When Writer-in-Residence Julia Alvarez and her partner Bill Eichner traveled to deforested areas in the Dominican Republic in 1996, Alvarez thought she would complete a quick writing project for The Nature Conservancy and then return to her home in Middlebury. Instead, Alvarez and Eichner remained permanently tied to the region. The two started Cafe Alta Gracia, a coffee company focused on bringing environmental, economic, social and political sustainability to the small coffee farmers who live in the mountains above Jarabacoa.
Today they’re still asking themselves, was it worth it?
The future of Cafe Alta Gracia is uncertain. The brand is put out to market by Vermont Coffee Company, but Eichner has recently learned that Vermont Coffee will soon drop the label. Furthermore, Alvarez and Eichner are looking to “pass the baton.”
“You realize as you’re up over your head that it’s not your talent; it’s not your calling,” said Alvarez Friday, March 1 during the opening talk of the MCSE’s spring lecture series. “I’m a storyteller.”
“Anyone looking for an impossible dream?” she asked. “We’ve got one for you!”
Alvarez and Eichner demonstrated a realistic awareness of the challenges ahead for their enterprise and a strong sense of humility about the feasibility of their goals.
When they began the project, Alvarez and Eichner envisioned the creation of a fair market for coffee farmers, as most small farmers received 25-30 cents per pound of coffee on credit (before the beans were picked) at a time when large plantations sold coffee for approximately $1 per pound. In addition, Alvarez and Eichner hoped to expand literacy in the community and create a reputation for Dominican coffee that would sustain the product’s marketability.
Eichner humbly presented their accomplishments after 16 years of work: a fair trade price for coffee for over 100 small farmers, increased educational opportunities for the local community, brand recognition for Dominican coffee, and successful volunteer projects with Middlebury students and other university groups.
Eichner was quick to follow this segment by describing some of the projects that had failed.
“It’s a long list,” he said. He ticked off a poultry project, a rabbit project, a community garden, a coffee processing facility, a program that sent local students to the city for school, and a bamboo furniture project.
Then, Eichner transitioned into the heart of the talk: the lessons learned from the failures and successes. He described the importance of “being there,” of partnering with local organizations that have a track record of success, and the need to “shut up and listen.”
“Try to find out what a community wants and needs,” he advised. “You can decide if it’s practical and achievable, but let it come from the community … Get involved in discussions.”
Both Alvarez and Eichner expressed their frustration with larger aid organizations like USAID. “The things that are set up are not working for the little people,” said Alvarez. It’s clear that Alvarez and Eichner are proud of the independent, grass roots nature of their enterprise.
“We didn’t even know what the word sustainable meant when we got there … [but] we felt moved to do something,” said Alvarez. “It’s been an education for us.”
As the couple transitions into the next phase of their project, only one thing is certain: the learning process is far from over.