Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Thompson. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com. Here are a few highlights from this week’s program.
Stacy Brenner: I wish that I had had more business classes in college but I feel like I could describe soil structure really well and soil chemistry and plant anatomy and plant physiology but beyond that I didn’t leave college knowing how to operate a tractor or how to cultivate.
Mike Mwenedata: It’s just the beginning but I hope a small step can take you to a big step. It’s a beginning and I want to see it grow and see where it takes us.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, Show #301, Farming Flowers and Cultivating Coffee, airing for the first time on Sunday, June 25, 2017. There is an inherent joy in working with what the Earth offers. Today, we speak with Stacy Brenner who lives, farms, and flowers at Broadturn Farm in Scarborough. We also discuss the Portland-based Rwanda Bean Company, a company that returns 50% of its profits to coffee farmers in Rwanda, with co-founder Mike Mwenedata. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the Old Port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space including Ingunn Joergensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at artcollectormaine.com.
Lisa Belisle: My next guest is Stacy Brenner who lives, farms, and flowers at Broadturn Farm in Scarborough, with her husband, John Bliss, and two daughters. They raise cut flowers and organic vegetables, host weddings and operate a summer day camp. Thanks for coming in today.
Stacy Brenner: thanks for having me.
Lisa Belisle: I really enjoyed reading about you and your husband John Bliss and your children Emma and Flora. It was like a … It’s like this lovely fairytale. You can write a children’s story about it, John Bliss and Flora and you live on the farm and you flower.
Stacy Brenner: Correct.
Lisa Belisle: I’m guessing that the actuality of it is not so much a fairytale but still kinda fun.
Stacy Brenner: It’s always fun but it’s definitely not a fairytale.
Lisa Belisle: Definitely not a fairytale. You have this interesting background because in addition to having now this farm, you have a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Arizona and you have two degrees in nursing from the University of Pennsylvania. It seems like you’ve been all about a lot of different things.
Stacy Brenner: Circuitous route.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, well, I’m completely fine with that. I mean, I’m a doctor who hosts a radio show so I have no criticisms. Tell me a little bit about all of this.
Stacy Brenner: Well, I always wanted to be a farmer so I opted to study agriculture in college but then I had my first daughter when I was in college and realized that I was pretty smitten with the birth process and women’s health and so I was drawn to becoming a midwife and pursued that route. When John and I met, I was a single mom living in Philly in school and we decided to throw our lot in together and come to Maine to farm.
Lisa Belisle: I like that, even that throwing your lot in together. There’s a bit of like … Well, let’s just see what happens.
Stacy Brenner: Right, and when you’re a single mom, it’s sort of all or nothing. There’s a limit to dating when you’re a single mom. You’re either gonna bring him home and introduce him to everybody or you’re not and so you’re either gonna … There’s full buy in or there’s not.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense.
Stacy Brenner: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: How did you end up at the University of Arizona?
Stacy Brenner: I went to a small boarding school, Quaker Boarding School in Pennsylvania for high school and I was just really excited to kind of blow the top off and go somewhere big and different and Arizona was as far from Pennsylvania as you can get. My high school’s in suburban Philadelphia, the George school. I was really looking forward to a big new fun experience and at the time I was really into rock climbing and so I was looking forward to being in a place where I could spend more time outside all year round.
Lisa Belisle: That must have been interesting. Just start with the fact that you went to a Quaker boarding school outside of Pennsylvania … I mean, outside of Philadelphia. That’s very interesting just to start with. What kind of thought went into that?
Stacy Brenner: When I was … I guess I went as a sophomore in high school and just really excited to strike out and leave my parents’ house and I was looking for a different experience than the public high school in our town and so my parents were supportive of the idea and off I went.
Lisa Belisle: What did you learn from the Quaker affiliation?
Stacy Brenner: The best lesson I had in high school was in my Quakerism class. We did a unit on Helen and Scott Nearing who are sort of famous back to the land homesteaders that had homesteaded in Vermont and also in Northern Maine along the coast down east so I wrote my senior term paper about Helen and Scott Nearing. They were sort of this embodiment of my childhood idol of Laura Ingalls so I had this moment where I realized, “Oh, there’s really people that do this.” They have gardens and they eat from their land and they milk cows … Well, I guess the Nearings didn’t milk cows but that this was a possibility, that I could do this, and so it sort of started my wheels turning and this kind of idea that this was a real possibility.
Lisa Belisle: Isn’t there also something in Quakerism about listening to your own voice and listening to what’s coming from inside of you as far as creating your own path?
Stacy Brenner: Yeah, there’s lots of work around introspection and seeking the light within to guide you forward.
Lisa Belisle: Your light guided you over to the University of Arizona and you have this agricultural degree and then you went into nursing for a while and now you’re up in Maine but it seems like in an interesting way all of these things probably intersect.
Stacy Brenner: Yeah, I do think that they all have an element of nurture to them that is fulfilling and rewarding on a everyday and a big picture level. The thing I have realized about the role of being a midwife and walking families through the process of having their babies, becoming a family, especially for their first, it’s this really big moment for them but we spend a lot of time building the relationship leading up to the birth so that there’s trust and comfort and then you have that big moment but it’s really about the relationship building and so when I’m doing the work of farming and building relationships with clients and customers, particularly around flowers and people’s weddings, I realize that it’s incredibly similar. It’s all psychology, it’s all big moments, it’s all about being present and creating trust and space for these families to come together around what is a significant ritual and so that’s pretty similar. It’s just basically being a guide and so whether the medium is birth or flowers on a wedding it has been for me quite similar. The stakes are a little different.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I mean, yes. Obviously you want to come out with a healthy baby but you also want to come out with a healthy relationship.
