What I learned about design on my trip to the coffee farm

When I was planning my trip to Brazil as part of Institute of Design’s Strategy World Tour series, the option to spend two days at a working coffee plantation a few hours outside of Sao Paulo had obvious appeal. Indeed, Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza has a lot to offer to any visitor: fresh, amazing food in a beautiful, mountainous landscape with the best coffee I’ve ever had. What was a bit more surprising was the extent to which the business practices of one of the local farmers we met is similar to my everyday life as a designer and consultant.

João Nieto is a local farmer who has become a legend for his journey from a conventional coffee plantation manager to a sort of Whole Earth Catalog / Stewart Brand farmer-philosopher. 25 years ago, João was a conventional farmer. He used pesticides and non-organic fertilizer to maximize the production of one commodity crop grown in a monoculture. In fact at the low point in his conventional farming career, he was using pesticides to combat a beetle that was decimating his coffee production. Coincidentally, a local agriculture expert asked to tour his farm and talk about his practice. When João complained about the beetle, the expert advised him that the cause of the beetle infestation was the pesticide itself. The application process for the pesticide also killed the wasps, moths, and other natural predators of the beetle. The pesticide created the perfect environment for the beetle to thrive, so that the only solution was continued pesticide application.

This insight led João to fundamentally reconsider his whole farming practice. Where he had previously managed a sizable coffee-only operation, his current farming operation is wildly diversified. There’s still coffee, but the coffee grows with bananas, which are natural wind breaks for the delicate coffee plants. Cows, horses, and pigs manage weeds and pests, and they provide natural fertilizer, meat, and milk. The farm produces fruits, vegetables, and sugar cane, all without conventional pest control and fertilizer.

Planting coffee (the twiggy bushes) in the shade of trees means you don’t have to apply herbicide for weed control.

When we asked João about volume of production, the answer was not that surprising: The current holdings produce less coffee than they used to. However, his farming practice has fundamentally changed and now produces a huge variety of other foods and goods that make up for that loss. Rather than acting as the sole manager for the holdings, João allows individual experts to come to his land and own production for each resource. The pig guy cares for the pigs and the banana guy manages the bananas, and João just provides the land and the set of common practices that allow everyone to work together harmoniously. Rather than hired labor, the individual farmers are now entirely entrepreneurial, with all of the positive personal and productive benefits you could imagine.

Conventional farming had provided João with a relatively simple set of rules to follow (if you have bugs, use pesticides) and relationships to cultivate (sell your coffee to the local co-op at the commodity price). These practices were meant to be applied, regardless of local context, so that if you grow coffee you use these chemicals, that farm machinery, and sell to those guys. João came to a point in his business where he had to acknowledge that this set of practices was not economically sustainable, to say nothing of the environmental and social consequences. He changed his perspective to become incredibly sensitive to his local context, he sought opportunities to diversify and hedge, and he fundamentally changed the product he was bringing to market.

The similarities to my experience at Moment are striking. I’ve had the pleasure of working with a few people explicitly tasked with changing culture and improving the product in big organizations. The complexity of this task is no less daunting than João’s: isolate one variable for change, and these actors may find that they’ve affected some unexpected part of the system.

In both cases, change agents are motivated by a personal vision and a singular devotion to those values allows them to see the world around them as a series of experiments that will allow them to continuously learn and improve as they move towards the ideal, even while experiencing setbacks. In both, the agents sought to win the support and collaboration of partners, and the quality of early results was a strong proof point. In the best outcome, these change agents not only improve their products to the benefit of their consumers, but also the lives of those involved in the production.

So, long story short, it was a productive weekend on the farm. Personally, it’s been a great reminder of how important it is to seek opportunities to change contexts and gather different perspectives.