Finca Alta Gracia: organic farm partners with the College to promote community development

By Middlebury Campus

Coffee beans dry in the sunlight under the protection of a greenhouse handmade by José Cruz, a neighboring farmer in the Dominican Republic. / Courtesy
Coffee beans dry in the sunlight under the protection of a greenhouse handmade by José Cruz, a neighboring farmer in the Dominican Republic. / Courtesy

Correction Appended

“Ophthalmologist and writer — coffee growers?” Middlebury College Writer-in-Residence Julia Alvarez applied a tone of self-deprecating humor when she spoke about the unexpected endeavor she and her husband, Bill Eichner, undertook in 1997. Traveling to the Dominican Republic on a writing assignment, Alvarez discovered that the community of Los Marranitos and its surrounding farmland were suffering from deforestation, soil erosion, illiteracy and poverty and needed more hands-on assistance than the publicity from Alvarez’s story would receive. Unable to ignore the basic needs of the suffering Dominicans, Alvarez and Eichner established Finca Alta Gracia — which roughly translates to, “the farm of High Grace, the protector of the Dominican Republic” — an organic coffee farm that uses traditional sustainable methods and simultaneously seeks to educate and support the surrounding community.

Alvarez and Eichner’s memorable visit to the Dominican Republic that led to their purchasing Finca Alta Gracia was initially prompted by The Nature Conservancy’s construction of an anthology. “They were asking writers to visit one of their protected places, write a story about it and gift it to them so that they could put it in the anthology and raise funds for different programs,” Alvarez recalled. When The Nature Conservancy asked Alvarez to cover the Dominican Republic, she jumped at the opportunity to visit her parents’ native land and her childhood home. Her free trip home quickly turned into a lesson in farming practices.

“We were taken to this area where we connected with a lot of the local farmers who were trying to go back to the traditional way of growing coffee, which has always been under shade trees ­— organic by default, because who could afford pesticides?” Alvarez said, contrasting this traditional farming technique with the popular “plantation method.” Under the plantation method, much of the mountainous terrain of the area had been stripped of its shade trees in order to support a different kind of beans that grew in the sunlight.

“The habitat was completely changed,” she said. “The songbirds were gone.” These negative consequences from coffee harvesting deeply affected Alvarez.

Local women of Los Marranitos carry coffee beans in reused cans. The cans serve as an official unit of measure on the farm. / Courtesy
Local women of Los Marranitos carry coffee beans in reused cans. The cans serve as an official unit of measure on the farm. / Courtesy

“These farmers, not even aware because they didn’t have the means — they didn’t know how to read or write — of some global movement in that direction [of organic farming], they just wanted to go back to the way they were doing things,” Alvarez said of the movement to return to the shade-tree method of growing beans. “So they asked Bill and me if we would like to help them.”

Alvarez initially responded skeptically, saying that her story would raise awareness about the perilous effects of the coffee industry on local ecosystems and, as a result, those with the means to help them could become involved. However, the farmers and Alvarez’s husband were not satisfied with that response; Eichner bought six acres of abandoned and deforested farmland and began planting trees. This initial reforestation was recognized by the Vermont Institute of Natural Science because, as a result of Alvarez’s and Eichner’s planting, Bicknell’s Thrush, an endangered bird that migrates from Vermont to the Dominican Republic, had finally returned to the Dominican Republic. This symbolic return of animals to their natural habitat is highlighted on the Café Alta Gracia Web site with bird woodcuts by local artist Belkis Ramirez.

The small reforestation project quickly developed into much more. Eichner purchased 60 more acres and then 60 more. Finca Alta Gracia currently occupies 260 acres with room to expand. On these acres, Alvarez and Eichner have worked with the local farmers to create a coffee farm that has improved not only the surrounding environment but also the lives of the farmers. Eichner explained that a pound of Dominican coffee that is sold in the United States for 10 dollars can be bought for as little as 33 cents in the farming communities. Alvarez, Eichner and their business partner Paul Ralston, founder of the Vermont Coffee Company, who grinds Alta Gracia’s beans and sells them, worked to meet USDA organic standards in order to ensure a fairer price for their coffee beans and for the beans of neighboring farmers.

“Certification is an important imprint that says that you are following those practices, and that’s important to the marketplace,” Ralston explained. “[The farm] was certified under a program that allows the manager of the farm, which is a Dominican government organization, to extend that certification to neighboring farms. So there are a number of farmers who have met the quality standard and the organic standard who are now able to export their coffee.”

Realizing that sustainability encompassed much more than reforestation and organic growing practices, Alvarez, Eichner and Ralston sought to further improve the community by establishing a literacy program on the farm. Alvarez recalled meeting the town’s “letter-writer,” one of the few literate men in the community who was in charge of transcribing communication for community members. “And that’s when we realized that we were taking care of the land, nature, but we had to take care of human nature, too,” Alvarez said. “And without the access to reading and writing, the cycle of poverty just keeps getting repeated. So that’s where the whole school idea came in later in the process.”

Seeking to promote development and sustainability simultaneously, in 2000, Alvarez conducted a Winter Term course titled “Writing in the Wiles” in which 12 Middlebury students lived with her on Finca Alta Gracia for the month, devoting half of each day to writing workshops and the other half to community projects, including teaching, bean-picking, cooking and gardening.

