Serious Coffee: Byron Holcomb, Coffee Farmer (And More)
To call Byron Holcomb a "coffee farmer" is a little misleading, mostly because that's only one of the many hats he wears. He's also a professional barista and barista competitor; a coffee roaster; an occasional blogger and Barista Magazine contributor; and the Coffee Director for Dallis Bros. Coffee in Ozone Park, Queens.
But yes, he also owns a coffee farm. Specifically, Finca la Paz: A 15-acre lot in the Dominican Republic, which he bought after falling in love with the DR as a Peace Corps volunteer there.
Ever wonder what it's like to own a coffee farm? Byron happens to know first hand. We recently caught up with Byron via e-mail to find out what it's like to work on both sides of the coffee counter, so to speak.
Byron, tell us a little about yourself and your coffee journey. How did you get into it?
I'm 31, born and raised in Northern California. I have a BS in biology, and when I was in middle school, my only friends were nature shows. I think I was always supposed to work in coffee. It became clear to me only after I turned 27 and had my coffee epiphany: I was able to look back at my life and see coffee woven into it. There was my fascination with ecology, my affinity for scientific names and process, my love of training farmers, my fluency in Spanish, my understanding of politics in the Caribbean...So I decided to become a coffee professional.
When you were in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, did you work specifically with coffee farmers?
Yes, I was an Agroforestry Extension volunteer. To define "agroforestry" simply is to say: Look for creative ways to plant trees. I was trained in just that: How to talk with farmers about their current planting rotation, how they managed their finances, how they were paid, if they were open to planting some fruit trees or trees for wood. The town where I lived and served in, Los Frios, survived off coffee until the coffee crisis in 1999. When I was there, from 2003 to 2005, people didn't want coffee because it wasn't a profitable crop; they wanted avocado. Most of the farmers converted their coffee farms to short-cycle beans (black, red, and pinto beans) and just left a little bit of coffee in case the prices ever recovered.
What drew you back to the Dominican once your time in the Corps ended, and how did you come to purchase your coffee farm?
I learned that farmers were really risk adverse. After I had my coffee epiphany I thought, "It would be cool to go to the DR, buy a farm, establish it with best practices, plant coffee, and let it be a model to other farmers." Then I could be the one to take the risk, produce quality coffee, and develop relationships. I thought I would to this when I was old and had time and money. My patience ran out after a couple months of thinking about it, and I asked my close Dominican friends for advice. I was ready to wait years for the farm to come to fruition.
Then Olivo came on the radar: He was a talented farmer, I knew the farm, I knew him well, and the farm was in the best growing region in Los Frios. We agreed on a price over the phone—the only honest price I was offered—and I flew down a couple months later and purchased it. Finca La Paz is the new name of the farm because of my inspiration with Peace Corps (Cuepro de Paz).
Working as both a coffee grower and for a roaster here in the states, your perspective is a bit unique. What's it like having that sort of dual life within the industry?
My knowledge of green coffee and production only helps Dallis Bros. As a farmer, I have an advantage of being able to communicate, understand, and interpret coffee on a different level from someone who hasn't spent years at origin. I do all the purchasing of green coffee for Dallis; being able to look at green coffee and guess about its variety, types of defects and where they come from...bite the green and tell the moisture—all of these skills help me guide our partners to craft better coffee.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a farmer?
I have a terrible bean borer issue. [Ed note: Coffee bean borer, or broca, is a type of beetle that burrows into coffee cherry to deposit its eggs, causing damage to the fruit and bean.] When I tell agronomists about it they say, "Well, didn't you...?" and list the common remedies. Yes, I've done all of them.
The other challenge is reestablishment costs. Planting a coffee farm is super expensive. The coffee gets better each year, though. The last couple years have been the best. Usually when people ask about the farm, I'm honest: it is hard, not sexy, expensive, and sometimes I consider selling it.
What has been your proudest moment in coffee so far, and what has been the most humbling lesson?
There have been lots of both. Because my drive in coffee is rooted so firmly in sustainable quality production, things like cupping results and espresso scores in a competition are taken very personally. It is easy to cup a coffee and give a score: I do this every day of the week at Dallis Bros. When my coffee hasn't fared well on a table in past years, that's been hard to take because I've invested so much into it. At the end of the day, I choose this. I won't take any of it back, not a single mistake. There is something in all of the challenges that I really love, and for now it works well enough for me to keep the farm.
Coffee from Finca La Paz will be available from Dallis Bros. later this year. Check their online shop for details.