Long Miles Coffee Project... Helping Burundi coffee growers
 
Coffee. People. Potential.
— Ben Carlson
 

I first heard about the Long Miles Coffee Project (LMCP) when I was in Seattle for the SCAA Coffee Expo. I was fortunate enough to get to go along to a presentation where founder of LMCP Ben Carlson spoke about his project. Burundi coffee wasn't something I had heard of nor tasted before so it was all quite new to me. The coffee we tasted during the presentation was good. Ben's passion and enthusiasm about this project got me thinking about it. I left the conference with a lovely thought about what Ben and his family have accomplished in Burundi.  

 
Ben Carlson founder of LMCP

Ben Carlson founder of LMCP

 

Just this year I cupped a lot of LMCP coffee. In one word, outstanding! What Ben and Kristy have done in Burundi is exceptional. I am so happy to have them featured on my blog. I hope you all enjoy the read and get behind this project. 

 
 

1. What is the Long Miles Coffee Project?

In a nutshell…. Coffee. People. Potential.
This is the basis of why we moved to Burundi and that evolved into building a washing station, then a second station.
This is why we never stop leaning into quality and tractability and finding innovative ways to make our coffee better, our team and fellow neighbour farmers more productive, healthy and full of dignity and why we think we still have a long way to go.
 
 
LMCP is us as a family living out our dream. We are farmers, producers, community members, exporters….. really just an American family that chose to stop living a really nice, safe, and unchallenged life  in South Africa after 11 years.  We picked up and pursued our passions and a hope to transform lives, that we just live and we decided to pursue our dream.  LMC is our dream and funny enough in actuality it was organic.  For the first 2 coffee seasons LMCP was an idea that was being nurtured and developed but in reality I was trading coffee only.  Only after 2 years of marinating in the Burundi culture and coffee world were we ready to launch LMCP into what it has turned out to be today.
LMC is a family. It's a team of leaders, agronomists, young coffee scouts and quality washing station teams picking, fermenting and helping us produce speciality coffee. 
 
 

2. You could have picked anywhere to do this project. Why Burundi?

It revolves around the word “Potential.”
I took my first trip into Burundi in 2010 and I had been on a 2 year hunt for “where to go? and What to do in Coffee?”
When I arrived in Burundi to cup and separate micro  lots and consult on a cooperative washing station project it was like a light got flipped on.  My first cupping table was actually my first taste of Burundi coffee.  I quite literally jumped. Bourbon coffee, fully washed, vibrant fruit with so much citrus and silky body. This was the kind of coffee that I love and I knew that many roasters around the world would also covet.  
 
 
After visiting the cooperative and government washing stations I saw that what I was cupping was quite actually Burundi coffee at its worst. It was a mind blow. I began thinking of the possibilities of just where this coffee could end up being on a cupping score/flavour profile if treated well.
A number of other factors lined up at the same time for me.  Burundi was just a couple years into privatization and only a handful of importers and traders were working in Burundi to source or export micro lots.  I felt that the door was open to a whole new world for Burundi coffee and no one was walking into it.  I remember flying back to South Africa and telling Kristy, my wife, "I found it.”
It didn’t take her long to Google and find all the past horror stories of war, genocide, coup d’etas etc. Shortly after that she got on a plane with me and our 12 month old baby to go check out where or if we could live in Burundi. It was like Burundi was a magnet. A calling in a sense. A place to realise just what living out a dream to produce the highest quality coffee in the world could look like.
After a year of living, or maybe two years of Burundi after one of the many frustrating and gruelling days of survival Kristy asked the same question: “so…… why did we choose Burundi again?”
 
 
All the potential was only potential because things here are not easy and very few people are producing micro lots and farming the best possible Bourbon coffee because of so many challenges.

3. What has been your biggest achievement to date?

My first thought is winning #3 and #8 at the Cup of Excellence.  this was a huge win for us and an affirmation that what we were doing, investing in and pushing toward was working.
 
