“Burundi coffee is the Cinderella of the coffee world,” says Kristy Carlson. “Hidden, misused, misunderstood and neglected.” When Carlson and her husband Ben (our 2016 Coffee People of the Year) first visited Burundi, they immediately recognized it as a diamond in the rough; and after 10 years in South Africa (they’re both originally from the Midwest), they moved to Burundi in 2011 and Long Miles Coffee Project was born. The mission of Long Miles is three-fold: growing and producing the best-possible Burundian coffee; using coffee as a vehicle to help transform Burundian coffee-producing communities for the better; and connecting roasters and coffee drinkers to the story of Burundi and its farms.
We asked Kristy to share a bit more about what her family’s life is like in Burundi, so here, in her own words, she provides a fascinating look, along with a gorgeous slideshow of photos all taken by her.
Kristy Carlson: We used to rise each day to the sound of the Azhan pushing its way through crackling speakers at the nearby mosque. Almost immediately following came the sound of our second born, an early riser since birth, stomping with bare feet across the cool tile floors and towards our bed. “It’s morning time!” has been his greeting since he could talk. Living on the equator means that year round the sun rises at 6am and sets at 6pm. The predictability of this can be a unique comfort in the chaos and heat of third world living.
That was all before, when life was bliss and we didn’t even know it. Since May the horror of violent protests, which were followed by a coup d’état and then by more violence, have gripped Burundi. As harvest in Burundi’s lush green hills came to a close, tracer bullets and RPGs lit up the night sky and the daylight hours were pierced by machine gun fire. Burundi has begun to collapse in upon itself since then, and our family has gotten used to being displaced, exiting and reentering only to exit again.
Despite a new family mantra which reads something like “Hello. Goodbye. Hello again.” our three kids (two boys under 9 and a newborn baby girl) have shown us that staying adaptable is possible. Our daily lives have been forced to find a new rhythm in recent months but in some ways we are used to that.
As coffee producers, our daily lives are as seasonal as the coffee fruit we help grow.
Once the coffee cherries start rolling in at harvest time, we are with our beans until they leave African soil. Through mulching, pruning, harvesting, washing, fermenting, drying, cupping, milling, and exporting there are many different hats to wear and jobs to get done.
It is our big picture that remains the same. In and out of season it’s important to us that we build relationships with the coffee-growing families on the hills around us. Like most things that are good, this takes time. As we listen to their struggles and hopes we are able to construct platforms for change from what we hear. Our goal has always been to explore pathways of hope for farmers through excellently grown and cared for coffees. We’ve faced mountainous challenges to that goal which is why we’ve appreciated partnering closely with roasters. We have several partner roasters, like Olympia in Washington and Dogwood in Minneapolis, who have challenged our thinking and pushed us towards excellence and innovation.
During the peak of harvest in our second season we were hyper-focused on the quality of the coffee cherries we were receiving from our farmers. Every ounce of our team’s energy was bent towards quality, but our passion was often lost on our coffee farmers who grew up hearing that “a cherry is a cherry no matter the color.” They would bring baskets full of under- and over-ripe cherries to our door, and our hearts would sink. Along the path of war and poverty that our coffee farmers have traveled, something of the importance of good farming practices has been lost. It became evident to us that for our farmers, only seeing would be believing. By planting our own model farms within their communities we could show farmers that variations in yield were dependant upon things like pruning, mulching and fertilizer. Currently, we are in the process of building a model farm on the edge of Kabira National forest.
Fear and shadows of the past continue to grow steadily in Burundi, but the coffee trees stand as they always have.
Through a bloody civil war and now through new waves of violence, coffee trees and those who farm them have been Burundi’s olive branch. Our family is relatively new to the terroir of Burundi, respectively, and as we sink our roots down deeper all we really crave for ourselves and those around us is peace- and every Burundian we know wants the same.