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Feature 110105 Paterson

November 1, 2005


Adventures on a Mexico-U.S.A. gourmet coffee trail


By Kent Paterson


Exuding a contagious smile and a remarkable laugh, Mexican coffee farmer and merchant Juanita Sanchez is one of those dreamers who won't let anything keep her dreams from coming true. A native of the mountains of Guerrero in southern Mexico, Juanita dropped out of school. Like many of her peers, she went on to work and raise a family. Today she is finishing high school in an open-study program. The daughter of farmers, Juanita grew up in the Green Revolution, an era when outsiders had a firm grip over the growers' destinies. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers were liberally applied to the land, truck-owning middlemen dictated prices to coffee producers, and the ups and downs of the futures-driven world market often left farmers in ruin.   


Thinking there had to be a better way, Juanita looked around for alternatives. An outspoken environmentalist, she imagined a time when small farmers could make a decent living without poisoning the land.  Always looking for a fair shake, the coffee grower envisioned equitable payments for the people who help the world wake up each morning.  Little by little, Juanita's dreams are coming true. With prices for organically cultivated coffee fetching growers an extra US$30 or more for each 500-pound lot, Juanita is firmly convinced where the future points. "The only option is to sell organic or add value to it. Organic products are in the vanguard," Juanita declares.


The organic market is so hot right now, Juanita adds, growers are now in the ironic position of having to restart their production after years of scaling-down because of hard times in the conventional coffee business. "There is more demand than supply. Many producers have abandoned farming, their coffee plots," Juanita says. 


An organic nirvana sits high in the Sierra Madres several hours from Zihuatanejo where Juanita, her husband Dario Galeana and a handful of other farmers cultivate shade-grown, organically-certified coffee for Mexican and international markets. Their brand, Cafe Zihuatanejo, is certified both by the Organic Crop Improvement Association International, and the United States Department of Agriculture.


Organized into the Cafe Zihuatlan Rural Production Association, the Mexican farmers also produce the Cafe Zihuatlan brand. According to Juanita, about 3,000 acres of organic coffee is planted in her region. Producing the coffee bean is perhaps the least difficult part of the business. On the long, winding coffee road Juanita and Dario have met more than their share of flim-flam men, snoozing bureaucrats and close-minded industry types. An outspoken organic advocate, Juanita says she's been kicked off a government "sustainable agricultural” committee, and even threatened with death for speaking out against the use of chemical fertilizers.


But Juanita and her husband also have encountered a coterie of wonderful customers and supporters who keep the couple harvesting and selling beans.  Taking a long break from the business of running Cafe Zihuatanejo, a store her husband's family opened in the tourist port of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo in 1978, a 40-something Juanita gregariously recounts episodes from the coffee-growing business she and Dario operate. Palm fronds cool the entrance of a small outlet decorated with pictures of coffee harvesters. One issue that readily riles the friendly woman is what she contends is the lack of appreciation in Mexico for Mexican-grown coffee.


Ironically, little of Juanita's product is sold locally as the big, expensive hotel chains in the famous resort of Ixtapa apparently prefer bean counting to bean consuming. One local hotel, Intrawest, forms part of Juanita's client list.  "My vision was always to sell inside the country," she says. "If the hotels here would consume our coffee, I guarantee it would stay here. But they are only interested in price."


Realizing she couldn't depend on local sales, Juanita began peering north towards the border, which as she soon discovered meant a lot more than just the politically drawn divide between Mexico and the United States. And she began gazing into cyberspace for answers.


Juanita's first encounters with the export world were far from encouraging. A local youth headed north to the Mexico-U.S. border with 30 boxes of her fine blend, and promises of later payment. He dropped out of sight. Pressing onward, Juanita attended a presentation sponsored by the federal government’s old Economy and Finance Ministry (Secofi) to hear about exporting.


She recalls accumulating a handful of useless business cards with equally useless telephone numbers of Secofi bureaucrats. "I never encountered anyone. They'd just tell me 'one moment' and pass me on to another woman. I was stuffed with cards but when I called nobody was ever there." 