Unable to repeat the class due to changes in the structure of Winter Term, Alvarez established a different ongoing connection between the College and the farm. Every year, two Middlebury graduates are hired for one-year fellowships as either volunteer teachers or “farm and community development volunteers,” during which time they live in the community and work to improve its situation.

When Julie Baroody ’03.5 arrived at Middlebury in February of 2000, one of the first things she did was attend a presentation conducted by the “Writing in the Wiles” class. Four years later, this international studies major and former inhabitant of Weybridge house was living and teaching on Finca Alta Gracia. Baroody said she worked closely with Alvarez to determine the goals of the library on the farm. “The experience gave me some insight into non-profit management,” she said.

Naomi Harper ’08, who lived and worked on the farm last year, shared a similar learning experience in management and sustainability, “Working there made me realize that in order for any project to be sustainable, the driving force behind it has to come from the bottom up,” Harper said. “By that I mean there must be a high level of engagement on a local grassroots level. The Alta Gracia dream is one in which community development, education and empowerment go hand-in-hand with environmental sustainability.”

In addition to working on the farm and conducting literacy classes, the fellows undertake community “micro-enterprise” projects. Eli Berman ’07, a current volunteer at the farm, is working to increase the production of compost that will be re-used as natural fertilizer. Berman maintained that such projects require a great deal of help and input from locals.

“One of my good friends on the farm is a nine-year-old boy, Johanni, who helps me with the composting project,” Berman said. “Although he can barely read, he is an expert on all of the plants and animals in the area. He leads me around the farm and community quizzing me on the differences between plants. Although I have had trouble learning the difference between plants, I like to think that he sees the same potential in me that I see in him.”

Dylan Wadja-Levie ’08, who worked last year as the farm’s first farm and community development volunteer, developed what became known as “the chicken project,” through which the Alta Gracia Foundation hired two Dominicans to build a chicken coop on the farm and stock it with chickens. The project’s purpose was twofold. It served not only to employ community members, but also to provide fresh eggs and meat for the surrounding town.

“My experience taught me that sustainability is not easy,” Wadja-Levie said, comparing the buzz word of “sustainability” to the realization of such projects. “For something to be sustainable it must be sustainable on many different levels,” she continued. “Something that might seem sustainable, or that is labeled as sustainable, might not always be sustainable. We need to constantly evaluate and adjust.”

Eichner said that the very presence of the volunteers in addition to their hard work, encourages change in the community. “A lot can be accomplished by people coming down and doing their thing and it being seen,” he said.

Ria Shroff ’09, who, along with Berman, currently lives and works on the farm, detailed in her Oct. 26 blog entry the power of promoting literacy by reading in public. She also encourages parents to set their own example for their children:“I told them that now, since their kids were in school, it was up to them to set a good example about the importance of education, and that the kids would imitate their behavior,” she wrote. “They teased me and started complaining in jest about how I was a taskmaster, but I could tell they were all eager. I walked out of my house 30 minutes later and found all the women on their front porch with a book. It reminded me of sitting out on the balcony in my house and reading, reading, reading.”

As evidenced by the volunteers’ stories, sustainability at Finca Alta Gracia encompasses more than organic and eco-friendly growing practices. Sustainability for the farm incorporates environmental, economic, political and social justice.

“Paul [of the Vermont Coffee Company] is 100 percent fair trade because, as he said, ‘fair trade is a philosophy,’” Alvarez said. “If you believe it, then anything else is not fair. It does trickle down to these people having a significantly better chance.”

Alvarez, Eichner and Ralston are grateful for the support of the fellows, the yearly Middlebury Alternative Leadership Trip trips to the farm and the funding provided by the College’s Alliance for Civic Enagement office. “[The volunteers] are a great gift to the community,” Eichner said.

Finca Alta Gracia plans to expand more this year, exporting 300 60-kilo bags of beans to the United States, up from 250 last year. Alvarez, Eichner and Ralston would also like to see additional College involvement and look forward to reading the applications for this year’s fellows.

For those who cannot travel to the Dominican Republic to assist directly in the ongoing 13-year sustainability project that began with a story assignment, the volunteers suggest supporting fair trade on the consumer level.

“For coffee drinkers, think about relationship coffees,” Wadja-Levie suggested. “Try to find a roaster who knows where the coffee comes from and the farmers who grow it.”

Berman added, “I encourage people to learn more about the products they consume because, although I’m only knowledgeable about coffee, I’m sure this is a trend in many other markets. The final price should only be one of many factors in deciding whether or not to buy a certain product.”

Café Alta Gracia can be purchased at a number of local Middlebury establishments or online at http://www.vermontcoffeecompany.com.

Correction:  On Nov. 19, the headline on page 13 “Finca Alta Gracia: organic farm partners with the College to promote community development” misrepresented the relationship between the College and the farm. No direct partnership between the College and Finca Alta Gracia exists. Rather, two Middlebury graduates are hired each year as fellows, and the funding for the Middlebury grad volunteer fellows is provided by gifts made to the ACE office by an alum of the Class of 1987 and the Vermont Coffee Company. The Campus regrets the error.