Well Grounded

The political awakening of organic coffee grower Linda Moyher ’67 took place in the arms and ammunitions industry during the Vietnam War. The war, however, had nothing to do with the political stirrings Moyher felt in her first post-graduation job, at the Remington Arms Co., in her hometown of Stratford, Conn.

A Spanish major, Moyher was the firm’s first female export sales trainee, and the job, she thought, would put her in contact with Remington’s international clientele. But then she noticed a few things. “I was the only trainee who had to take a typing test,” she recalls. “And I was excluded from some training sessions, like budget forecasting.”

A feminist perspective was born. “I don’t think it ever occurred to them that I would want to move up in the company,” she said. “But I had ambitions.” So she quit and joined the Navy. “I figured the U.S. government wouldn’t discriminate against its own citizens. Not exactly the truth, but at least I had a fighting chance for a career.”

Today, Moyher and her husband, Ernie Carman, both former Navy officers, own and run Finca Cristina, a 30-acre coffee farm in Costa Rica. The organic operation sits on the south slope of Irazú Volcano, in the central highlands (about 4,500 feet) of Cartago province.

Stationed along the Panama Canal in the 1970s, the couple bought Finca Cristina in 1977 and left the Navy, Moyher eschewing a promotion. At the time, the couple had a boy and a girl, and a second son would arrive in 1982. “This doesn’t sound like a feminist talking,” she says of the decision to settle on a Costa Rican farm, “but my mothering instincts said we would be better off living in one place rather than different Navy bases.”

Shade-grown and sun-dried, Finca Cristina’s Arabica coffee beans enjoy TLC during cultivation and production. Weeds are cut with machetes; tilling would damage coffee roots in the topsoil. “A conventional farm wouldn’t have as much organic matter in the soil, so the roots would go down,” Moyher explains.

Paid nearly twice the government rate, local workers hand-pick the coffee, cherry by cherry, rather than stripping them off the branch. Milling separates the beans from the fruit, and California red worms help compost the leftover pulp. The farm has never used chemical herbicides and pesticides, but Moyer defines “organic” as what is done. “You replant trees. You restore habitats. Our tiny farm has 270 bird species. Birds you see in New England winter on our farm.”

“We want to be environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable,” Moyher says. But with the price of coffee a third of what it was in the 1980s, economic sustainability “is the hardest.” Bypassing middlemen, Finca Cristina now mills its own coffee, exporting it directly to U.S. roasters (in 1997, the mill won an environmental award from the Ministry of Energy and Environment). And recently, the farm began roasting coffee for direct mail-order retail sale under the name Café Cristina.

Ironically, coffee roasting — the part of the business most removed from farming — is most profitable. But Moyher won’t abandon their organic mission. Making money is “not our success story,” she points out. “Our environment here on the farm, our children, and the way we treat the land and the people — that’s our success story.”