The final passage to Mococa is made tracing the thin golden divide down the center of road. For 18 days I have been driving, making a massive coffee tour through the farms of Brazil to see first hand how coffee is produced here. Lost in the palm of goliath, the enormity of the land has proven challenging for my psyche. Disorientation made manifest between emerald tropical forest and contorted favela. The sun makes no amends. Everything is fatigued in the midst of a long punishing drought; the people are desperate for rain. On top of everything, I am traveling with a ghost, the presence of which plays the part of both redeemer and benefactor. Every time I look up in the mirror, I see it.
Night falls. The road has become river of hard-packed earth and discontent currant. The truck bobs and pitches like a dingy in a storm. My heart feels numb. Adrift. White cows behind lyrical coils of barbed wire watch at the progress of machine through darkness with a forlorn silence. I arrive at Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza tired and defeated; I can barely muster enough strength to exit the truck. My ghost crawls out behind me and stretches like a cat, then surveys the land. He’s been here before.
The farm occupies the grounds the former roaming grounds of the Tupi and Guarany tribes. Their collective mythologies were drenched in the anthropomorphic potentialities of life. They believed in ghosts. Not simple ghosts, but living animations of animals, plants, and minerals. Strands in the web of life. Everyday objects cloaked in the majestic tapestry of shamanic vision. The born and unborn. Werewolves, hummingbirds, and glowworms all carefully inscribed into an oral record, cursed and caressed in the same breath.
The main farmhouse glows like a candle in a dark room. Marcos Croce is smiling through the window. He steps onto the wooden veranda and welcomes me into his office. Headdresses from the Mato Grosso adorn the walls. When we first spoke over the phone some five years ago, we went back and forth as to whom would pay the bill for my flight down to Brazil. He explained then that he was a poor farmer, but now I see that Marcos is no poor farmer. Before returning to Brazil, he lived in Highland Park in Illinois and ran a successful trading company. His three children enjoyed the finest universities in the states. They owned a home on Bobolink Street. He was unhappy.
He talks now about the difference between having employees and having partners. An employee is a horrible thing; they always want to do something else. A partner sits on the same level, so that everyone is working for the same result. Marcos asks me, “How can we help you help us?”
I tell him I’m interested in better coffee. Coffee that’s better for us. I can see myself saying this. My ghost, mouthing the words for me. Marcos nods. “If you eat bad crap,” he says, “you produce shit. If you eat good food, you produce manure.”
I confess to him I am traveling with a ghost. That I know not why, but it won’t leave me alone on this journey. Marcos says, “The best asset you have is yourself.” Everything in life, Marcos explains, takes ten years. In the world of materials “the more you add,” he says, “the more you need.”
Ten years ago, when his Barretto Croce family began migrating back and forth between Brazil and Chicago, they brought with them a sensibility different to the contemporary pathos of the Brazilian coffee farmer. At a time, when farmers were consistently slashing and burning precious resources in the endangered Atlantic forest in order to plant coffee trees, Marcos was trying to understand water. His father in-law had invested well in water. The grounds at Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza have some 42 springs available to them.
Marcos started revitalizing an organic farm by protecting these sources of clean water, planting trees around them. By creating access to clean water, they were able to provide clean water access for their neighbors. Start with the water, then move to your neighbors, then on to the birds, he explains. Looking back, it sounds like a well-orchestrated plan. It wasn’t.
Marcos asks me if I’ve heard of the bobolink. The bobolink is a type of black bird with short finch-like bills. Each year the bobolink makes an epic voyage from the North America to South America. In the span of one year, a bobolink will travel over 12,000 miles.Throughout this journey, the bird takes on different names as it transverses through various cultures. Through the swollen Gulf States, into the hungry eyes of Jamaica, and eventually ending in Brazil, Uruguay, or Argentine. It is an amazing bird, connecting cultures in ways they are unaware.
But recently, staggering population declines in the bobolink have bellowed in some regions up to 75%. The species collapse is due primarily to habitat destruction. Trees disappearing, in large part due to post-industrialized worldview of land usage. When a coffee farm is financially encouraged to sell in quantity not quality, by the price per pound relationship to cup score, it essentially encourages producers to clear cut, using every available piece of real estate on their land to plant coffee. More harvest, more money. Why worry about birds and trees and nature?
It was never in Marcos’ nature to work too hard, he tells me. Silvia Barretto, his wife, was the first real organic and sustainable thinker in the family. The farm comes from her father. It was her understanding of the natural world was the light that showed the way forward. The Barretto Croce family didn’t aspire to make quantity; they wanted to find a way to get a better price for the coffee while making Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza a beautiful and sustainable place. After some research, he learned about the bobolink and shade grown coffee. He learned about bird sanctuaries, bird-friendly certifications, the work of the Smithsonian Institute, and he began to see and opportunity that would make his coffee more valuable for all the species involved. By integrating coffee trees into natural habitats with both passive and active farming strategies, they were able to preserve the habitats for the bobolink. The story of preservation of a place be it for animal, mineral, or human has always captured the hearts and spirits of those searching for meaning in the daily slog of ins and outs.
