Hill of Beans

For author Julia Alvarez and her husband, starting an organic coffee plantation was a wake-up call

(Eric Jaffe)

(Continued from page 1)

As farm operations progressed, its owners realized that they wanted to do more for the twenty or so coffee farmers and their families, besides paying them fair wage—around twice the region's average. None of the farmers or their children knew how to read or write. So Alvarez and Eichner arranged to build a school and library at Alta Gracia.

In A Cafecito Story, Alvarez's 2001 book inspired by her experience with the farm, she sums up this dual importance of sustainable farming and literacy in one lyrical sentence: "It's amazing how much better coffee grows when sung to by birds or when through an open window comes the sound of a human voice reading words on paper that still holds the memory of the tree it used to be."

In 2004, weary from years of managing from a distance, Alvarez and Eichner learned from one of Alvarez's uncles that the Dominican Institute for Agriculture and Forestry Research, a governmental non-profit, was looking for a regional research center and demonstration farm. For the past three years, the institute's employees have managed Alta Gracia and used it as a training facility where, among other experiments, they've developed natural ways of controlling the dreaded coffee broca—a poppy-seed sized pest that ravages coffee cherries across the Caribbean and Latin America. Educational workshops are frequently held at the farm office and the visitor center.

Meanwhile, back in Vermont, Alvarez and Eichner are looking into ways to keep their farm going long after they are gone. "Our goal is to pass it on," Alvarez says. The couple is hoping to find for a U.S. university interested in taking over Alta Gracia. "It's 260 acres on a Third World mountain," Alvarez says. "This is a place that can be an environmental learning center. It's a new kind of learning, beyond walls."

Emily Brady lives in Brooklyn and writes regularly for the New York Times.


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