By Erica MacLeod
I spent the last week of September, 2022, in Nicaragua visiting a coffee farm with a great group of people. I experienced many new things and the most frustrating thing I’m experiencing from the trip right now is the inability for you to see, smell, taste, feel and hear the things that I did because the whole trip was the creation of a core memory for me.
Even if you don’t think you care about coffee or wherever I was in Nicaragua, I’d really like to try my best to find the right words that give you even the smallest understanding of the impact this has had on me and why you should care about it. I really hope you stick with me until the end.
Coffee and Me
Coffee has never been something most of us have paid much thought to past the price we pay for it and whether it needs cream or sugar. For most of us, coffee is just a necessary part of our daily rituals to keep each of our own little worlds world turning. For me, it’s everything.
I work for Global Orange Development, but you probably know it as BIGGBY COFFEE. Coffee has been a big part of my life since 2013 as a part-time barista in my hometown of Ionia, MI.
I just wanted a discount on my latte and the chance to improve my social skills (because they were terrible). The next thing I know it’s 2016 and I’m on stage absolutely speechless accepting an award for Barista of the Year for the entire company that I didn’t even know I was a finalist for. That opened a lot of doors for me that I’m eternally grateful for and this trip was one of them.
As a Barista of the Year winner, the co-CEO extended an invitation for me to visit our partners at El Recreo Farm and Estate in Nicaragua. I’ve shared their story here before and if you haven’t yet, please visit your local BIGGBY to try our Single-Origin, Farm-Direct micro lot from this farm. Or you can buy it here. It’s an incredible roast.
It’s crazy to think that we can wake up in our corner of the world and by the end of the day you’re basically on the other side of it. After an early morning in Detroit and a long day of traveling, we made it to Managua and got a great night of rest for our trip to El Recreo Farm and Estate in Jinotega. I think it was technically a 2ish hour drive, but it felt like no time with great company, we found ourselves at El Recreo, said hello to the management team, and ended the evening with amazing food and better company.
We tried to catch the sun in the morning, but the clouds had other plans. Jorge said the day before that it usually comes up around 5 so that’s what I did. I got up at 4:30 to want for the sun to peek through the trees but it never happened and that’s okay because I was able to focus on the other part of waking up at Recreo that I didn’t even think of.
As I was sitting there in the dark, watching it get progressively lighter, waking up with the mountain was an incredible experience. At 4:30 am the only expectation I’d established at that point was to see this pretty, orange marble. I was awake just in time to hear the birds wake up and sing their songs. Then I heard the howler monkeys and even before the sun began to peck through the clouds, I heard the workers.
There is something peaceful in the silence and calm of early morning hours before the rest of the world is but to hear the rest of the world wake up makes you feel alive in a completely different way.
After this incredibly calming morning, we came together to eat an incredible breakfast (and full disclosure, everything I ate was incredibly delicious and there was not one point during this trip where my stomach felt empty. They kept us extremely well fed and if you ever have the opportunity to try authentic Nicaraguan food, please do yourself a favor and take it).
After breakfast, we began our tour of Recreo which really was made of the essential things any town would need: a place where you can receive medical attention (not equipped for serious issues but the basics are there), a school, recreation area, housing for permanent and seasonal employees, and a kitchen that feeds the workers 3 meals a day. Miriam and Hector did make note of renovations that the kitchen has undergone to better serve the workers as well as their plans to improve housing for permanent family residents. Luckily, we were able to get a sneak peek of what the rest of the homes will look like as one of the houses was very close to completion.
Coffee is Growing, in the Best of Ways
After our tour of “downtown” Recreo, Jorge took us to see the changes they have been making on the farm and the plans they have to plant 200,000 new coffee plants this year. I learned that it takes 2-3 years for a coffee plant to be ready to harvest about a pound of green beans, which are just unroasted coffee beans.
The big thing that we as consumers don’t see is that these green beans are not the starting point. Before we really got into the coffee-producing process, Carlos took some time to plant some seeds in our brains and told us he wanted us to look at a coffee bean and see the love, sweat, and hard work that was put into producing one green bean.
As we toured different parts of the farm, I came across a sign that said: “Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent work.”
This is 10000% true. Coffee is something that just exists on this planet which is a gift in itself. The quality of that coffee is controlled by us and I can tell you with absolute certainty that every person involved in every process at El Recreo is an expert in their field. Good coffee doesn’t grow by accident. It is a product of intelligent work combined with love, sweat, and a lot of hard work.
After this, we had lunch with Las Mujercitas and their families. This is a program that was established by Miriam and the purpose of it is to motivate and support young girls through their education and motivate them to achieve more than what their society is telling them they should have. In Nicaragua, women are still seen as property by many and can be given away to be married (legally) as early as 13 years old.
This part was really emotional for me. I am a first-generation Mexican-American woman, and I am very aware of the advantages I have received by simply living in the United States.
