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Can Great Coffee Save the Jungle?

Persuaded that guilt alone won't get Americans to pay more for environmentally friendly coffee, importers are trying a market approach by giving farmers the tools to grow better beans

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Then came the phenomenal rise of Starbucks and other gourmet coffee brands, which persuaded consumers to pay for richer flavors. The education of the American coffee palate had begun, though connoisseurs still say Starbucks’ dark roasts obscure subtle flavors—hints of cashew, lemon, blueberries or orange—and that the chain overpromotes sweetened concoctions that completely overwhelm the flavors. “Starbucks is in the milk business,” Katzeff sniffs.

The buyers on this trip are betting that discerning Americans will one day be as knowledgeable about their java as they are about wine. Even as overall U.S. coffee demand has waned over the past few decades as consumption of soft drinks and bottled water has risen, sales of specialty coffees have been increasing and now make up nearly 20 percent of the world market; U.S. retail revenues, too, have risen dramatically in recent years, from $7.5 billion in 1999 to $8.96 billion in 2003.

On this trip, Katzeff invited Byron Corrales, 45, a third-generation Nicaraguan coffee farmer, to join him on an inspection of co-op coffee plants near the town of Estelí. Walking briskly along a mountain trail, Corrales points out an excess of sun here, an apparent fungus there.

“It’s a craftsman’s job. You’ve got to love it every day,” Corrales says, rubbing a dark, shiny leaf in his fingers. He counts off 32 steps in farm-based coffee-processing, starting with understanding the soil, selecting the right seeds and cultivating plants in nurseries, and proceeding through laborious multiple harvests (since the fruit of coffee plants ripen at different times), fermenting, washing, and drying in the sun.

Corrales also makes different mixtures of compost—from coffee grounds, cow manure and other farm waste—for different stages of the plants’ lives. “When they are producing fruit, you must treat them with more respect, just as if they were a mother,” he explains. The extra care has paid off: in December 2002, Corrales won top marks from Coffee Review, a leading buying guide, which called his brew “extraordinary, luxurious coffee, lushly sweet” with “opulent fruit tones and delicately intense floral high notes.”

When Corrales isn’t tending to his plants, he’s helping run CafeNica, a three-year-old national association with a membership of 6,000 small-scale farmers. In that capacity, he has joined with Katzeff to build the country’s first large roasting plant. Katzeff believes the roaster will not only give farmers more control over the process but may also significantly reduce the price of Fair Trade coffee to consumers while adding quality control at the source. “With this kind of structural change, you don’t have to change anybody’s thinking,” he says.

Well, maybe not. In a 2002 report titled “Mugged: Poverty in Your Coffee Cup,” Oxfam recommends a “rescue plan,” in which rich consumer nations would donate funds to help generate other sources of income. Katzeff and others dismiss the charity-dependent idea as hopelessly unrealistic.

Yet simply improving coffee quality won’t save every small farmer. Many may soon have to leave the business. In the meantime, Katzeff hopes Nicaragua’s model of quality control and personal relationships between farmers and buyers catches on. In February, he brought Rwandan farmers to Nicaragua to learn from the success of Corrales and others. Bit by bit, he’s helping the farmers who survive produce a brew that pleases both the palate and the heart.

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