 
My second thought is that we are still here. Still producing coffee and despite some hair raising events and amazingly difficult situations we are continuing and the vision remains.  Our heart is unchanged, we are changed for sure.  Each year since arriving in Burundi I’ve said, “well, it can’t get any worse…. right?” I’m saying it again, with my feet planted firmly expecting the opposite.  But still planted.
The third reason (more then you expected I’m sure).  It’s the neighbour farmers lives that we see have been changed.  This, more then anything is really our biggest achievement.
More money into families pockets by over 50%.  Chickens, goats and cows in the family farm where before there were none.  Job creation for our 50 full time staff of agronomists and team members.  Environmental impact that is creating Green Belts webbing out from our two washing stations into the hills surrounding us.  Health care / medical aid for all our staff and we have started it for many of the 4,500 families we work with and our goal is for 100% coverage of our fellow farmers in the next year.  That’s nearly 25,000 individuals previously without health care that are now covered.
But all of that was nothing compared to a neighbour lady who ran up to Kristy with tears in her eyes and a big basket of bananas as a gift for her as thanks.  She said before Long Miles Coffee came they had been only able to send their oldest boy to school.  now her two daughters are also able to go to school thanks to the premiums we paid and the increase in their volume thanks to our help.
 
 

4. You would have faced a lot of hurdles in your time in Burundi. What are some of the major issues? (Agriculturally or Political)

This here is tricky . We are really sensitive to what we say in this regard.  So lets just say….. a lot of issues that we may never really have freedom to talk through. 
Agriculturally we are faced with almost 100% of our farmers having coffee trees over 30 to 50 years old.  production is dismal and this in turn makes crafting micro lots extremely hard with an intense amount of training, encouraging and helping to rejuvenate farms and re-plant trees.
Shade trees, mulch, organic fertilizers, erosion control are concepts that we are introducing that seem like no-brainier.  But in reality we are working with neighbours and communities that are over-populated and have zero capital to invest into their plantations. 
Our number one enemy is the Antestia bug.  This little beauty is nearly solely responsible for the potato defect in Burundi coffee.  We have an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) program that organically fights these insects and engages the families in all our hills to work toward better production.   Antestia alone can decimate 40% of a farmers total production.  He’s cute.  He’s the devils spawn. We employ 26 Jr. agronomists called Coffee Scouts to help train farmers on how to fight the Antestia bug.
We are starting to win this war.  Our Antestia count per tree went from over 8 a tree to less then a fraction of one bug.
In life….
Attempted coup d’etes, protests, mass exodus of refugees (over 400,000 fled this past year), UN resolutions and threats back and forth have marred this beautiful place. Constantly changing export processes and bank rules have us taking usually two weeks to get documents done for export. There is so much that has happened that we try and keep our heads down, do our best to make an impact for good. To be a shining light and not shake the boat. 
 
 
At our washing stations we have fought off bandits in the night each year, had a couple grenades thrown into our buildings and faced neighbouring washing stations protest and try to stop us in various uncouth ways from working with our neighbour farmers but the biggest challenge seems to just be to keep our Land Rovers running.
The challenges aren’t done.  My philosophy is that we’ll face two big challenges a day.  one before lunch and one after. If I go through a morning with no major challenge to solve I’m tempted to call it a day and celebrate our good fortune.

5. Have you seen a change in the attitude of the Burundi farmers?

Absolutely!  Its been an amazing shift for the 4,500 families that we work with.
Year one we exported 80 bags of coffee and our cherry selection looked like a rainbow. Year on year we have tightened our control and raised expectations of coffee cherry quality.  What at first was met with resistance we have now seen to be like a light turned on for many.  It’s a direct correlation between raised expectations and higher premiums paid.  the result is more and more families joining us and the previous years of protest are now changed to families finding innovative ways to mulch, fertilize and even irrigate their farms to produce higher quality cherries.
 
 
We have done a simple thing.  Shared a cup of coffee. Two actually! One clean, bright and beautiful micro lot cup and one commodity cup.  
We talk about quality, what the final product is, and then taste it together. The result is the first time to ever taste coffee for our neighbours.  There is an understanding. a buy-in to our rigorous standards.  And…. even on the best micro lots the farmers all agree that we need to give them milk and sugar to make it taste better. It’s a start of understanding and an open door to our LMC team who are now learning to cup and define why a lot scores higher.

6. Finally, what is your favourite brewing method and why?

Kalita Wave. What a forgiving and clean way to prepare coffee.
I love it’s smooth character and the way it allows the profile of the cup to shine. Flat bottom, even and uniform extraction. I think it gives the coffee a really good chance to shine. I’m always doing 3 things at the same time and the Kalita gives me a lot of grace in my hap-hazard brewing style. I need to watch more of your brew lessons.
 
 

All images supplied by the Long Miles Coffee Project. 

For more info, check out their website and you can follow them on Instagram.