The Car­damom Cow­boy

More than half of the world’s sup­ply of this pre­cious spice comes from Gu­atemala. High in the north­ern forests of Alta Ver­a­paz, an in­trepid farmer is work­ing to make the way it is grown and traded bet­ter for con­sumers and lo­cals alike

SAVEUR - - Contents - BY MAX FALKOWITZ

In Gu­atemala, where most of the world’s car­damom is grown, an en­ter­pris­ing farmer is shak­ing up the in­dus­try

BE­FORE WE CAN SEE THE car­damom plants, Amil­car Pereira and his men have to cas­trate the bulls. That morn­ing, in a pickup truck on the bumpy moun­tain climb to the cloud forests of Gu­atemala’s Alta Ver­a­paz, I was privy to Pereira the the­olo­gian. Our dis­cus­sion about his new ex­port com­pany, 786 Gexsa, prompted a halfhour ser­mon on the roles of god and per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity in fam­ily and com­merce. He named his first busi­ness Fedea­gro, a port­man­teau of the Span­ish words for faith and agri­cul­ture. “They’re both tiny things that get big­ger.”

But now it’s time for Pereira the cow­boy—lasso, hat, pis­tol. He di­rects his crew to cor­ner a bull and tosses a rope over its horns. A few more las­sos and the bull is down, legs out­stretched, sud­denly silent and docile. As one man douses its gen­i­tals with grain al­co­hol, an­other un­folds a Swiss Army knife, yanks the scro­tum taut, and ex­cises the testes in two quick cuts. More grain al­co­hol to wash the wound. A splash of io­dine and a squeeze of sour or­ange to cleanse it. Pereira loosens the ropes and the bull is off. The scents of cit­rus and cow dung min­gle in the va­porous haze.

We break from the heat for an early lunch, but Pereira is con­sti­tu­tion­ally in­ca­pable of sit­ting still. He gob­bles his beans and tor­tillas, then asks if we’re ready to hike up to the part of the farm where the car­damom grows. An hour later, after climb­ing nar­row trails cleared by ma­chetes, we’re nearly there. I’m pant­ing as loud as the bull had that morn­ing and can barely keep up. Pereira, 54 go­ing on 25, cir­cles back to tell us there’s just one more ridge. He slaps his arm on my dou­bled-over back and says with a laugh, “Race you to the top.”

Green car­damom is the third-most-ex­pen­sive spice in the world, be­hind saf­fron and vanilla. Across the Mid­dle East, the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, and Nordic Eu­rope, cooks and bak­ers rel­ish its flo­ral fra­grance and men­thol bite, and use it in ev­ery­thing from rice pi­laf and curry gravies to baklava and but­ter cook­ies. But the world’s

lead­ing pro­ducer of car­damom since 1980 is a coun­try with zero cul­tural con­nec­tion to the spice: Gu­atemala.

In 1914, a Ger­man plan­ta­tion owner named Os­car Klo­ef­fer brought green car­damom to his Guatemalan cof­fee es­tate to see if he could un­der­cut grow­ers along the plant’s na­tive Mal­abar coast in the king­dom of Tra­van­core, in what is now the south­ern In­dian state of Ker­ala. Car­damom thrives in rel­a­tively cool, hu­mid air at high alti­tude, and it turns out Gu­atemala’s cloud forests are the per­fect en­vi­ron­ment for it. These days, the coun­try pro­duces around 30,000 met­ric tons of car­damom per year—well over half the global sup­ply—and 70 per­cent of it comes from the north­ern depart­ment of Alta Ver­a­paz.

Vir­tu­ally all of that car­damom is for ex­port; like many spices, it is far more valu­able as a cash crop than an in­gre­di­ent for lo­cal use, and de­spite its pres­ence in the na­tion’s agri­cul­ture for more than 100 years, most Gu­atemalans never de­vel­oped a taste for it.

In­stead, all that car­damom gets shipped to the Mid­dle East, the world’s lead­ing con­sumer re­gion of the spice, or to In­dia, parts of Eu­rope, or the U.S. The in­ter­na­tional spice trade is far from trans­par­ent, and though Gu­atemala is a pow­er­ful name in the whole­sale mar­ket, com­modi­ties like car­damom rarely re­ceive ori­gin des­ig­na­tions the way bal­samic vine­gar or prosci­utto do. Once in In­dia, Guatemalan pods might get mixed with In­dian stock, then per­haps pack­aged and resold as In­dian car­damom. Most of the time there’s sim­ply no coun­try of ori­gin listed at all.

Which is why I’ve fol­lowed my friend Ethan Frisch to Gu­atemala to meet Pereira. Frisch is a chef and aid worker I met back when he was push­ing a cart around New York, sell­ing scoops of home­made ice cream and do­nat­ing his prof­its to a street-ven­dor-ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion. After work­ing on de­vel­op­ment projects in Afghanistan and Jor­dan, he started an im­port busi­ness called Burlap & Bar­rel, sell­ing high-end spices to restau­rants and cooks in the model used by spe­cialty choco­late and cof­fee com­pa­nies. In­stead of or­der­ing through the largely anony­mous net­work of com­mod­ity whole­salers that have con­trolled the global spice trade since its in­cep­tion, Frisch buys di­rectly from small, in­de­pen­dent farms and pays them above-mar­ket rates to se­cure their best prod­ucts. (Dis­clo­sure: I hold an un­paid po­si­tion on Burlap & Bar­rel’s ad­vi­sory board but have zero eq­uity or stake in the com­pany.)

