Full contents of the Pergamino Coffee collector box, featuring a parqués gameboard, two bags of Finca Lomaverde coffee, and the pieces all ready to play.

Wrapping up to Fulbright sabbatical

When I rebooted my blog, I hoped I was going to carve out a bit of time for more frequent posting (especially following the demise of Twitter) that documented the process of the Fulbright voyage. Rather than writing short posts with regularity, the semester got in the way and seems to have lent itself to sporadic, infodumping posts. Additionally, my wife’s new(ish) vehicle was stolen while my family was visiting Montreal over Veterans’ Day weekend, only making life more chaotic and aggravating.

However, since the semester is wrapped up for me, and a new vehicle is on order for my wife, grades are in, and it’s about a week until I leave, now’s a reasonable time to catch up.

I finished my classes until September 2024. That meant cleaning up my office and taking out the things I anticipate needing from there between now and next September. In a way, it reminded me of the time I went to grab some things from my office in August 2020, after not being there since COVID shut down campus in March 2020 and anticipating needing to continue lecturing from home that Fall. I wiped my whiteboard, pulled my laptop, and brought remaining snacks home. In a way, it was a bit bittersweet.

Insofar as preparations for Colombia go, my medical documentation was wrapped up for the State Department, at which point I could book my flights. I’ll be heading down to Bogotá just after new years and I’ve got a nice apartment lined up about a 10-15 min walk from the Uniandes campus. Following booking flights, I went to the Travel and Immunization Clinic at MGH. Since some of my research will see me to coffee farms outside of Bogotá, I was recommended vaccines for Yellow Fever, Typhoid, and Rabies. Additionally, I was given prescriptions for anti-Malaria prophylaxis and altitude sickness medicines.

Toward the end of November, the Fulbright Commission in Colombia sent me a sponsorship letter for my Colombian visa. The visa process states that you can’t apply for a visa before 30 days before arrival, so I was basically waiting (anxiously) until I could submit my application. However, with all of my documentation lined up, the electronic visa turned around in about four days. With flights, visa, and living arrangements all lined up, what remains in the next bit is packing and enjoying time with my family.

At face value, packing is generally fairly easy– especially when talking about a long weekend or a week or two stay somewhere. However, planning for four months with different climates has added to anxiety. First, Bogota is a city of about 7.1 million people. Using the UN’s method for calculating population (a mix of city proper, metropolitan, and urban areas), it’s the world’s 29th largest city. Compared with US cities, it’s in between Los Angeles and Chicago. Though it’s close to the equator, it’s at about 1 2/3 miles above sea level, causing it to be about 65°F (17­°C) year-round. Where the coffee farms are (and where the coffee is grown), conditions are about 15­°F (7°C) warmer. All of that is warmer than it is in New England during this time of year, yet I see folks dressed as I would dress in New England, where it’s much colder. So figuring out how to pack my international flight-sized suitcase (110L rolling duffel) and carry on (38L rolling pack) for four months in different climates is a bit of challenge.

I’ve also been challenged by informational whiplash about security (though to be fair, the same could be said by visitors to the US– most major cities have places that are safer than others and being an outsider always requires situational vigilance). But I’ve been trying to take advance precautions as well, such as making copies of documents, buying a cheap watch, etc., but without overdoing it as to completely look like an outsider. Right now, I’m about at the stage where I need to be there to get a sense of context that additional raw information is doing nothing to fill in for experience.

So what’s next? Well, I previously wrote a bit about why coffee is such a major part of my life. And I was able to join an interdisciplinary Research Group for Sustainable and Equitable Specialty Coffee Markets, headed by Peter Roberts (Emory), Karl Wienhold (Lisbon), and Kosta Kallivrousis (Algrano Coffee), where there was a lot of interesting discussion among about 20 researchers and practitioners from various disciplines. And I recently spotted a forthcoming article by Jacobi et al. in World Development Perspectives, “Making specialty coffee and coffee-cherry value chains work for family farmers’ livelihoods: A participatory action research approach,” which is of very similar focus to what I’m exploring while I’m in Colombia.

There are a lot of contextual elements to addressing sustainability and equitability in coffee markets. Since the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, almost every country has had different access to international consumer markets. When coffee consumers walk into their favorite coffee shop, they may see an Ethiopian coffee next to a Guatemalan coffee. But the export policies of those countries are extremely different. So while there is a simplicity for the consumer’s choice on the downstream, the upstream could be too complex to find universal policy or market solutions between countries.

At the same time, the domestic production policies/markets that lead to export are also varied. This means that, within a country, different producers in different regions of the country may have different structural or systemic advantages that allow for greater accumulation of capital than elsewhere in the country. This also means that some farmers can call themselves “smallholder” farms, while still retaining the advantages of greater capital and therefore, increased market access. As Sarah Charles writes in Coffee Intelligence, even the terminology (and the definitions of those terms) can have radical impacts on coffee’s marketability.

One thing that I’ve noticed in preparation for my work has been a substantive increase in Colombian direct-to-consumer value chains. Roasters like Pergamino, Tropicalia, Colo, Tio Conejo, and Café Quindio, are all purchasing their coffees from farmers locally, roasting locally, and then shipping direct to global (read: often US) consumers with minimal time delay, and minimal added costs. This can yield some significant benefits in keeping value chains local and, therefore, keeping profits local. However, it is still capital intensive to develop sophisticated brands that are visible abroad, ensure quality for specialty markets and then ship those direct-to-consumer. And even still, those roasters may bypass some of the import/export/auction markets, but they are still intermediaries in the value chain; this may or may not contribute to increased equity, but certainly that’s not something I’m (yet) familiar with.

These types of micro “realizations” I’ve been finding along the way aren’t novel to the area, and probably aren’t novel to net production-dominant countries. But as a consumer and researcher in a net consumption-dominant country, it’s one piece of the puzzle I find needs greater exploration. Given the colonial history of coffee, it’s not sufficient for me to just be reading/speaking on coffee from Massachusetts, but instead to understand the context of a coffee origin– to understand decision inputs from the offices in Bogotá to the trees in Neiva, and to understand the political/economic/cultural elements that shape those decisions. Four months is not nearly enough time, yet it is hopefully a significant start.

Meanwhile, I may yet start recording some video diaries on my not-often-used YouTube channel once I’m there. I haven’t decided yet, but it might be a bit easier than writing lengthy posts. TBD…

Hasta luego!





One response to “Wrapping up to Fulbright sabbatical”

  1. Deb Avatar

    Great to read your preparation plans, Spencer. What an exciting opportunity. Wishing you a safe and fruitful journey!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *