THE CROCE FAMILY
Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza, Brazil
Johan Damgaard, Founder and Captain of Johan & Nyström.
»Brazil is by far the world’s largest coffee producer in terms of volume. A third of the world’s total coffee, more that 2.5 million tons annually, are produced in the country.
If you travel through one of Brazil’s coffee regions -Minas Gerais, São Paulo or Paraná- you will see acres upon acres of industrial coffee plantations across the landscape
The neat rows of coffee trees look beautiful and lush. They have for decades been a cornerstone of the Brazilian economy. At one time coffee production stood for more than half of the country’s exports, but now the sector that used to give Brazil such large incomes is instead bringing it difficulties. All of southeast Brazil, where amongst others São Paulo and Minas Gerais are located, has in later years been struck by drought. A large part of the blame can be placed on the coffee growers. In the pursuit of larger and larger harvests they have cleared rainforest, trading varied animal and plant life for the benefit of a single crop. They have decimated the local eco-system and dried out ground water reserves. The whole region, including the booming regions of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, has had to ration water and the coffee production has declined. Most people turn a blind eye to the problem, their only answer being more farming, more clearing of rainforest and increased use of pesticides.
But what if we could change this development, using all sustainable methods at our disposal. At Johan & Nyström we have always looked for those environmental rebels. We have seen the damage that coffee can do to the environment if it is grown in a harmful way, but we have also seen how enriching it can be when it’s grown sustainably. We want to collaborate with the people who work with nature instead of against it, and who aspire to quality rather than quantity.
For a very long time the coffee drinking majority where not interested in the people behind the coffee, in their ideas, methods or philosophies. Coffee was bought in bulk, where a small farmer sold to a bigger broker who sold to an even bigger broker and so on… Few cared about the coffees origins and how it had been cultivated or under which working conditions.
A turning point came around the new millennium. Smaller coffee roasters that cared about the origins of the coffee as well as the stories of the farmers, started to pop up around the world; beginning in the U.S, but soon also in Sweden.
When me and my friends founded Johan & Nyström in 2004 we initially worked with brokers to find good coffee, but as our knowledge grew, we did’nt see the purpose of working with middle hands and learnt that it was better to establish direct relations with the farmer. Our ambition was to make the distance between ourselves and the farmers as small as possible in order for us to directly influence the production process in a positive way. This method also gave us the opportunity to broaden the perspectives of our customers, showing them that a coffee can be good in many different ways. It can taste good in the cup, but it can also do good to the environment and for the people working with it.
In 2009 a friend tipped us off about a family in Brazil that could be a perfect fit for us. They worked very sustainably, had initiated projects to get others to do the same and they made good coffee. It sounded intriguing enough to get in touch and the following year Johan & Nyström travelled to Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza (FAF) in the São Paulo-region for the first time. It immediately became one of our favorite places on earth. A place we wanted to keep all to our selves and at the same time, tell everyone we meet about.
The farm is run by the couple Marcos Croce and Silvia Barretto. Silvia inherited the farm in 2001 from her grandfather and the land has been in the family since 1850. For many years it was an industrial plantation, but Silvia and Marco where convinced it would be possible to turn it into a completely organic farm. The transition did not come cheap. When they stopped using pesticides and chemical fertilizers that the trees had become dependent on, yields reduced by 80 percent in the first year. Slowly that have rebuilt the farm to what it once was; a jungle of plant and animal life where everything lives and grows in harmony.
My latest of many visits to the Croce family was last year when I went there together with some of Johan & Nyströms customers and our coffee buyer Lars Pilengrim. The farm is part of our direct trade initiative which means we buy coffee directly from the family. We often send our employees and customers there since it’s a great example of how organic farming can work and at this visit everything was even more flourishing than before.
We came upon the main building, an 18th century hacienda, made from weathered yellow bricks. It stands in the middle of the jungle and you could almost hear the plants growing all around us. The family cultivates avocados, mangos, nectarines, limes, bananas, beans and barley, everything growing together with the coffee trees. Birds fly through the tree branches and their calls can be heard over the buzz of insects.
Marco took us on a tour of the farm and began by explaining, “If I take a bite of a fruit and throw it on the ground, a new tree will pop up there three days later.” That is how fertile the soil has become since he and Silvia took over. A big transformation from before, when nothing could grow without pesticides or fertilizers. Now the farm is self-sufficient when it comes to the food grown.
Marco explains his farming philosophy using the analogy of a house, where every individual has a place where it belongs. He walked by a tree and said, “This one I planted ten years ago.” The tree was two and a half meters tall and looked healthy and green. A little later he pointed out another tree that had been planted on the same day as the first one. This one was at least five meters tall. Finally, a few kilometers away into the jungle, he showed us yet another tree that was planted on that same day. This tree was large and majestic and at least ten meters tall. The reason for this according to Marco was that there in the jungle he had found the right “house” for that particular species of tree. And it’s just the same when it comes to the coffee trees.
According to Marco, every coffee tree needs to find its own ultimate environment. At which altitude does it thrive? Which larger trees are best suited for shading? All of Marcos philosophy has its root in passivity. If the coffee tree grows next to a banana tree, the fallen banana leaves will supply nutrients.
He doesn’t see himself as a farmer, but as a mediator in nature, helping everything find its right place. Marcos philosophy also includes people. Everything is a part of the same body, our planet, and for that reason FAF has very few employees. Marco prefers the people that work at FAF to be partners. As we walked further into the rainforest Marco explained his reasoning, “Partnering is the only way to create the right kind of motivation. If you share everything you own, you almost always get double the return, ecologically and economically.” That specific relationship between sustainable ecology and economy is very important to Marco, because even though he primarily sees himself as an environmental rebel, he also wants to show that it makes economic sense to work sustainably. By using organic means it is possible to raise the price of the coffee, get larger harvests and also get back the coveted water to the region. When he and Silvia took over the farm there were no natural water sources left.
Now they have replenished forty of them. “Water is the source of all life,” he concludes. It was clear to me that coffee wasn’t his main goal, but to bring back the water to the region. With the earnings from his coffee, he has been able to re-invest in the re-growth of nature.
The Croce family was for a time considered crazy by their neighbors, with Marcos ideas of “houses” and his hatred of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. For a while Marco even bought up land with the sole purpose of keeping others from destroying it. However, little by little his neighbors have started to change their perspectives. At the time of our visit, Marco had engaged some sixty farmers in an initiative he calls Biolink, where all of the farmers have transitioned into organic farming practices. Their numbers are growing each year. It is an organic revolution.
After our tour it was time to eat at the bed and breakfast that Silvia runs on the farm. We were served fruits and vegetables grown right there. Everything, from the avocado to the mango tasted amazing, as well as meat from animals that had grazed a few kilometers away. We joked that even the dirt itself would taste good here. Marco asked,” Have you only eaten organic food before you came here?” We shook our heads no.
”Then I really shouldn’t let you use our toilets. You are full of poisons and bad stuff. If you’d only eaten organic I would have gladly invited you to use my toilets. Human waste is great fertilizer!”
We looked at him and started laughing. Sure, he was joking, but it was with a hint of truth to it.
As we sat there on the terrace looking out on the greenery with a cup of coffee that was grown just meters away it really felt like we were in paradise. It tasted pure and potent -like drinking the essence of the nature surrounding us. After a moment’s silence, David, one of our customers and a bakery owner said, “Marco and Silvia have only been in the coffee business for fifteen years, and yet they seem to have understood what many that have grown coffee all their lives have missed.”
I replied,”If all of the world’s coffee farms where managed like this one, we would have an entirely different planet.”