Frisch was drawn to Pereira, he tells me, be­cause in all his trav­els around Gu­atemala in search of sup­pli­ers, Pereira and his part­ner, Fran­cisco Lav­i­gnino, are the only ex­porters who also grow and process their own pods from start to fin­ish. Frisch is now their sole Amer­i­can im­porter. Other in­dus­try in­sid­ers con­firm that they run the coun­try’s only ver­ti­cally in­te­grated car­damom busi­ness. It doesn’t hurt that Pereira grows ex­cep­tional car­damom: piney, resinous, re­fresh­ing as a blast of Arc­tic air—and that he’ll talk your ear off about it.

“PEREIRA GROWS EX­CEP­TIONAL CAR­DAMOM: PINEY, RESINOUS, RE­FRESH­ING AS A BLAST OF ARC­TIC AIR.”

PEREIRA’S FARM SPANS FROM PAS­TURE

to jun­gle. Cat­tle and tur­keys graze in the val­leys, and fruit trees climb the hill­sides. His car­damom fields are se­creted deep in the for­est, though “fields” im­plies level land and tilled earth and neatly placed rows of plants, none of which ap­ply here. In­stead, call it a car­damom sanc­tu­ary, na­ture gen­tly nudged into a haven for this in­ter­loper species from half a world away.

The stalks loom over us like Juras­sic ferns. Each plant shoots dozens of them from the soil, and their di­aphanous leaves form a canopy above our heads. Car­damom is a rel­a­tive of gin­ger, and its seed pods, the only ed­i­ble parts of the plant, grow on vines that hug the ground, hid­den from sun­light. Na­tive trees tower over the stalks, their fallen leaves form­ing a bed of nu­tri­ents to feed the car­damom. Pereira doesn’t bother with the ex­pen­sive process of or­ganic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, but by cul­ti­vat­ing the plants bio­dy­nam­i­cally and cloning high-yield va­ri­eties, which doesn’t re­quire clear­ing more land, his meth­ods are as close to nat­u­ral growth as you can get.

Pereira calls Frisch over to in­spect a vine nearly ready for har­vest. He’s taken off his cow­boy hat, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively. Out in the for­est, it’s time for Pereira the nat­u­ral­ist. You know the car­damom is ready to pick, he says, by the soft­ness of the pod. It should give a lit­tle, like a green olive, though se­lect­ing the right ones is en­tirely a mat­ter of feel and ex­pe­ri­ence—part of the la­bo­ri­ous man­ual process that makes it so ex­pen­sive.

Al­most all of the car­damom farms in Alta Ver­a­paz are mi­nus­cule op­er­a­tions run by Gu­atemalans of Mayan her­itage, some as small as in­di­vid­ual plots worked by fam­i­lies one poor har­vest from des­ti­tu­tion. Once these small­holder farm­ers pick the fresh pods, they have fewer than 12 hours to off­load the har­vest be­fore it be­gins to rot. Dry­ing ma­chines are far too ex­pen­sive for most, so in­stead farm­ers sell their haul to buy­ers at lo­cal mar­kets who set prices in­dis­crim­i­nately, and rarely in the farm­ers’ fa­vor. These in­ter­me­di­aries then sell to dry­ing fa­cil­i­ties, which in turn sell to pack­ers and ex­porters, which set their own prices by the global com­modi­ties mar­ket. A sup­ply chain that be­gins with tens of thou­sands of poor in­dige­nous farm­ers ends with a mere hand­ful of wealthy ex­porters, in many cases de­scen­dants of the orig­i­nal Ger­man plan­ta­tion own­ers.

Pereira be­gan his ca­reer a rung be­low these poor farm­ers, as a Q’eqchi’-speak­ing

la­borer who’d work on oth­ers’ farms dur­ing har­vest. He had dreams of be­com­ing an en­gi­neer but soon learned his tal­ents were bet­ter suited to wheel­ing and deal­ing than study­ing. “It was easy,” he boasts. “Work more, save more, buy more. It was al­ways about find­ing bet­ter qual­ity, pro­duc­ing with bet­ter meth­ods, do­ing bet­ter busi­ness.” He even­tu­ally earned a de­gree in the­ol­ogy and did a tour in a mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence unit dur­ing the civil war that rav­aged Gu­atemala from 1960 to 1996. When he re­turned to civil­ian life, he bought a small farm in Alta Ver­a­paz, only to come into con­flict with drug traffickers who fre­quented his land on their way to Mex­ico. He soon sold that prop­erty to buy his cur­rent farm, and put his pi­caresque life ex­pe­ri­ence to work grow­ing high-qual­ity car­damom. “I’ve been the ben­e­fi­ciary of enor­mous mir­a­cles,” he says.

