11 Minute Read
Byron Holcomb in the ‘estufa’ drying patio

An interview with Byron Holcomb, head of agribusiness at Nobletree Coffee Farms. 

It’s 5:30pm on Tuesday 20 October 2015 and Courtney Snowdon, Head Roaster of Ozone Coffee Roasters UK, is making the three-hour drive from Fazenda Santa Izabel to Fazenda Monte Verde, two farms owned and operated by Nobletree Coffee – a FAL Coffee company. Courtney is on the road with Byron Holcomb, the head of Agribusiness at Nobletree who oversees operations at the two farms. 

C: Byron, a couple of days ago we were at the Brazil Pulp Natural Cup of Excellence (COE) Award ceremony and your farm Santa Izabel placed 11th, its first ever Cup of Excellence Award. Congratulations to you and the team, you must be thrilled? 

B: Yea, we’re extremely excited. Two years ago, Santa Izabel was a national winner with an organic Yellow Icatú variety, but we never made it through the international jury. Paul and James from Ozone were a part of the jury so I’ve always held them slightly accountable for kicking Santa Izabel out the first time, and now that they’ve sent you, the coffee got through! So I’ve got to give you some credit. 

C: So I know you grew up in Northern California – how did you end up running two award winning farms in Brazil? 

B: I guess I could start with my degree in college. I studied Biology and I was one of those students who was very passionate about their degree and literally, two to three weeks before I graduated, I was like, I have to get a job?! I knew right away that I didn’t want to work in peer science or teaching and I didn’t want to go into the medical field. For somebody with a Biology Degree, that pretty much means you have to go into something environmental – environmental science, hydrology, soil science, air science.

"I REALISED THAT IF YOU DON’T TAKE CARE OF PEOPLE, THERE’S NO WAY THEY CAN TAKE CARE OF THE ENVIRONMENT." 

I spent two years with the Peace Corp program, living in an incredibly remote rural community in the Dominican Republic, working in the Agroforestry sector. Agroforestry considers new and creative ways to plant trees. I lost count of how many avocado, lime and coffee trees I planted in that time. I earned $200 a month and that was the beginning of my coffee career before I was even aware of it. 

I came back to the States, worked for 6 months in the non-profit world, got totally burnt out very quickly and I had, what I call, my ‘coffee epiphany’ – I realised that everything I wanted to do was in coffee because as much as I thought I was on a career path to do environmental sciences.

Coffee is a product that’s both good for people and good for the environment (when done right) and I felt like that was something I could really dedicate my life to. I started researching the coffee industry and ended up getting a job with the production team of Batdorf & Bronson. 

C: Roasting coffee? 

B: No, I literally said to the owners “if you give me a mop I’ll clean the floor”. 

C: That’s cool, a lot of people come at it downstream, working as roasters or baristas first. 

B: I made a very conscious decision to move into the industry. 

I started trying to evaluate how the coffee really gets from remote mountain-top farms and communities, all the way to the consumers. I thought: if someone could understand what each link needed, that person could become a very valuable advocate for all sides. That’s what I set out to be. I worked for Batdorf & Bronson sweeping the floors  and bagging  coffee for $11 an hour for two years. Part of that time I was able to work as a Barista, which was extremely valuable for meHalf way through that job, I purchased a small coffee farm in the Dominican Republic, where I had been living for those two years. I wanted to understand the process, and take on the risk of coffee production, before asking farms to take on that risk themselves. 

I was also a Sales Rep for Counter Culture Coffee for one year. After that I did some consulting for about 6 months and then I started working as a Coffee Buyer for about three years for Dallis Bros Coffee in New York City. Around that time, I was offered my current position. One of my co-workers said he was starting a new project and needed someone on the ground who understood quality. He also wanted to help award-winning farms to move forward, not just maintain what they had. 

C: So you’ve literally worked in every link of the chain? 

B: At some point, yeah! 

C: What was your biggest personal challenge in the first year? I guess there is not much difference between professional and personal life for a young business? 

B: Correct. The biggest challenge of the first year was that I felt like I landed on the moon to a certain extent. Being basically a start-up, both the farms that we run were already farms before we got here. However, the setting up was difficult and it was the basics that were most challenging, like understanding how to pay bills and monthly taxes rather than yearly taxes. Then there are the labour laws which we have to comply with and it’s so complicated you end up spending more time trying to figure out how to comply than getting on with it! It was extremely difficult. 

"TO PRODUCE SOMETHING, WHICH PEOPLE DRINK TO WAKE-UP FIRST THING IN THE MORNING, IS A VERY SPECIAL PRIVILEGE." 

C: Do you prefer the term Farmer or Producer? 