As a child, we would frequently visit family in Mexico and parts where there are a lot of people living in poverty. I was able to recognize very early how lucky and privileged I was. I was able to hear about the struggles my dad and family went through for me to live the life I live now and I have always lived with an extreme awareness of how good I have it here.
Even when we have nothing, we have everything when we have the drive to want more for ourselves and we have even more when we have a support system to guide us there.
Being Mexican-American can be hard. We are meant to honor, love, and uphold our culture and family values to keep them alive but also work hard to have a perfect and successful American life because we don’t want the struggle our parents went through to be for nothing. I am extremely proud of my family and my roots. I love being Mexican with everything in my heart, but I have caught myself feeling like maybe I’m not proud when I say and do things that contradict the cultural expectations and norms Hispanic culture places on its’ women.
I’ve struggled with the feeling of not being Mexican enough for my family and community and not being American enough for society. We can be both proudly when we continue to demand the respect we deserve.
This is about Nicaragua but stay with me while I try to explain how Hispanic women can impact each other so drastically.
Yes, We Can
If you haven’t heard, the first Mexican woman is going to space, her name is Katya Echazarreta. Recently she gave an interview in Mexico talking about getting selected for this mission when an older woman came up to her and grabbed both of her hands and just looked at Katya’s eyes and began crying. After some time, Kayta looked her in the eyes and told her in Spanish, “We don’t have to stay home anymore. We can do whatever we want.”
Katya explained how raw and emotional this was for both of them. Mexican, Nicaraguan, Costa Rican, Honduran, any and all of us, women are capable of anything and many of us live in societies and cultures where we are told we can’t.
Women Supporting Women
After our lunch with Las Mujercitas and their parents, Miriam asked me to join her for a meeting with them and I was able to see, hear, and feel the love this community has for their young girls. The drive Miriam has to do whatever she can to support these girls is overwhelming.
Taken a little off guard, Miriam asked me if I had anything to tell them.
Looking at them, I saw me, and I just started thinking about all of the things I needed to hear when I was their age. I thought about how badly I wanted to see women who looked like me who felt empowered to dream big and chase their dreams aggressively.
I don’t remember what I said exactly. I just remember telling them that every time they find themselves asking if they deserve better, I hope they always know that they do. I hope that every time someone tells them they can’t do something, I hope they use it as fuel to do it better than anyone ever has. I told them that they are capable of changing the world and that they’re destined to have the life they choose to build.
I looked at these mujercitas who said they wanted to be architects and teachers and felt like I hadn’t been living up to my potential. I looked at them and so badly wanted to be someone they would be motivated by.
I don’t know if my words resonated with them. I hope they did, but they made me want to be better and I hope that we can mutually motivate each other in building lives we love. Women supporting women and knowing we don’t have to stay home anymore. We can do whatever we want.
We get lost in the process of growing up and these young women quickly brought me back and made me question whether or not 10-year-old Erica would be proud of the things we’ve done so far, and I think she would. But I think I can do better for her and I hope I can do better to continue to be a part of things like Las Mujercitas and help young girls be motivated and moved to want more. I want to be the person I needed when I was young, and I can’t give that to her, but I hope I can give it to someone else.
We spent the evening talking and connecting. Honestly, we did this every night in Nicaragua and every night you thought, “Wow, it can’t get much better than this,” it always got better.
The second morning, on the farm I got really lucky with an absolutely incredible sunrise.
There were many parts on this trip where I found myself having to remind myself where I am and that places and people this beautiful are real and don’t get the love, support, or recognition they deserve.
After a beautiful morning sunrise, and an amazing breakfast, we trekked up the mountain to the reserve where I had the opportunity to plant my own coffee tree (the 23rd down to be exact).
With the help of Marvin, our whole team left a little piece of us, un hijo (a child) as Carlos said, and we have to come back in 2025 for their first harvest.
Planting trees doesn’t seem hard, right? Stick the tree in the ground, put some fertilizer down, and you’re done – wrong. Aside from one of us (way to go, Franny!), all of our trees needed to be fixed and we were grateful to have Marvin there following us to fix our trees and make sure they were fixed.
The attentiveness and care that is put into every plant is incredible considering how many trees they have planted and plan to plant.
After we planted our trees and enjoyed some of the most incredible views I have ever seen, we had the privilege of eating lunch with the workers and distributing essentials for the workers who have worked on the farm for over a year.
El Recreo exceeds the minimum requirements in Nicaragua for a farm but providing these additional essentials is just another layer of love and support they want to provide to ensure their people feel loved and valued.
After this, it was time for some soccer. A recreational area was installed around 2020 (give or take a year) and we started with a game of pass.
Eventually, some of the workers were ready for a game and we were all here for it! The language barrier between the BIGGBY team and Recreo team aside, we all connected so strongly during that game. We were laughing, playing, and cheering each other on.