Traffickers don’t bother him now, but Pereira keeps a pis­tol in his pickup truck all the same. It’s a smart pre­cau­tion in a busi­ness where some buy­ers ne­go­ti­ate be­hind the bar­rel of a gun. This is one of the rea­sons he and Lav­i­gnino have spent the past 15 years build­ing an al­ter­na­tive sup­ply chain all their own. What Pereira doesn’t grow him­self, he buys from a grow­ing cadre of nearby farm­ers, to whom he pays a pre­mium for su­pe­rior-qual­ity car­damom. He owns a dry­ing fa­cil­ity that pro­cesses the fresh pods up in the moun­tains, and in the city of Cobán, his ware­house han­dles the in­ten­sive steps of clean­ing, sort­ing, grad­ing, and pack­ag­ing. Pereira is re­spon­si­ble for the sup­ply side of the busi­ness; Lav­i­gnino is the head of sales. In 2017, the part­ners sold 36 ship­ping con­tain­ers’ worth of car­damom to whole­sale clients in Pak­istan, Dubai, Is­rael, Spain, and Ro­ma­nia. This year, they hope to hit 60.

Three hours’ drive from the misty cloud for­est, the city of Cobán is awash in color. Tourists usu­ally bounce be­tween Gu­atemala City and An­tigua, but lit­tle Cobán is on the way to hot springs and scenic vis­tas that draw vis­i­tors in search of nat­u­ral beauty and in­dige­nous Mayan cui­sine. The city is also the lo­cal cap­i­tal of the car­damom busi­ness, where pack­ers sort and grade raw prod­uct for the ma­jor ex­port com­pa­nies.

Pereira’s car­damom dry­ers on the moun­tain, re­pur­posed cof­fee dry­ers, are hulk­ing wood-fired ma­chines. His ware­house in Cobán, on the other hand, is a por­trait of mod­ern in­dus­try. New batches are in­spected by hand, then sent through high-tech equip­ment that cleans, sorts, and grades the pods by color and size. Ma­chin­ery like this costs a small for­tune in Gu­atemala, well out of reach of most pro­duc­ers, but Pereira con­sid­ers the in­vest­ment an es­sen­tial part of the ex­port com­pany’s growth. While he and Lav­i­gnino can’t com­pete on vol­ume, they’re able to sell a par­tic­u­larly high-qual­ity prod­uct to smaller buy­ers in search of a gen­uine spe­cialty in­gre­di­ent, not just a com­mod­ity. Frisch’s haul on this trip amounts to a cou­ple hun­dred pounds packed in our lug­gage. An or­der that small wouldn’t even get you in the door at a ma­jor whole­saler.

“TRAFFICKERS DON’T BOTHER HIM NOW, BUT PEREIRA KEEPS A PIS­TOL IN HIS PICKUP TRUCK ALL THE SAME.”

“If Pereira is to suc­ceed, he can’t rely on the typ­i­cal mar­kets for car­damom,” says Juan Manuel Girón, an agron­o­mist at the non­profit Heifer In­ter­na­tional. “He will have to build new mar­kets of his own.” Girón lives in Cobán and works with car­damom farm­ers to im­prove the ef­fi­ciency and qual­ity of their har­vests. He’s watched Pereira’s blos­som­ing en­ter­prise with in­ter­est for years, and con­sid­ers it a po­ten­tial model for other grow­ers. Adding value at the source is crit­i­cal, he says, for small farm­ers look­ing to im­prove their bar­gain­ing po­si­tion and es­cape the hand-to-mouth poverty cy­cle that so of­ten ac­com­pa­nies cash-crop agri­cul­ture. But to re­ally suc­ceed, farm­ers also need buy­ers to be­lieve in what they’re do­ing, and the in­fra­struc­ture to sup­port their growth.

Be­tween the fields and the ware­house, 786 Gexsa em­ploys 35 peo­ple. That doesn’t in­clude the 200 part­ner farm­ers Pereira buys from, small­hold­ers used to liv­ing at the whims of the har­vest that he’s guid­ing to­ward greater self-suf­fi­ciency. “Grow­ing up,” he says, “ev­ery­one around me was strug­gling. They didn’t be­lieve in them­selves or that any­thing could change. I feel a re­spon­si­bil­ity to show them they can suc­ceed. God put us here to pur­sue our dreams and pro­vide for our fam­i­lies. Any­one who dis­agrees is dead wrong.”

Fresh car­damom lasts for less than 12 hours once picked.

Clock­wise from top left: A walk through Pereira’s farm; Pereira with bags be­ing filled for ship­ment; tak­ing a mid-har­vest break.

Clock­wise from top left: Pereira in­hales the pun­gent spice; pro­cessed car­damom ready to be shipped; the pack­ing area of Pereira’s ware­house; dried pods are graded by color and size— greener pods have long been ar­bi­trar­ily con­sid­ered higher qual­ity, but Burlap & Bar­rel also im­ports Pereira’s fruitier-tast­ing yel­low car­damom.

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