow manure, and organic material, I said, and our farmer trainer would help him with every step of the process if he was interested. It would be nearly as good as any factory-made product, but it would take more labor and patience.
It was fall of 2014, and I was in my first few months of living in coffee country in southeastern Haiti working with growers. Cantave Fils-Aimé, an agronomist in a country that seems to have as many out-of-work agronomists as it does moto taxi drivers, was my co-manager. When Cantave and I weren’t busy making sure the replanting of a 30-acre demonstration farm was going as planned, we were visiting small-scale farmers. Cantave’s only child is his four-year-old daughter, and she and her education are his reasons for being, and for working. For him, coffee and his work represent a future for her.
On that November morning, we were visiting a group of 25 coffee growers in the mountains an hour or so above Thiotte, the regional town in that part of the country. He and I lived there in a two-bedroom apartment attached to the one hotel that had 24-hour running water and electricity, thanks to solar panels. One of our three trainers had already been working with the farmer group for a few months, meeting every few weeks to go over different aspects of coffee growing. I gave a short talk about how we wanted to help them improve their coffee practices so that they could improve their livelihoods — maybe be able to send their kids to school, or at least earn enough income to be sure there was enough food to feed their families year round. That was the goal of the people backing the venture — the Clinton Foundation, which funds many do-good missions in Haiti and around the world. It had also enlisted La Colombe, a roaster in Philadelphia that had been buying coffee from the country for the past few years. That in itself was something, because there’s not much Haitian coffee to go around these days, at least not compared to the past.
I always tried to keep my talks in Creole fairly short and then turn it over to Cantave. It’s not just that he’s Haitian and understands his language and culture infinitely better than I ever will. He also has a knack of talking to farmers in a way that’s extremely relatable but at the same time not at all condescending. He comes from a very different socio-economic background than most smallholder farmers — he speaks perfect French and got his degree from a private university in Port-au-Prince. But he was originally from the countryside, the son of a farmer. He’d make cultural references or points about agriculture that resonated so perfectly with farmers that they’d invariably nod their heads and mutter approval. “Chemical fertilizer might seem like magic,” he’d say. “You can see it working almost overnight. But what will you do when you can’t find it one month, or when the price shoots up another month?” This had happened a handful of times in the past year — the Haitian government subsidized chemical fertilizer en masse and passed it on to selected middlemen, who then peddled it to farmers at a set price, taking their cut along the way. A few months prior, the main vendor in the region had hiked the price so much that people from neighboring villages blocked the road in protest. Cantave had told me that a group of villagers even torched a U.N. vehicle that tried to ignore their roadblock. “Too many farmers in this country vin esklav angre chimik” — become slaves to chemical fertilizer, he said. “If you can make your own, you don’t have to rely on the government’s supply, and you’re better off.”
Cantave always used a metaphor like that to make his point simply but perfectly. I would, on the other hand, revert to using the same tired Haitian proverb without fail, partly because I just really liked it, and partly because it seemed so apt for everything we were doing there: Piti piti, zwazo fè nich li — Little by little, the bird makes its nest.
One reason we wanted to help farmers increase their production was pretty straightforward: that way there would be more Haitian coffee to go around for U.S. buyers. You can hardly find Haitian coffee in an American cafe today, and for good reason. Since the 1980s, coffee production in the country has fallen by half, and exports have plummeted by 95 percent. Well before that, the same tiny territory used to grow half the world’s coffee. But that was a long time ago — before Haiti even became Haiti.