B: I don’t know, that’s a good question. I think farmer is such a romantic word and romantic notion. Producer sounds a little bit more mechanical, like a factory, and you know when you work in production in a roastery you’re roasting and bagging coffee, when you work in production in coffee you’re producing something. You’re starting with the most raw, basic ingredients you could ever imagine. You’re starting with carbon dioxide, water, sunlight and some nutrients in the soil and you’re making coffee beans out of it. I think, that’s probably the most beautiful miracle we get to see everyday on the farms. You start with these basic ingredients for life – to produce something, which people drink to wake-up first thing in the morning, is a very special privilege. 

A farmer, in the romantic sense, is someone who wakes up every morning and tends to his crop, works really hard, makes a little bit of money and has a small familyWhat happens now is a lot of farmers have had to get incredibly savvy, we use GPS technology, drone mapping, precision agriculture. We use cutting edge technology just to make the whole system work because the old systems aren’t working. The ability to produce just ‘whatever’ and then have it pay the bills is not happening anymore so farmers are really having to become savvy, agribusiness managers. 

C: Nobletree/FAL Coffee purchased Santa Izabel in 2013 and Monte Verde in 2014. What appealed about these two farms with respect to production of specialty coffee? 

B: FAL Coffee actually bought Santa Izabel in 2012 and were looking at basically the pedigree of the farm. The prior owner, Marco Suplicy, had many barista champions that went and competed in nationals. They won several Brazil Barista comps with quite often an Icatú from Santa Izabel. At that pedigree there was a lot of excitement and push for the owners to buy Santa Izabel, and continue that tradition of producing quality and maybe take it to the next level. 

With Monte Verde, the pedigree was even more defined, the amount of times that coffee from that farm has placed in COE is pretty staggering. It is one of the most winning farms in COE for Brazil. Many people just after we bought it said “Byron, you guys just bought the best farm for quality in Brazil”. 

C: Nobletree/FAL Coffee has already made a significant investment into Santa Izabel when you arrived on the farm in 2012. How did you begin to prioritise what investment was required and where? 

B: Talking about, what I like to call, a three-legged stool of quality, there are three fundamental points that you need to produce quality – you need proper genetics, that have the potential to produce quality coffee. You need proper terroir and then you also need proper processing. 

Getting to Santa Izabel and seeing the history of the farm, two things immediately popped out. Number one, how genetics pair with terroir, is in my opinion, one of the biggest opportunities and is the holy grail for coffee farmers. So if you have the right genetics on the right farm it’s pretty much a home run, but the reality is you don’t know until you’ve tried it. 

We immediately installed three variety gardens. The only way to really test genetics and terroir is to test it on your farm.This gives us the opportunity to not only compare genetics within our own farm but also to really test this variety on this section of land.

C: You said these variety gardens were planted a couple of years ago, so would that mean the first harvest should be next year? 

B: Yeah, so the first real little tiny picking is going to be next May and we have already seen a decent flowering on a couple of the variety gardens.That will be really neat, and that will be our first little test. After looking at the genetic element, the other thing we saw that needed to be improved upon was the processing. The farm didn’t have enough patio space to manage the crop. The wet mill really needed to be updated, partly because we didn’t have the capacity but also because there was a lot of new technology available that we didn’t have. So we really prioritized processing and genetics. For the processing, we completely installed a brand new wet mill, we increased the drying capacity through a new patio but also two new dryers. 

C: The new patio is awesome – I’ve seen it, it’s massive. 

B: I’m really proud of it, in all transparency. 

C: What do you call it? 

B: In Brazil we call it an ‘estufa’ which translates to Greenhouse. It’s basically just a covered patio but it has some really neat elements in terms of ways to increase airflow without letting rain in. Right now, our priority on Santa Izabel is to start to focus on the administration of the farm, really dig in and start to look at new models in terms of social projects. 

C: Given the seasonal nature of coffee production, I guess you experience different pressure points throughout the year. Can you talk through the challenges of the last 6 months for you and the farm? 

B: I think one of the things that’s both fascinating and wonderful and exciting but also a little frustrating with coffee is you only get one shot a year. A friend of mine from Guatemala likes to say “you have 365 chances to mess up your harvest in a year”. I couldn’t agree more. 

The lifecycle of coffee is a challenge. Last year was the worst drought that Brazil has ever experienced, the water shortages were really horrificThe municipalities were delivering water to houses that had no water left. Later on families had to be escorted with armed guards because of the violence around getting water. 

In Brazil the crop year ends when the last harvest finishes, and the new one starts the day after you stop picking coffee. We were coming out of a really rough season, we had counted on a lot more coffee coming in off the farms. The quality was solid but it wasn’t really the level that we wanted. 

Following a harvest you immediately look for flowers – no flowers no fruit. In order to have flowering you want some hydraulic stress on the trees – a dry spell – but then you want consistent rain to come, because with that you get flowers to open, which means the flowers will self fertilise. 

IT’S CRAZY BEAUTIFUL AND THE AIR SMELLS OF SWEET HONEYDEW JASMINE.