Profiles

GMCR’s Rick Peyser on the making of the documentary “After the Harvest”

When Rick Peyser landed a new role as Director of Social Advocacy & Coffee Community Outreach at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR), one of the first things he did was seek out more information about what life was like on the farm. In August 2007 Peyser teamed up with the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to design an interview process of 22 questions that they put to selected farmer co-operatives in Nicaragua, two departments in Guatemala and two states in Mexico. While the questions all brought out some fascinating, and often heartbreaking, responses, it was the answer to one question that really stopped Peyser in his tracks. When the farmers were asked if they experienced any periods of scarcity of food or hunger, nearly every family gave the same answer. Like clockwork, nearly two-thirds of the respondents said that after the harvest period they experienced three to four months of food scarcity.   “It was as if they called ahead to the next house to all give the same answer,” says Peyser. The more he explored the issue, it became increasingly obvious that periods of hunger were the norm for even Fair Trade certified farms. Every year around the end of May, most farmers earnings had been largely depleted. Even though they lived on rich, fertile land, they devoted an average of 95 per cent of it to coffee and weren’t growing food for themselves. “I knew there was poverty and time of hunger, like during periods of natural disasters or when coffee prices bottomed out. But these were Fair Trade farmers and this was going on every year,” says Peyser. “I was devastated, I didn’t even know where to start.” Considering the extent of the problem, Peyser assumed it was perhaps just his own ignorance of why he didn’t know about this issue. While on vacation shortly after the study, he visited a friend who had worked in the coffee industry for decades. He shared the story of his recent trip and he was surprised to discover that his friend had also never heard of this problem. “I then began to wonder if other people knew about it. As I shared what I learned with an increasing number of people, almost everyone I spoke with hadn’t heard of it,” says Peyser. At the time, GMCR had been supporting projects on education and health in these communities. Peyser points out that the United States had undergone a strong campaign increasing the awareness that if kids go to school hungry, they struggle to learn. Furthermore, the number of health problems that arise from malnutrition are endless. “There are so many issues in child development that can happen when children go hungry. Physical and mental development is limited when children go hungry for long periods,” notes Peyser. “And that’s not something they can recover from, it’s such a critical time in their development.” Even putting the social issues aside, from an industrial perspective Peyser points out that these periods of hunger will also ultimately affect coffee quality. People will feed their families before they feed their coffee plants. The full results of the study were presented to the GMCR team in November 2007 and Peyser notes that they were even worse than he expected. Of 179 interviews they conducted, they found that only 16 per cent had no problem with food security and 67 per cent suffered from extreme scarcity from three to eight months of the year. On hearing the results, Peyser knew they had two options: “We could put it in a nice binder and sit it on a shelf – or we could do something about it.” Since that meeting, GMCR has helped implement 20 food security projects in 12 countries, which has helped feed 25,000 families and 125,000 individuals. These initiatives are not so much about giving out food, but rather encouraging farm diversity so that families can feed themselves and sell other crops and aren’t fully dependant on the revenue from coffee.  But even with these initiatives, Peyser admits they’ve “just scratched the surface”. With millions of farmers worldwide dependant on coffee farming to feed their families, Peyser can only imagine the extent of the problem. To reach out for more support to end post-harvest hunger, Peyser, a producer and a two-person film crew revisited a select group of farmers to make a 20-minute documentary on the issue. “After the Harvest: Fighting Hunger in the Coffeelands” was aired at the SCAA 2011 Expo in Texas in April. In presenting the issue on film, Peyser was hoping to stir further reaction that would attract some real commitment from the coffee industry – and in that Peyser is pretty confident he got the reaction he wanted. “Everyone in the room wanted to do something, the question now is what?” he says about the success of the initial screening. “There was a slow reaction at first because it seems like such a huge problem. It’s like a dog chasing a car wheel – the wheel is spinning so fast you don’t know where to bite onto.” In addition to pledging financial support, what Peyser would really like to see is a united, long-term strategy from the specialty coffee industry to deal with hunger. While Fair Trade and other certifications, as well as increasing links to origin, are having an impact, the fact that so many farmers are going hungry is something Peyser is simply not willing to accept. “It’s unfair to expect Fair Trade to do all this. What we need to do is develop a deeper knowledge of our partners in the supply chain,” he says. “We just can’t ignore this anymore.” For further information or to get involved visit www.aftertheharvest.org. 

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