Words by Lem Butler
I was never the best student when it came to school. My younger years were focused on getting to University with no true goals once I got there. Once I arrived at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I discovered an interest in political theory which lead me to Central American politics. I was fascinated with the Nicaraguan civil war mainly because I remembered watching the Iran-Contra Affair of the 80’s unfold on television as a kid. American TV only shows a glimpse of truth, the rest you have to research, which I did in a university library years later. Finding the missing pieces to the big picture in books answered a lot of questions I had as a kid watching Oliver North’s congressional testimony on American TV. It was serendipitous that my first trip to a coffee producing country would be Nicaragua. It seemed the true story of a country I sought as a 12 year old in front of a television and later as an 18 year old at a university was not finished with me just yet.
I wasn’t supposed to be in coffee long. My pursuit was music. Coffee was just a layover between recording studios and nightclubs. After discovering barista competitions, I decided to compete which kept me in my so called coffee layover a little longer than I anticipated. It took me 18 months to prepare for a Regional Barista competition victory in 2005. The regional sponsor, Counter Culture Coffee (CCC), covered all travel expenses for the regional winner to enter the National Competition. That year the 2005 United States Barista Competition was in my home state of North Carolina and lucky for me CCC felt that it wouldn’t be too exciting for me to travel 3 hours away to a city I’ve probably been to so they decided to take me somewhere a little more exciting: Nicaragua!
The group I traveled with was made up of Cafe owners and two staff members from Counter Culture Coffee. It was a pretty impressive and knowledgeable group, so right from the beginning I felt a little intimidated with my brief history in coffee. We landed in Managua and after hotel check in we went to the local market for supplies. The first Nicaraguan I met was a man who did not speak any English but was very insistent on having a conversation with me. He talked for 45 minutes and I just listened and nodded my head ‘yes’ every few sentences. I didn't see any of the local market but enjoyed the cadence of this man's 45 minute one-sided conversation. When it was time to go, he gave me a necklace. I offered to trade my necklace, but he happily declined. The necklace he gave me was a medal ring with a two sided rotating disc which had a picture of Che Guvera on both sides. One side was Che with a background of Red for the Sandinistas and the other Che had a blue background for the Contras. The one thing I did understand and would be a continuing theme throughout the week: The civil war was over and Nicaraguans who fought on both sides were now unified.
After our first night in Managua, we began our journey to Finca Esperanza Verde where we would stay for a week. This was a beautiful Organic farm nestled in the mountains of San Ramon. Here's where it got a little bizarre. This farm was started by the Harkrader family from Durham, North Carolina where they were helping the community with jobs, education and infrastructure. The family has a daughter who I met during my years as a DJ. She had asked me for training in turntablism and we spent a month working on her skills. She is now an amazing DJ in Brooklyn, New York. As soon as our bus stopped at the farm, the first thing I saw getting off the bus was a beautiful mural painted on one of the walls of the main house. My DJ friend's signature was one of many who helped paint the wall.
We toured the farm and I helped pulp coffee with one of the farm workers. I had never experienced elevation before and the 1900m was beginning to take a toll on my energy, but the adrenaline of seeing coffee cherries, Nicaragua and being outside of the US for only the third time in my life negated my fatigue. Each day was a farm visit of farms that belonged to a Co-op with whom Counter Culture Coffee had an established relationship. I tasted the sweet fruit of coffee cherries, picked coffee and learned the importance of preserving their land for each generation through organic farming and crop diversification. We even visited the dry mill to cup coffee and see how coffee was dried on concrete patios.
The biggest thing that I noticed and what resonated with me due to my studies in Central American politics, was how each farm that we visited had a small flag at their gates. Some were red and black and some were blue and white. All the farmers were awesome and some had some incredible innovations on their farms from water filtration to fermentation experimentation. The biggest question I had was about the flags. Most of the farmers who flew the Blue and White flags were former members of the US backed Contra rebellion. They were former cattle ranchers whose land was redistributed by the Sandinista government's social land reform. They took arms to defend their land and fight the government. After the war they became coffee farmers and although they fought against Sandinistas, they were putting the war behind them to work together with former Sandinistas turned coffee farmers all for the benefit of their coffee farm cooperative. My eyes became full of water to hear how this cattle rancher had to sneak his entire family off their land for fear of being killed in the night; leaving everything behind, horses, personal belongings, family photos and he was still able to smile because his family was safe. "Nada es mas importante que la familia”. Coffee is about the people. With every coffee I drink I try to remember that there are incredible stories that go into each cup, families behind each coffee cherry. I didn't learn any of this from the television nor in the books at University, get out there and let the world show you its music.