Juanita can't forget the time she had to destroy carefully produced promotional information and coffee sacks, and change the original name of her coffee brand, because a trademark registration application that was supposed to be reviewed within 6-12 months by Secofi officials instead took two years, just to be disapproved by the government. It turned out that someone else had already registered the name long before. "It was a heavy blow to us too," Juanita laments, the image of shredded logos etched into her memory.  


On her organic odyssey, Juanita met a cast of other colorful characters: the money-grubbing salesmen seeking kickbacks for hotel sales, the organic "inspector" who took a deposit but never did an inspection, and the sanitary inspection official who tried to steer her into the eager hands of expensive private consultants instead of the government office that certifies crop health. And Juanita remembers the time a coffee sale was lost because a promised government loan failed to materialize 


What keeps the woman going?


"The injustices we go through, above all my friends when they sell and call the intermediaries. They pay them what they want. This is what gives me the inspiration to continue."


Undoubtedly Jim Tolbert has a lot to do with Juanita's drive. A self-described dropout from corporate America, Tolbert cast aside his career as a medical devices engineer to pursue his own dreams. He and his wife Peggy, an art historian by vocation, then opened a small cafe and store in the Wisconsin woods. They named it the Chattering Squirrel. It was there in the frosty falls of the upper Midwest that the aroma of gourmet coffee began perking up customers. Taking breaks from the bitter winters of northern Wisconsin, Jim and Peggy began vacationing in tropical, sunny Zihuatanejo.


Eventually Tolbert ran across Juanita on the Internet, almost as if the Guerrero woman's electronic meanderings had telepathically crossed Jim's cyber-path. A cross-border business relationship was born. Jim and Juanita's partnership is instructive for cross-border commercial relationships, especially when it comes to smaller businesses.


Tolbert concluded Juanita had a quality product, and he wanted it keep the tabletop conversations flowing in the Chattering Squirrel. He took 30 pounds of Juanita's coffee with him back to Wisconsin, soon ordering another 300 pounds via DHL courier service. Tolbert's hunches about customer satisfaction with Juanita's coffee proved correct. "They're buying it because it's really good coffee, not because its from Mexico or from Juanita," he muses. "I do it because I think it's been interesting. We've become friends with the (Zihuatanejo) folks."


Costing US$2.00 per pound of coffee to ship by air, Tolbert decided to investigate other export options. The search led him to trucking companies and the Laredo, Texas, import gateway. Soon enough, nearly a ton of Juanita's morning brew rambled across the Texas border. That was in the good old days – before 9-11, the bio-terrorism scares that followed, and something called the Public Health Security and Bio-Terrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002.  


As Jim and Juanita discovered, the US Food and Drug Administration now has strict paperwork requirements for products that could be the target of shadowy bio-terrorists. An FDA import-export account needs to be registered, processing and receiving facilities duly listed, and documentation listing all the right people must be in place at the border with a customs broker. Importantly, the United States Customs Service must have all the proper FDA documentation.


Several months ago, US Customs inspectors in Laredo detained a large coffee shipment from Juanita for a few days because of a paperwork foul-up. "If this had been grapes or celery, you would've been screwed," Tolbert says. "Basically what they are looking for is 'who in the U.S. is responsible for this?’ The intent is probably good, but as with everything with the government, the implementation tends to become clumsy."  Tolbert suggests the U.S. and Mexican governments set up one-stop centers where exporters-importers can take care of all the necessary paperwork in one fell swoop.


For Tolbert though, the biggest headache in his cross-border partnership is moving money from the U.S. to Juanita in Mexico. He quickly found that bank wire transfer fees of US$45 per transaction were too costly for small businesses like Juanita's. Tolbert then checked out a US$5.00 service advertised by Citibank-Banamex called Global Banking. Not unlike Juanita's dial-up diversions with Secofi, Tolbert found himself spending hours on the phone with a computer technician. "The computer systems between the two banks didn't communicate," Tolbert contends. For six long months the Wisconsin cafe owner watched bank deposits electronically bounce back and forth from one end of cyberspace to the other. 


