Volunteer Rick Peyser had a wonderfully fruitful and inspiring assignment in Burma (also known as Myanmar) last month with Winrock’s USAID-funded Asia Farmer-to-Farmer Program. Rick describes his trip quite eloquently:
My role was to spend most of my two weeks in the country working with coffee farmers and their organizations, and sharing with them information on how coffee is cultivated, processed, roasted, evaluated, and marketed in other parts of the world. This generated great discussions, and led to the development of a plan with farmers and an existing exporter association to focus on organizational development and technical outreach to support specialty coffee production.
I have traveled in southeast Asia before – to Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand – but when my plane landed in Yangon I
felt a culture shift unlike any that I have felt before. As I traveled north to Shan State where I spent time with coffee farmers, the intensity of this culture shift only grew. Being completely out of touch with the outside world, I was able to be totally present to this shift that included everything from the way people transported themselves, to the countless pagodas,
to incredible food, beautiful coffee, and the most gentle people I have met anywhere, ever. In so many ways I felt like life had slowed down; I could almost feel my blood pressure drop.
My time was spent on two large estates and with small-scale farmers. One of the estates was probably the most sustainable coffee farm I have been on. It is powered by its own small hydro-electric plant; it captures methane via bio-digesters and uses the gas to cook meals on the farm; it grows organic coffee under canopies of shade provided by silver oak, rubber, mango, and macadamia trees – all additional sources of income. It sun dries its coffee on screened beds that are placed on a well-marked patio. Workers return year after year because they are treated fairly, the yields are high, the quality appears to be good, and the soil was in great shape due to the beautiful “black gold” compost that the farm produces. Most of the coffee is either used domestically or exported to Chinese traders (the only option in this area). The traders offer one price regardless of quality, leaving farmers the choice to “take it or leave it,” and no incentive to improve quality.
Most of the farmers I met and spoke with are interested in improving the quality of their coffee and in receiving a better price for it through more open markets. I incorporated their thinking into a plan for the sector that I left in the hands of Winrock, USAID, and the Myanmar Fruit, Flower and
Vegetable Producer and Exporter Association – my in-country host. Before I left, the small-scale farmers I met with had already organized themselves into three groups to better negotiate prices, share technical information, and to enjoy economies of scale.
While I was there I had the opportunity to attend the once-a-year Full Moon Balloon Festival – an incredible competition
where large unmanned hot air balloons are launched. Minutes later the balloons start launching fireworks. This continues for 15+ minutes until the balloon is so high that it disappears from sight. I also had time to visit Inle Lake – a very scenic lake surrounded by mountains. The lake is home to floating markets, hundreds of acres of hydroponic tomatoes, neighborhoods on stilts, silk weavers, amazing pagodas, and more.
Based on what farmers and USAID told me, I was the first
American who has ventured into Myanmar’s coffeelands to offer assistance in well over 20 years. To be honest, I never thought that I would ever do anything quite like this, but am glad I made the trip. No other origin has grabbed me quite the way Myanmar has. I am leaving Myanmar very motivated to continue to help farmers of this country receive the recognition and the pricing for their coffees that they deserve.
Rick left a strong impression on the coffee farmers in Myanmar, just as they left a strong impression on him. This initial assignment has created quite the ripple, both in Myanmar as well as in the U.S. –thanks to Rick’s ongoing passion and perseverance on behalf of the coffee farmers he trained. We are excited to support the growing momentum.