Birds are travelers. The sky is their road. The trees are their kingdoms. The ancient shamans of this land believed that birds exhibited sacred powers in their flight. Majestically moving across continents in the inner connected matrix of the spirit world. The shamanic properties of birds such as the bobolink are scientifically explained as an ability to migrate some 5,000 miles due in part to a magnetic field the earth emits. Ornithologists believe that migratory birds create a mental map of that allows them to navigate the road. This internal mental map acts as a biological compass created by stored information, memory. Referencing this map with a living field of energy created by minerals enables the birds to find their way.
Magnetic fields are at their lowest point in recorded history. Because of this the atmosphere is being depleted and the earth bombarded by gamma rays. The heartbeat of weather has become irregular. Collapses in bee and bird populations are happening at an alarming rate. The end of the word as we know it… my ghost is holding a finger to his lips. Quiet. He mouths the word and disappears into the ether.
Yes, I was rambling. These ecological doomsday scenarios have weighed heavy on my mind throughout this journey. Coffee is big business. And big business is the business of collapse. And here I find Marcos, with his tiny farm and his wonderful coffee. He says, “When in a person in the family is not doing well, it affects the whole.”
I glance to my ghost, but he is gone. We are alone together.
Later that evening I am sitting up at night alone in my room writing notes from the day, there is a knock at the door. “Who’s there?”
I return to writing. Another knock. I try to ignore it, but it returns louder. Slower. The steady knock begins to work its way into my earlobes like a whale submerging beneath the sea. I reach a point where I can no longer take it anymore; this ghost is driving me to the brink of insanity. I stomp my feet on the wooden floor and with a burst of fury I swing open the door and yell, “WHAT?”
There is no one there. No ghost, just the night opening itself up over the trees. My voices softens, addressing nothing more then the land in the darkness. “What is it you need?”
This question, it feels like the first true thing I’ve said in years. I say it again. And then I close the door. I close my notebook. And for the first time this entire journey, I sleep straight through the night. The ghost is gone.
To see a farm, to see the land working in direct harmony with man is a miraculous thing to witness. No, not miraculous. That’s the wrong word. Natural. Perfect. Simple. This particular farm is one of the finest I have ever seen. The dense forest where coffee grows naturally in a passive organic practice is filled with spider webs and soil that coats your hands. The rows of active organic coffee is like that I have seen on the coastline vineyards of California. There are more varietals of coffee growing here than I can keep notes on. They have taken on different names too, different than I am used to. In telling the story of how a varietal came to get its name, Marcos chuckles. He does this often. His face weathered skin forms easy smiles. As he talks of things that come from the land his hands move through the air as though he were catching objects being tossed to him.
When the Barretto Croce family moved to Brazil they did not know the first thing about coffee farming. They returned to the land as idealists with American privilege to explore ideas looking to implement a vision for sustainability in the region that would eventually spread to surrounding producers. The farm had exasperated their father. He had tried to keep up with the consumer machine and it consumed him in the end. He wanted nothing more to do with the farm and probably thought the family foolish to return. In the early years of transitioning the farm from conventional to organic, they lost 80% of their production.
It took seven years to reach a level out decent output and by then the top roasters were no longer chasing the organic certification. The top roasters wanted coffee of top quality, the certifications were nice, but if it didn’t translate into a great cup of coffee the certification was just another form of commodification in their worlds. It was only with great coffee would the top roasters pay a decent price for the coffee.
Fortunately, that is what they had created. Coffee from Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza is served now by some of the finest coffee roasters in the world. It is today a source of inspiration for all those who travel deep into the heart of coffee. Marcos didn’t set out to craft coffees that specialty roasters would geek out over. He was trying to make some sort of greater good with the land, a treaty between man and his ghost. The world responds sometimes. When you look deep enough and see clearly enough, the world responds.
I feel unready to leave. I look around the morning searching through the sunlight across the trees. There is a silence. The drumbeat of my heart has moved down in tempo. The knocking, I heard in the middle of the night, down with it. Driving back into the city, it takes me some time to look to see if my ghost is still sitting in the back seat. I am alone.
Though we go on the journey, we never know what to pack. Or better yet, what to leave behind. The ghost that haunts us all is always changing. The model for sustainability put forth by the Barretto Croce family is one rooted in the philosophy that a farm is best served, when it creates profit for all: social profit, environmental profit, and economic profit. Returns for the individual, the family, the business, and the society. It is a noble vision, one rich with integrity and that of which eager college students will no doubt scribe into their journals as they visit the farm grounds.
I traveled here with a sense of pride, it wreaked from beneath my clothes of a man who couldn’t see further than his own self. Thinking myself a mighty roaster for visiting the poor farmer, playing the role of great white hero. Swooping down into the underworld to save those lost. All I was really seeing was shadows of myself, not those that moves with the land and sun overhead.
Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza began in 1858, it wasn’t until early 2000 that a new generation of the Barretto Croce bloodline took over. The ones who came back to introduce the values they held core to what it meant unto living a life with meaning and purpose. In all farming, there is the agriculture of life and the agriculture of death: the relationship between man and women, earth and moon, seed and soil.
“An individual must be able to see past his own nose,” I recall Marcos saying. “Learn about your soil and learn about yourself.”