Tolbert eventually settled on opening a bank account for Juanita in the U.S., and providing his Mexican partner with an ATM card. Charging three dollars per transaction, the ATM can also add up but at least it is more reliable – usually. The big, potential drawback is security, an issue Tolbert admits worries his wife. In Mexico, miniature cameras are sometimes known to snap photos of ATM cards so their account numbers can be cloned onto counterfeit cards and cash emptied from the accounts of unsuspecting victims. There even have been fake ATM machines set up in some places for the sole purpose of cloning cards. On a cruder note, thieves sometimes make off with an entire real machine.   


Juanita meanwhile has mastered the art of sliding through her government bureaucracy, at least as it exists for the moment. She knows when to prepare the export notification, make sure all the permits are in order, and to have the required certificate of origin ready. She learned that a customs broker is a necessity. From training sessions in Mexico City, Juanita's learned about coffee processing and industrialization, skills that give her a comprehensive understanding of the coffee business.


Selling about 1,200 pounds of coffee a year, Tolbert knew he couldn't purchase everything Juanita had to offer, so as a favor he contacted other possible purchasers, and lent a helping hand with the stateside paperwork needed to import coffee. A big break came when Equator Estate Coffees and Teas of San Rafael, California, decided to buy a multi-ton load of Juanita's organic brew, a good portion of which was destined for the Kimpton Hotel Group and its Hotel Palomar in San Francisco. The hotel chain has an environmental sustainability campaign, and complimentary, organically grown lobby coffee fits into the company's stated overall scheme of promoting ecologically friendly living.


Both Jim and Juanita express satisfaction at their dealings. Tolbert pays above market prices for the coffee, his customers are content, and importantly the money goes directly into Juanita and Dario's pockets. "We've basically cut out the middleman," Tolbert says. Because Tolbert doesn't speak Spanish and Juanita struggles with English, a mutual friend, Wibke, proved to be a crucial translator, networker and go-between in cementing vital details of the business relationship. Juanita regularly praises Wibke as her "inspiration."


Measuring the weight of coffee beans on her scale, a laughing, beaming Juanita Sanchez just keeps going. A young man sporting dark shades and a hip stride walks up to the cafe and inquires about the availability of coffee for European connoisseurs.  "Organic is hitting big abroad right now," he quips. Another young man approaches the business to solicit donations for AIDS victims. The corner social club, consisting of several loud but seemingly joyous men, their chatter lilting in the tropical breeze, incessantly bleat a vocal chorus outside the door of Juanita's modest but worldly cafe, while the coffee grower-merchant scoops more beans and talks politics with a customer.


Prominent to the visiting eye is the 2002 Bronze Medal that Cafe Zihuatanejo won at the Sydney Royal Fine Foods Show in Australia. Another coup happened last year when Juanita's coffee was served at a Minnesota state dinner attended by Mexican President Vicente Fox. These are almost unimaginable prized plumes feathering the cap of any farmer's daughter from the rough-and-tumble Guerrero outback. Recently the farmer's luck received another boost, when a new 4-ton order arrived. "Holy cow!" husband Dario reportedly exclaimed.


Juanita doesn't stop dreaming, and her plans roll off her tongue like the calculations of a sleepless reformer. Next on the old wish list – if all goes well – is a rural cafeteria and marketplace, where tourists can get away from the margarita and beach routine to see regional artisan’s wares, sample organic coffee and savor homemade tortillas, an increasingly scarce commodity in the Maseca-monopolized Mexican diet. Already Juanita and Dario are cultivating organic ginseng and collecting organic honey.


In her store, a poster shows Juanita with her trademark smile enlivening the photo, riding a burro with sack of harvested beans. And the poster poetically captures Juanita's philosophy:  "Coffee is the color of my skin ... coffee is the aroma of my land that grows the future of my people."


Kent Paterson is Editor of Frontera NorteSur.


Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico


FNS, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source can be found at http://frontera.nmsu.edu/