by Helen Russell
We just returned from Panama, where we had a ceremony at our new coffee farm, Finca Sophia, to inaugurate the new worker housing there. It was such a moving experience to stand in a circle in front of the colorful new building with the family and workers who will live there, as well as other coffee farmers and neighbors, celebrating the completion of the project—a truly joyful occasion. The clouds in the high jungle hills parted and it seemed the sun shone down especially for our gathering.
My business partner, Brooke McDonnell, and myself, along with our partner in the farm, Willem Boot, built the new housing as part of our project to grow the world's best coffee in Panama. When we say the "best" coffee, we mean quality every step of the way--treating the soil, the plants, the environment, the workers, and the community with utmost respect. We want to create a model coffee farm, striving for excellence on all fronts.
When we started this project, we realized right away that we needed to build clean, comfortable housing for the workers. We want to attract the right people to stay on the land, to nurture our coffee plants, and building housing gives us a guarantee that they will continue to work with us. If we treat our workers with respect, they'll help us grow great coffee, in what Kelly Hartmann, our Panamanian farm manager, calls a "chain of well-being."
Two years ago, we started the housing project. We went down to Panama with Susan Church, a Berkeley-based contractor, to investigate the coffee worker housing that exists and to figure out how we could build it better. We looked around, and were generally very discouraged. It didn't matter if it was an affluent farm or not, the worker housing was uniformly airless, dark, and dank, with a lot of smoke indoors. Generally there was no running water, with earthen floors. We all noted that the children who lived in these environments seemed to have chronic colds and runny noses. We determined that we would build healthier housing for the people who work for us.
When we bought the land for Finca Sophia, there was only a shack there, where a family lived that now works for us. We've come to know this family—Angel, who is the head worker on the farm, his wife Argelia, and their four children. In some ways, when you buy land in Panama, you inherit the people who live there. We sat down with this family and with the other coffee workers and asked them what they would like in their housing. The men mentioned larger rooms, and locks on their doors. Generally the women in this indigenous group—the Ngobe Indians—are very shy. But Susan suggested we speak with them, too, to find our what their needs were. The women wanted a larger kitchen and a larger community area. The men thought it was amazing that we asked the women, because it's so foreign to their culture. The mother in the family, Argelia, smirked at their astonishment. I wondered if it was the first time in her life anyone had asked her opinion.
We got down to work building the house. Susan spent a lot of time with local contractors and at the Home Depot in David, the nearest large city, an hour and a half away. She found an Italian material, M2, which is highly insulating, and doesn't hold moisture. She consulted the family about the colors they wanted the house painted—which are bright and cheerful. She created large cooking areas and common spaces, and we put in smokeless stoves and flush toilets. All of this took over a year, since all the materials had to be carted up the rough 4-wheel-drive road up to the farm.
Completed, the building is filled with light and color. We had a party at the celebration, eating local sweets and drinking coffee from the Hartmann farm, where we bought seedlings, and whose family members—third generation coffee growers in the area--have been incredible mentors to us during this process of creating a farm. The end result of the building is so nice that the bank managers who came to the celebration kept asking if the house was for the owners, not the workers.
We're proud to have built worker housing that respects the people who will live on our farm and work for us. Hopefully, we'll have a long relationship with them and they'll be invested in helping us grow the best coffee in the world.
The day of the inauguration, we had something else to celebrate: the first little harvest of Geisha coffee beans from the farm. It will be a couple of years before we have a real crop, but I held some of the first cherries from our farm in my hands. I felt so thrilled at what we've already accomplished at the farm, and everything we have to look forward to. I washed the cherries in my hotel sink and can't wait to roast them!