Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Having a Bolaven?

When I’m not spending my days traveling I’ll often be found at work, and when I’m at work it’s more likely than not I’ll be mainlining coffee from one of the multitude of cafes within the Melbourne CBD.

Since I’ve been traveling my relationship with coffee has changed. Partly this is because if I feel tired, I rest, I close my eyes, lie down or nap, and partly this stems from the quality of the coffee, as I’ve discovered a large proportion of the world is drinking the devil’s brew in the form of Nescafe 3 (powdered coffee, sugar and milk) in 1. As such I no longer crave coffee, but when I do encounter a good cuppa it’s an unexpected pleasure. Like bumping into a close friend I quickly appreciate the qualities that formed our initial relationship.

So it was that prior to venturing down the Mekong I was reunited with my close compadre as we stopped in for lunch and a coffee in the Bolaven Café in Pakse. While enjoying a delicious coffee we had time to read the history of the café through a reproduction of an article concerning its owner, Sam Say.

From the article we learned that the café was but one small part of the Bolaven Farms operation.  Sam was formerly a Laos refuge from the secret war waged by the Americans during the Vietnam War, who, via Canada, the US and Hong Kong became a successful steel trader.  Having retired as a trader, but still based in Hong Kong, he seeks ways in which he can use his wealth to assist Laos’s impoverished communities, as this excellent ‘Earth Report’ documentary highlights.  He established Bolaven Farms in 2007 as a vehicle to realize this aim.

General Manager, Dave Hanna
After reading the article we noticed a little note stating that if you are interested in volunteering on the farm to contact the General Manager, Dave Hanna.  Given the volume of coffee I consume in a year I thought I owed it to myself to increase my knowledge of the coffee production process and the issues surrounding it. I also felt from what I’d read that the farm operations would form an excellent piece. Following an exchange of emails and a chat with Dave it was arranged for Susi and I to spend a couple of days assisting on the farm on our return from the lower Mekong.

It’s fair to say we were both apprehensive about volunteering, as I for one have zero to no experience in a farm environment, and despite my own personal view of myself as a cross between the Solo Man and Chuck Norris, I unfortunately find that reality often indicates otherwise.

Gathering early one morning at the Bolaven Café in Pakse we were whisked away in the company 4WD, an unprecedented luxury given our usual modes of transport.  Out past Paksong on the Bolaven Plateau the road became a bumpy mélange of dust, detours and potholes.  Turning off we entered the farm and met the Operations Manager, Roy and his wife, Anita, who looks after Community Development. 

After introductions we were shown to our living quarters, a rammed earthen building, inside of which was set up a three man tent with mattresses and blankets.  It was a cute arrangement that we were grateful for come nightfall as our tent fortress was ringed by an array of insects great and small.

We then expected to set to work, out in the fields tilling the soil, or some such coffee farming related task. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), this wasn’t to be and Anita indicated we were free to roam as we pleased. Following a brief wander we decided to stroll up the road to a village we had driven by on the way in.

Walking up the road we passed homes of all descriptions interspersed between the coffee plantations and bamboo mats laden with drying coffee beans.  Each Lao person we encountered shouting hello to us and waving enthusiastically as we walked by. Returning to the farm Roy and Anita took time out to provide us with a tour of operations as we stood on the back of the farm’s small truck.

Through the tour we learnt that it takes three years after planting for a coffee tree to start producing beans.  As the farm was only established in 2007 it’s only been generating a revenue stream since 2010. More importantly the farm is certified organic and, as much as possible, independent of external suppliers. The organic certification enables the farm to generate a much greater return on the harvested coffee and the independence ensures the farm is not beholden to price fluctuations of suppliers, with much of the focus in maintaining its independence on ensuring on site production of the coffee plant fertilizer.

As we gazed at 77 snorting pigs that form the backbone of the fertilizer production process Roy told us an amusing anecdote of their previous attempts to generate fertilizer. Pointing to a disused shed he indicated this is where the goats were once housed, however they had to be sold as they would escape their barn and eat the newly planted coffee trees they were meant to fertilise.  They then turned to cows as manure generators, but soon had problems with cows trampling the coffee trees, before employing the current approach based on pigs.

Anita, Tonguon and I
The next morning I’d arranged to interview Anita and the Farm Manager, Tonguon who hails from the Luang Prabang region way to the north of the Bolaven Plateau.  A fundamental part of the farm’s operation is a three year coffee farmer training program offered to unemployed ethnic minority Laos from the north of the country.  As Anita and Tonguon explained, through the training program farmers are not only provided with employment, but taught the necessary skills to save their income to enable them at the end of the three years to establish their own farm based on the organic farming principles instilled through their training. To date approximately 30 farmers have graduated from the farm and established their own organic coffee farms in the surrounding area that Bolaven Farms guarantee to purchase as part of a collective approach.

Following the interview it was time for Susi and I to actually do some work, as by this stage we were keen to get our hands dirty. Tonguon led us to a part of the farm where the sought after red coffee beans had already been removed from the trees, but the residual beans used for instant coffee remained. Demonstrating how to strip the beans and place them in a hessian bag we then set to work. Tonguon must have chosen the most ant infested tree to commence with as it took a degree of dexterity to pluck each bean before a large marauding red ant would charge towards your fingers. 

After 45 minutes of moving from tree to tree Tonguon asked us to stop.  We never understood why and that was the extent of our work for the rest of our time on the farm.  I suspect we were too good and showing the rest of the farmers up, or maybe not.

It’s obvious that there are numerous social and environmental positives associated with the Bolaven Farms approach to coffee, and in particular their teaching of farmers has the potential to create a legacy for generations. Stepping back from the farm operations I find it interesting that this approach has been enabled however through the funds (an estimated $4 million to date) generated by Sam Say in a different guise as a steel trader. It seems in a country like Laos these funds provide a degree of independence from reliance on others that is crucial to enabling such a project to succeed.

The next morning we left the farm and the Bolaven Plateau for Pakse.  Our final evening in Laos before heading to Thailand was spent gazing on the setting sun over the Mekong on the rooftop of the Pakse Hotel, the bright lights, humidity and fading heat enough to entice young Tony out of hiding sporting his finest attire.

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