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Coffee Bird

The sustainability movement is all about connection.

Interview with: Marta Dalton
Images: Paul Newbold and Courtney Snowdon

The sustainability movement is all about connection. Connection between those who make and grow raw product with those who cook, serve and ultimately consume food and drink. We met Marta Dalton, founder of Coffee Bird, upon arriving in London, before our Leonard St site was opened and when Coffee Bird was still in incubation. More recently, our green bean sourcing team, Courtney Snowdon and Paul Newbold were hosted in Guatemala during harvest to spend time with Coffee Bird and the farmers they work with. Here, we showcase how Coffee Bird connects coffee farmers in Central America with like-minded roasters. Coffee Bird’s primary goal is to make sure coffee is around for the next generation. They connect coffee farmers across Guatemala and Central America directly with roasters like Courtney and Paul, pioneering a new approach to coffee that is better for farmers, roasters and coffee drinkers. That mantra is reflected in the “three pillars” of Coffee Bird’s business: coffee, heart and promise. We couldn’t believe quite how beautifully Marta’s values aligned with some of our own: “Flavour in the cup”, “Stay true to who you are” and “Keep good company”.

Coffee

La Cordonices

Coffee Bird has not only changed the lives of many farmers by ensuring they achieve a fair price for their coffee, but has also achieved accolades such as the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe’s 2014 Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.  While it may seem simple, Coffee Bird’s business model is relatively new to coffee exporting in Central America, and particularly in Guatemala. Traditionally, the price for coffee has been affected by lengthy supply chains and a high level of bureaucracy. For coffee growers, the price payable to farmers is generally homogenous and frequently under the C+ market, regardless of the individual characteristics of the particular coffee or coffee farm. Working with a single intermediary like Coffee Bird allows farmers to connect more easily with speciality roasters to build a “feedback loop” about the quality of the coffee, which in turn incentivises improvements and ultimately achieves a better price for farmers.

Quality underpins everything that Coffee Bird does.  Marta and Colomba hand select each and every farm they work with, ensuring they each uphold Coffee Bird’s values. That requires farms to demonstrate that they are committed to producing the best quality coffee, treating their workers well, and respecting the environment.  Marta describes this as the coffee “dinner table” – everyone is invited to the table, as long as they care about quality. This value provides upward mobility for farmers who otherwise wouldn’t get the opportunity.

Marta is firmly of the view that quality and sustainability go hand and hand. For example, in order to produce the best quality coffee, it is important to have just the right amount of shade to ensure healthy soil in which the coffee are grown, and protect the plants from too much sun and rain. In order to achieve that, it is important to grow and care for trees to the highest possible standard. 

The farms that Coffee Bird works with demonstrate this relationship between environment and quality on a daily basis. For example, one of the farms that Marta, Paul and Courtney visited is run by Diana, a young Guatemalan entrepreneur who has recently bought a plot of land outside Huehuetenango.  The land was arid when Diana bought it with no trees for shade, but by using the correct fertilisers for coffee growing and implementing an irrigation system, she has managed to create a lush looking microclimate in which coffee plants can thrive.  Now her neighbours are starting to grow coffee too!  Again, Diana represents Coffee Bird’s commitment to quality – she is committed to learning about the roasting, brewing, and the selling side of the specialty coffee industry, and Courtney describes enjoying a Chemex made by Diana as a highlight of her trip.

Heart

Pacayal

Marta always knew that her life was going to be about coffee.  Hardly surprising, given her family has been in coffee for 171 years through six generations of coffee farmers in Central America. Marta’s grandmother, Marie Josephine Del’Pech, took over her family’s coffee farms in her early twenties, and was the largest producer of coffee in El Salvador. Marta’s mother and father lived on neighbouring farms as children, eventually getting married and running the farms before moving to the USA when the civil war started in El Salvador. Marta’s great-grandmother worked her farm until she was 95 years old, winning two first place Cup of Excellence awards in Guatemala. Now, Marta’s mother, Colomba, is her partner in Coffee Bird.

It is clear from the way that Marta talks about these inspiring women that they imparted to her not only a deep love for Central America, but a passion for making things better for coffee farmers. Marta’s grandmother’s story had a particular impact. Her farms were repatriated and in the middle of the night her grandmother had to abandon her farms. The military took possession of all her assets, and eventually the land was turned into cooperatives. The impact this had on her family, had Marta thinking there must be a better way. When Marta later visited the farms, people had little work, the co-op was up for sale as a string of internal corruption had created a large debt. There were no job opportunities, and public services to support the farmers (such as hospitals) were lacking. This further fuelled Marta’s desire to continue to help coffee farmers achieve a better way of life.

Having witnessed the impact of her grandmother’ experience, Marta also wanted to study finance, and knew that building a network of people around the world and understanding of how large organisations worked would serve her well when she did ultimately find her place in the world of coffee. So Marta completed her postgraduate degree and was a partner for a large firm in the City for many years. After witnessing a road accident in 2011, Marta had her ‘lightbulb’ moment, and left the city to return to coffee.

It is Marta and her mother’s unique combination of skill and heart which has allowed them to successfully build Coffee Bird.
Today, they are continuing to expand their relationships and are always looking for new opportunities to work with like minded people. One example of this is Pacayal, a small farm that Marta, Paul and Courtney visited, and which they describe as “magical”.  The owner of that coffee farm, Fernando, encapsulates everything that Coffee Bird is trying to accomplish – a commitment to quality through organic fertilisation, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a willingness to get better every day.   Pacayal is a new relationship for Coffee Bird, and Marta and Fernando are working together to continue to improve the quality of Pacayal’s product.

Promise

La Reforma

Coffee Bird is committed to building a promise for a better future of coffee for everyone: farmers, roasters, consumers and, perhaps most importantly, the next generation. That requires building a strong community, who look out for each other’s interests and share the same commitment to quality.

Rene Perez, of coffee farm Finca La Reforma in Huehuetenango, is one member of that community.  Coffee Bird’s relationship with Finca La Reforma started two years ago, and Ozone was part of those beginnings.  Marta describes that relationship as a “gentlewoman’s agreement” based primarily on trust, and notes that she is currently working with Finca La Reforma to further grow its relationship with Ozone.  She says that Courtney and Paul’s visit went a long way in seeking to achieve that growth as it allowed each of Ozone and Finca La Reforma to connect and understand a bit more about what matters to the other. Building these networks of respect and love with an eye to the future of coffee, the planet, and its people, is what Coffee Bird is all about.