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From our Family to U

A story about coffee, family, business, and barley

By Adam Overland

Guillermo and father 165
Maximo Velasquez (left) with son Guillermo

July 27, 2010

Sometimes you can see him riding his tractor in the barley fields on the Saint Paul Campus, harvesting research grown from the ground. If it weren't for him and the U barley research team, that last (unshaken) can of beer you opened might have doused you with a spray of foam—a result of Fusarium Head Blight, a plant disease found in barley that the U has been working to eradicate since the early 1990s. The goal of the research is to identify the important genetic traits of barley in order to develop fully resistant varieties that will make Fusarium Head Blight an issue of the past.

For years, Guillermo Velasquez and U researchers have been busy genotyping some 900 different varieties of barley, creating a sort of encyclopedia in the way of a gene bank. "If someone wants to know about a particular variety, they can go to the bank and look it up," he says. Velasquez's work is on the field and in the greenhouse, planting, harvesting, and taking notes on various characteristics of barley, while the genotyping takes place by others in the lab.

In addition to his contributions through his work at the U, Velasquez also has a hand in another popular beverage, coffee—of which the world consumes about 500 billion cups per year. His contribution to that is around 765,000 cups, consumed almost entirely within the Twin Cities, but imported from his family's small coffee farm in the mountain community of Rio Negro, Honduras, under the auspices of Velasquez Family Coffee, a business he and his wife, Cathy, began in 2001.

U beginnings
Ripe Coffee Beans 165 Ripe coffee beans from the Velasquez farm. Both of them are graduates of the U—she from the Humphrey Institute with a master's degree in public affairs, and he with a degree in animal and plant systems.

They met in Florida more than 20 years ago, when he was visiting an aunt and she was volunteering with a church group. She was the girl next door with a broken-down lawnmower in January, and he was the guy who could fix it. In 1991 they married and moved to Minnesota, where in January, there would be no need of lawnmowers.

In 1998, Velasquez graduated from the U and began working in Saint Paul with the U's barley breeding program. Not long after, his wife Cathy took a job with the Land Stewardship Project—a nonprofit organization working toward promoting sustainable agriculture.

The family coffee business was just an experiment at first, born in part out of necessity. Guillermo's father, Maximo, was talking of selling the farm in Honduras because world coffee prices had fallen so low. So Guillermo and Cathy began selling small amounts of the coffee, mostly to friends and coworkers in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Since the beginning, their slogan has been "Directly from our Family to You."

Small scale and personal
Today, Velasquez Family Coffee still operates on a small scale. They market directly, using a monthly newsletter to keep customers informed about their coffee orders, but also about the Velasquez family and farm, and the news in Honduras. This year they imported about 17,000 pounds, paying $2.20 per pound for the beans—well above the fair trade standard.

The business model the Velasquezes adopted is personal, and was inspired, says Cathy, by the farmers she worked with at the Land Stewardship Project who use direct marketing and participate in Community Supported Agriculture.

"So much of what is unique about our product is the story—that it's coming from a family," says Cathy.

And the story is something. The family farm in Rio Negro has been going now for three generations. Guillermo's father Maximo (now 84 and still working) has divided the farm among his eight children—four boys and four girls. Guillermo's brothers work the land.

"Since I've had memories—my dad, almost 60 years ago, and my grandpa, too—they grew coffee. It's what I did," says Guillermo.

The writer as coffee consumer
Guillermo's brother, Abilio 165 Guillermo's brother Abilio picking coffee beans. I've been an irregular customer of Velasquez coffee for about a year. I heard about the coffee from a friend, having seen the packaging near her coffee maker. "Is it good?" I asked. "Yes, but you also get a newsletter every month that talks about the family and the process," she said. And so for every month since my first order, I've received a newsletter that always begins, "Dear Adam, …"

They’ve told of last year's Honduran presidential coup and the ouster of President Zelaya, and of tropical storm Agatha and its effect on the poor, and of high hopes for the Honduran team during the World Cup—and in the newsletter to follow, of the team's disappointing losses. Rather than from the Google News that's set as my homepage, I get this bit of world news directly from their family, to me. I view photos of them online, and in some way I feel a connection.

The Velasquezes understand that. "It's based on this idea that people are hungry for more understanding about their food and where it's coming from," says Cathy.

I've been sitting on this story for more than a year now, and there's so much more to tell—about a brother teaching Rio Negro villagers how to make (and sell) purses out of potato chip bags that have been polluting their land, or the time they organized a trip to the farm for 17 of their customers, who stayed in ecocasitas—small and rustic cabins a brother built for tourists to visit the farm (This brother, Abilio, is working hard to develop the farm's tourism potential, which sits on the edge of a national park preserve). It's a story worth telling, which is maybe why you're reading it now.

The odd thing is that to me, it has become not a story that I'm on the outside of, but, to a small degree, a story that I'm a part of—a story that I'm living, too. And when I have my cup of coffee in the morning, it tastes good.

For more information, view a Flickr photo gallery of the Velasquezes and the family farm.