After the game, Miriam approached us and said how historic this game was because they have never come together to play a game like this. How incredibly lucky I felt to be a part of that.
During the soccer match, Mike Kotia “took one for the team” and had to be treated for a scrape on his arm at the Farm clinic.
This was our last night on the farm and we spent it with more delicious food and better company.
We had spent some time debriefing the night before and I never got the chance to so this was my time. I experienced some pretty raw emotions on this trip and although I wish I recorded myself in that moment, I’ll do my best to do the same here.
My expectations for this trip were high because I knew Miriam and her husband Hector. I knew Jorge and although I didn’t quite know their parents, Leana and Carlos Ferrey, I knew deep in my heart that good people like Miriam and Jorge don’t just happen. I knew that they had to have come from some pretty incredible people.
Being bilingual, I had an advantage my fellow travelers did not have. I got to witness and overhear side conversations from Carlos and Leana to each other and the people on the farm.
Carlos and Leana
The love that Carlos and Leana have for each other is overwhelming. It’s something that you see in movies and fills you with so much comfort. Between the two of them, there is too much love that it just spills over into everything they do and everything they touch.
Carlos and Leana’s overwhelming love and passion for creating a better world have reached far past El Recreo. From Nicaragua to Boston and to every single BIGGBY COFFEE location in the United States, every cup of coffee from Recreo is the result of intelligent work performed by extremely intelligent and passionate people who are fueled by love, sweat, and the satisfaction of a job well done.
My expectations for this trip were high yet they somehow managed to exceed them.
There are no words that exist to truly explain how incredible the Ferry and Morales Families are. Throughout the whole process, they were so eager and excited to share how our partnership with each other has positively impacted the farm and the people who are there. They use every opportunity they have to give what they have to better the lives of the people who work at El Recreo and beyond.
Leana and her advocacy for education is inspiring. She is always thinking of new ways to support the people she can reach. She’s a giver in the purest form.
I look at Carlos and I see my grandfather. A quiet, intelligent, and funny man who loves his wife fiercely. His passion that he shares with his wife to support and grow the people they can reach fills your heart in a way you didn’t know it could be filled.
Jorge is easily one of the smartest men I have ever met. A doctor by trade, and a coffee expert by choice, I know that the coffee coming out of this farm is the result of intelligent work. Jorge is kind and he shares the same love and drive to grow the people around him that his parents do.
Then we have Miriam. Miriam is a ray of love and light. She is her mother’s daughter. She and her husband Hector took a risk when they opened their café in Boston to help export the beans from Recreo. She is a true inspiration and incredible role model to Las Mujercitas. Miriam is my role model. This is a family of incredibly intelligent, loving, and driven people who are focused on creating a better world. It all started with a cup of coffee.
Miriam shared that right before the partnership between El Recreo and BIGGBY COFFEE, the farm almost shut down due to financial stress from the civil war in Nicaragua and the pandemic. Thinking about all of the people I met and the incredible work being done at Recreo and the idea that we could have lived in a world without it is something I can’t even believe.
There is so much that happened on this trip that I have not mentioned in this short novel. I would love nothing more than to talk to everyone about this experience and the people I spent my time with on this trip but I hope that this inspires you to choose coffee that comes from good people who are doing good things for their people, planet, and community because it makes a difference.
You shouldn’t have to know these people to care about them personally. I look at these people and they feel like my family. These people are brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, grandparents, moms, dads, aunts, uncles… they are somebody to somebody. I hope you look at these people and see your brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, grandparents, moms, dads, aunts, and uncles.
I hope you see me and I hope you see yourself.
I hope you see the people you love in these people and want them to have the life you hope your loved ones have.
I hope you see these people and it motivates you to be better.
I hope that it motivates you to support people who are doing good things.
I hope it makes you understand that you can make an impact simply by enjoying a cup of coffee.
I want to wrap this up with some notes to my travel partners.
To Michael and Heather, thank you for leading us through this trip. You both were definitely the right people to lead this trip and I was so grateful for the opportunity to get to know you better and share these experiences with you.
To my fellow Barista of the Year, Francesca. Thank you for your enthusiasm. I am so grateful I got to be with you during your first visit to a Latin American country and watch you just exist as you. You are a light in this world and I am just so grateful to know you.
To Matt, I am so happy I got to know you on this trip. Sometimes it can feel intimidating connecting with people you work with not so closely but having the opportunity to hear more about you and your life was a gift. You are an incredible human and I am so happy that you exist in the way you do in this organization.
Thankful to have had this experience with you.
As I said earlier, this entire trip was a core memory. I wish everyone could experience the things I did. If you have the means, I hope you do. There isn’t a word that exists that could describe how I feel. Just know that I came back with a fire under my ass and a drive to be better. We have far more power and influence than we understand.
Our farm-direct journey is not done but in the words of Michael Kotia, “We’re farther than we’ve ever been.”