A few weeks ago, we wrote about Stumptown's Burundi Kayanza beans that are on our coffee menu. While doing research for the post, we became captivated with the Long Miles Coffee Project, a washing station in Burundi where these beans originated. Long Miles was founded by Ben and Kristy Carlson, two Americans who have chosen coffee as their calling and the small African country of Burundi as their home. Their beautiful website and blog chronicle the challenges, joys, commitment and passion behind their project, and is totally inspiring. Their work is the embodiment of so much of what HubBub stands for, and the Carlsons are the kind of people we are honored to be connected with through the world of coffee.
We reached out to them via email to learn more about their story, and were thrilled with Kristy's quick and friendly reply, and her willingness to be interviewed. She shared so much about their amazing journey, and it gave us (and we hope it gives you) a whole new dimension of understanding about this coffee in our cup.
HubBub: So what is Long Miles Coffee Project, in your own words?
Kristy: Long Miles Coffee Project is a family endeavor, growing and producing micro-lots of coffee in Burundi, east Africa. Our family is made up of a photographer, a coffee specialist and two small boys. At first it was just our family of 4, but now we are surrounded by a small band of coffee loving cowboys hailing from all over the world.
HubBub: What led your family to East Africa? Where did you guys live before that?
Kristy: We were captured by the potential of Burundi. Fresh out of civil war, and one of the poorest countries on the planet, Burundi was (and still is) ripe for change and renewal. We hoped we could be a small part of that. Once we found our feet, it became clear that the only way we could facilitate change was through building a coffee washing station in the heart of a coffee growing community. We began growing coffee right alongside the members of our new community, and instilling seeds of change through small actions like paying farmers on time and treating our neighbors fairly. These small actions have led to positive relationships with farmers in our community.
Before moving to Burundi, we spent 10 years living in South Africa. We are Americans, but part of us still swears allegiance to our first real home as a couple, South Africa. Our children were born there and once South Africa gets under your skin it’s a really difficult place to leave behind.
HubBub: What was your relationship to coffee before moving to Burundi? Did you set out looking to get involved in the coffee trade, or did that come about through unforeseen avenues?
Kristy: Ben has been passionate about coffee since I met him, when we were just kids in college. Slowly, over the course of our 10 years in South Africa, his passion for coffee became impossible to dampen. We are firm believers in the words of Benjamin Zander (author of The Art of Possibility) who writes that, “Money follows contribution.” Ben began contributing to the South African coffee scene by training baristas, emceeing barista competitions and writing about coffee for South African publications. The more he contributed, the more opportunities began to rise to the surface.
We moved to Burundi with the intention that Ben would essentially walk away with a self-taught “PhD” of sorts in coffee from spending time at an origin. The problem was, once we got here it became evident that to bring about the types of changes we wanted to see, mainly farmers being paid fair prices and on time, it would take digging deeper and being involved more wholeheartedly in the country of Burundi. It meant putting down roots as a family and sinking resources into the ever changing landscape of Burundi.
HubBub: Was it complicated to set up the washing station? What were some specific hurdles you had to overcome in the process?
Kristy: It was incredibly complicated. There are no simple systems in Burundi for buying land, building, operating or exporting. We faced opposition on several fronts. Quite honestly, about mid-way through the build of our first station I was very unsure that it would ever be operational. Ben, however, soldiered on believing and 3 weeks after the season had started, we were operating with a single disk de-pulper and a team of excited Burundians. Now, there is a 3-disk McKinnon in place, and the same enthusiastic team processes coffee cherry late into the night.
We faced something similar with the building of our second station, Heza. We began building 6 months in advance and yet, due to problem after problem after problem, we only became operational at Heza last week. It can be really difficult to shoulder all the problems of a build and a new company. For us having faith that God is with us has really seen us through many of these challenges. Problems with water, government, mechanical, plumbing, fuel shortages…many of the issues we face are so far outside the scope of a place like the US that I find it hard to communicate them well to our friends and family. It’s not that they wouldn’t understand, it’s that I really am at a loss as to how to describe what it’s like owning a business and living life here. It’s one of the reasons I’m thankful for photography and the ability it gives me to communicate life here.
HubBub: Who are some of the farmers that you have special relationships with? How did/do you handle language barriers?
We are (very) slowly learning enough Kirundi to get around. Our station managers and our agronomist are all fluent in English, French and Kirundi so we are able to communicate through them if we can’t get our point across in bad Kirundi or bad French.
There are many farmers that we have loved building friendships with. Roger and his family come to mind right now. They are leaders in their community and together we are working to rebuild a bridge in Rugoma that will allow the community better access to the town of Bukeye and our station. Last year, we gave Roger a micro-loan to buy more land to plant coffee trees. Roger has started encouraging his community to plant more coffee, telling them that Long Miles pays fairly and coffee is the way out of poverty. It’s farmers like Roger spreading the word that had us bringing in 30 tons of quality coffee a day at the height of this year’s harvest. That’s a lot of coffee for our little station to handle!
HubBub: Are your kids interested in the business? Or are they just busy doing kid stuff?
Kristy: They hang out at the washing station. We try to bring them upcountry with us as often as we can. During harvest, that has meant picking them up from their small French-speaking school at noon and heading straight for the station. Sometimes they are happy to be up there and sometimes they really don’t like it. John, our mechanic and night guard, usually is on hand to do bow and arrow target practice with Myles. John handcrafts arrows and bows and then he and Myles march off into the nearby Eucalyptus forest for practice rounds.
They are also busy doing normal kid stuff; at 7 and 4 they love Legos and soccer.
HubBub: Is staying in Burundi, running the Long Miles Coffee Project your long-term plan?
Yes it is.
HubBub: Do you guys just drink coffee, like, all day long? What's your favorite preparation technique?
Ben usually does coffee all day long, especially towards the end of harvest when cupping season begins. He loves a good pour over and I love a good flat white or well-made cappuccino, if our oldest son Myles makes it I love it even more.
Wow. Thank you so much to Kristy Carlson for her wonderful responses to our questions. Please visit Long Miles Coffee Project's website to learn more about their business, their ethics, their stories, and to see more of Kristy's stunning photography. And visit HubBub to try the Burundi Kayanza for yourself!
All photos by Kristy Carlson except where noted.