AN INTERVIEW WITH CYNTHIA LA RUE
By Jessica Sheridan
[Not many women] are crazy like me with boots on the ground in the thick of it, relishing every moment,” Nicaraguan coffee producer Cynthia La Rue told me on a Zoom call at the start of this summer.
Cynthia’s confidence and wisdom, like her kind smile, are reassuring, and are lasting impressions of an admirable woman. In an agricultural industry that is largely dominated by male leadership, Cynthia is a pioneer and a beacon of hope for a new generation of female producers. For these reasons and more, some of the highlights from my Farm to Cup Interview with Cynthia La Rue, whose Nicaraguan coffee beans are on our coffee line year-round (in our year-round composition Voyager, and seasonally in Harvest) are featured here on Women’s Equality Day.
Speaking candidly to Cynthia remotely on a gloomy day during a pandemic, her presence pierced through the day like a ray of sunshine. You would be hard pressed to speak with someone like Cynthia and not be inspired.
FARM TO CUP INTERVIEW
with Jessica Sheridan & Cynthia La Rue
JS: “What is the name of your farm? Is there any special significance to this name?”
CLR: “[My farm’s name is] La Plata. [I’m a] fourth generation farmer. What’s interesting about my farm is a female to female lineage. My great grandmother to me. When [my] mom and dad married, the farm was a traditional rustic farm. If they did 200 bags of coffee a year, that was a lot. By the 70’s, they were doing … 11,000 bags. Their farm name was La Trampa. My mom and dad had 6 children, I’m the last of 6. When dad got his farm back in the 2000’s, he asked his 6 kids who wanted to help him, and I didn’t even think about it. I had no idea. I just said sure, I was pretty close to dad. I thought it was about writing a check. The reality is he wanted us to learn how to farm. In one of our trips down to see him, he handed me a piece of paper and said here’s your farm, have it. My farm takes the name of one of the planting areas that he and mom built, La Plata being the larger of the two.”
JS: “So, your farm is one of a few parts of what was known as La Trampa. Where does the name La Trampa come from?”
CLR: “The Trap! My great grandfather Carmen had a fantastic sense of humor. He was a blue eyed Nicaraguan, if you can imagine that, and the days of the 1850’s, more or less, 1860s, more of less, to go to Guatemala, the east coast, which was a British protectorate, you had to travel this road and stop at our farm. Imagine the old west meal trains. So, being the jokester he was, he called it “The Trap”, or “La Trampa.”
My grandfather would be 150 years old if he were still alive. He met my grandmother at the farm with the meal train. They would commercialize salt from the coast to our town. In the trips going to and from the coast to town, that’s where my grandfather met my grandmother.”
JS: “Where is your farm located? Is there anything notable about the area (i.e. climate, geographically, historically, etc)?”
CLR: “We are inside a national reserve called Datanlí – El Diablo. There are two (nearby) mountains that are virgin jungles still, which is highly unusual. The lower part of the farm is that part that was inherited by mom, the upper part of the farm, which is about 3x bigger, is all a preserve that mom and dad started buying around the time I was born to preserve the water sources. They really had a lot of forward thinking back in those days, and it’s still pretty much the same as it was when I was young. Sixty varieties of orchids, wild animals, just behind the farm. On an agricultural point, our farm doesn’t have the altitude that some farms have, but we have the climate from the mountains.
I grew up on the farm. I didn’t really know the farm until my dad handed the land to me and told me I needed to learn. At first I copied what my brothers did until I knew enough to trust that what I wanted to do was the way to go. My coffee at 900 [masl] is just as good as my coffees at 1200 [masl]. Altitude has something to do with it, but there is something in there at 900 [masl] that I find incredible coffee.”
JS: “Can you tell me a little bit about your workers?”
CLR: “I have the same people come to harvest with me year after year. I attribute this to a few factors. We upgraded our conditions with a few structures – food, child care. Those things really mean a lot (…). What brings them back also is how we relate to them on the farm, on site. My right hand at the farm, my foreman, he’s the son of the foreman that worked for mom and dad. We have this connection to people that really means a lot to them, and how we relate to them is probably not the norm. I’m very fortunate to have the son of the man that helped mom and dad build their farm. He often talks about what makes me different as a leader of a farm is that I work with a team, I built a team.”
JS: “What kind of benefits do you provide your workers with?”
CLR: “Child care, food, housing, medical insurance. In Nicaragua, it is traditional that you provide housing, 3 meals a day, medical insurance. I am of the belief since I am a certified farm that I don’t want children working. Single women with children are often not given work because it is seen as a cost to have child care or a school. For me, as a single mom most of my daughter’s life, I have a strong bias to making sure the kids are safe. I have a tortilla machine to ensure the cooks aren’t up all night making tortillas. My machine produces 600 tortillas/hr and the women in my kitchen have a real life during crop. If I won’t eat the food, they won’t eat the food. I eat exactly what they eat. The quality of the food is probably one of the more attractive things to the workers, because if they have good food, they’re having the selective picking I ask them to to have the quality of coffee I have. I’m one of the few farms that started that. It has a huge impact on the cup and the product you receive. If you don’t offer the conditions to the workers, it’s harder for them to give you that equal partnership of selective quality..so that the end result is a higher quality coffee.”
JS: “Do you grow any agricultural products other than coffee?”
CLR: “Not in huge amounts, my farm is predominantly coffee. I am trying to make it as sustainable as I can. I use bananas as shade. We do harvest the bananas that we use for shade. To enhance the diet of the staff during the pre-crop time, I have the things that you would think, such as corn for corn on the cob and tamales for the holidays. I bring [other varieties] so that they can have other vegetables, not just the ones from here. Believe it or not, it makes a huge difference, because then their meals aren’t just traditional meals.
I’m fortunate enough to have Julio, who has a background in growing vegetables. He has an interest and it makes the world go much easier because I can have four or five different types of squash, which is good.”
JS: “Is there anything you want drinkers of your coffee to know?”
CLR: “What a fabulous question. Passion is probably the most important ingredient in growing coffee. If you’re not passionate about what you do in the land and with the people and with the environment, it would never translate into a fantastic cup of coffee.
Personally, it’s fascinating to me. Very often your coffee is sold and you don’t know who it’s sold to… Knowing who’s the roaster and who roasts the coffee means a lot. If I could get the connection to how we grow our coffee and what it means to grow the coffee and get it closer to the person who is enjoying it, that’s really important.”
Though the coffee industry and beyond still have a ways to go in order to become truly equitable, Cynthia and people like her represent the culmination of the journey towards gender equity thus far. Days like today are not only a profound occasion to celebrate, but also to motivate. A special toast to strong women on this day–may we embrace their strength in all of its forms, may we aspire to be them, may we learn from them, may we support them, and may we lift them up for a better today and a more inclusive tomorrow.
Click the buttons below to get some of Cynthia’s coffee for yourself — Voyager & Harvest.