A Girl on a Coffee Farm

A short update on goings-on over at Filter Stories. The story behind the latest episode, an update on marginalisedfarmers.org and answering the perennial question: how do you make money?

This originally appeared in the May 2020 Filter Stories newsletter. Subscribe here!


I know, it's been a while. What? 5 months!? I hope you're safe and well during these crazy times.

I'm writing a little letter to get you up to speed with what's been happening over in Filter Stories world.

TL:DR: I’ve never been the same after what I discovered in Central America.

So, two years ago, I met Sofía (not her real name), a teenage girl whose  parents work on a coffee farm in Nicaragua.

In March last year, I made an episode of her dreams of being an English translator and just how darn hard it is for kids to break out of a cycle of poverty in rural Nicaragua.

Then, a few months after that episode aired, I visited Nicaragua again.

While I was away, Nicaragua’s political situation exploded and hundreds were murdered by government forces. They weren’t letting journalists into the country, so I had to stuff my microphones deep in a bag and pretend to be a tourist when getting grilled by immigration.

Once inside, the country felt like a ghost town. My former lively hostel was deserted, dozens of rats running through rooms that hadn’t seen a guest in months.

But I was here to meet Sofía and check up on her journey. And I quickly learnt she had dropped from five days of school to just one. And her father, a man employed on a specialty coffee farm, hadn’t been paid in months.

I lined up an interview with the daughter of the farm owner and discovered that half their specialty coffee buyers had deserted her.

But, it’s when I spoke to the farm owner, a middle-aged Doctor, that I was confronted with an even more unsettling reality that made me question my role as a coffee drinker in this mess.

I don’t want to give too much away of the story - but basically, the situation was fiendishly complex and I was struggling to tell a story that navigates questions of ethical supply chains, Sofía's aspirations hitting the walls of her marginal socio-economic situation, murky issues of inter-generational responsibilities and my own personal journey of my idealism disintegrating before my eyes.

And so, I did a call out to the best radio makers and storytellers in the world, offering coffee brewing lessons in exchange for constructive story feedback.And I received a flood of responses! The world is full of coffee-loving journalists who work for the New York Times, WNYC, teaching story craft at Stanford and more.

I finally found just the right story consultant to help me untangle this mess, a guy whose work has featured on This American Life, and I began crafting a tale that was unlike anything I’d ever made before for Filter Stories.

For once, I was going to be a protagonist.

Indeed, THE protagonist.

I naturally prefer the role of documentary observer, but if there was ever a time to break out of this mold, it was now. Coronavirus had hit and I had a month on my hands because my paid work was taking a pause.

And so I spent two months crafting "A Girl on a Coffee Farm", the episode I released on Sunday. The feedback I've received so far has been amazing - thank you!

In other news, I released another two episodes earlier in the year.

"Why El Salvador isn’t bringing back coffee” is a short story about a man torn between his connection to his late-father’s coffee farm and the brutal economics of coffee growing in El Salvador in the face of climate change.

I also created "Be careful what you dream (It may come true)", the inspirational (and cautionary) tale of a man driven by his passions to win the World Barista Championships, achieving the impossible and then struggling to capitalize on his success. If you need a fun little Corona distraction, I recommend this one!

Side story: I’ve just finished adapting this piece for the Duolingo Spanish Podcast and you can hear Alejandro Mendez and Federico Bolaños in their native Spanish reliving the glory days! It will drop in a month or two.

I was also heartened to see my MarginalisedFarmers.org website taking off (thanks Daily Coffee News and Spill The Beans podcast!).

If you want to support coffee farmers who don’t have the privilege of creating direct trade relationships, the website lists roasters who are reaching deep into the coffee lands to catch these farmers a break.

Finally, I want to answer a question I get asked a lot:

How do you make money?

Firstly, that’s a great question.

And now, let’s talk about something else.

No, seriously, Filter Stories doesn’t make me a dime but each episode does cost me about €1000 to make (flights, accommodation, equipment, transcriptions/translations, sound editing).

I do it because I love it, I'm motivated to change the conversation in the coffee world to help those with less, and to open the eyes of coffee drinkers through compelling stories.

But to subsidize it, I help companies make podcasts.

For example, I’m working with the Specialty Coffee Association to craft their first narrative series telling the untold stories of the World Coffee Championships (due out in September).

I’m a Staff Writer at Perfect Daily Grind, and have lots of different projects at any one time (freelance life….).

I’m particularly excited with a current project where I’m helping an NGO make a podcast that explores the problems of illegal mineral mining in the Brazilian rain forest, how that undermines an Amazonian tribe’s prosperity and the tribe’s struggles to find a legal market for the minerals on their ancestral lands.

So, all this to say, if you are thinking of making a podcast, let's chat!

And……..that's a wrap.

Thanks for reading (and listening!), stay safe out there, and until next time.


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