Stacy Brenner: Exactly, yeah. I think the product of the flowers, the stakes of the flowers are less. It feels like a lower risk than being present for the birth.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, certainly, if you don’t give them exactly the flowers they need, that probably isn’t going to cause problems in their future relationship.
Stacy Brenner: In the marriage. Right.
Lisa Belisle: Hopefully. One of the things that I really enjoyed about being a medical student and a resident was birth, was really that whole process but it wasn’t just the birth. It was the starting from the beginning.
Stacy Brenner: Exactly.
Lisa Belisle: A lot of times you know people if you’re a midwife or a family doctor. You know people before they even get pregnant.
Stacy Brenner: Exactly.
Lisa Belisle: So you’re actually there as the ground is being … I don’t know, created fertile, I suppose.
Stacy Brenner: Right. Right.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. Which is that whole … There’s a cyclical nature to it as well because you get pregnant, you have your pregnancy, you give birth, and then most people or many people will do it again. There’s a bit of that also in farming.
Stacy Brenner: Totally. Very cyclical, very seasonal. We like to think that we’ve been doing this for 16 seasons and we’ve had 16 chances to plant tomatoes. We’ve only really had 16 tries at getting it right and birth feels similar. You sort of get one to five, depending on how many babies you opt to have, and really there are so many right ways. It’s just about getting to a good end result of a healthy baby or a healthy vegetable or a nice flower at the end of the process but the cyclical nature is super appealing.
Lisa Belisle: I do like the idea that there’s so many right ways because I believe that this is something that we all want, we all want the best way, but there’s no best way. There’s just a really good way hopefully for each person who goes through.
Stacy Brenner: Exactly.
Lisa Belisle: Is there also some element of that in working with the families that have their weddings at Broadturn.
Stacy Brenner: Yeah, definitely. We engage with families because they’ve opted to get married at the farm and then we engage with them because they’ve hired us to help them with flowers for their wedding all over Maine and down into Boston, New Hampshire, Vermont. I find that what my role is is to figure out how to meet them where they are, there’s always budget constraints, there’s always a vision for what someone imagines it’s going to be versus what they have to maybe pare it back to. Our capacity to meet them where they are and then we’re always pushing them in a sometimes somewhat uncomfortable way for some people but others are quite comfortable with it to really rethink the vision in terms of what we can provide seasonally from the farm, from the woods, in Maine, versus having to buy things in from abroad. Always trying to sort of realign the vision so that we can make the design work with what it is that they’re looking for and what we can provide from our land.
Lisa Belisle: Why flowers? It seems like not everybody makes that choice. I love flowers, I’m very excited that you do flowers but some people are just like, “Okay, I’m gonna grow this food, I’m gonna eat this food.” It’s all about the food.
Stacy Brenner: We were totally drawn to farming from a righteous food perspective wanting to feed people. We specifically wanted to be CSA farmers and create community around food and farming. We have been doing that for about 16 years and this will actually be the first year that we don’t have a produce CSA but the flowers came in because we … Well, let’s see. Let me first tell you why we started doing weddings. These two men in Portland, they’re both in the theater community approached us and asked us … This was about 15 years ago, if we would host their wedding and we were like, “Well that sounds fun. Sure. Let’s do it.” We had a blast. We really, really enjoyed hosting their wedding and then that kept happening.
People kept asking us and we kept hosting weddings and then the caterers were asking us for food for the wedding so that they would have ingredients to prepare for the meal and then we always were growing flowers on a small scale and people started asking us if we could help them with the flowers for the wedding and around that time my second daughter was born, Flora, and I was a little hemmed into the dooryard area and so I just started planting crazy amounts of flowers in our yard and then they started sort of moving into the field and we had row crops of flowers and John said, “Okay so you got to figure out how to sell these flowers because you can’t just grow them and have them sit there. We can’t get the labor up and not have a market for the flowers and we can’t give the land over to the flowers without having a market.”
We just sort of started telling people that we were growing flowers and that we had flowers for sale and it was a pretty organic process and it took a while to sort of grow but it’s taken off and it’s become a major component of our operation but it was kind of by accident. It was definitely not intentional.
Lisa Belisle: Was there anything in your agricultural training at the University of Arizona that pointed you in the direction of flowers?
Stacy Brenner: Probably the best class I had was in plant anatomy and we had to dissect flowers, cut them in half in different cross-sections and look at them under the microscope and draw them, so looking at them that closely and all the patterns that repeat themselves in plants and in nature, that was pretty fabulous. My education was pretty science-based. It didn’t really prepare me for what I actually do which is … I’m a small business owner. The farming piece is an element of it but mostly what I’m doing is functioning as a businesswoman and trying to promote the business and manage employees and all of those things. I wish that I had had more business classes in college but I feel like I could describe soil structure really well and soil chemistry and plant anatomy and plant physiology but beyond that I didn’t leave college knowing how to operate a tractor or how to cultivate or any of those things.
I did have a fun job as an orchid caretaker which I enjoyed quite a bit for a professor who had a private orchid collection. He would travel the world and bring species back and breed different species and so I would go spend time in his greenhouses and take care of his plants and that was pretty special.
Lisa Belisle: That sounds great because I personally have I think caused the demise of multiple orchids and it’s actually a very interesting process to try to nurture these orchids along and get them to bloom repeatedly, if that’s the goal. I don’t know if that’s even the goal. Maybe just to keep them happy in their plant selves, I guess.
Stacy Brenner: Or keep them green.
Lisa Belisle: Keep them green. Yeah. I managed to do that most of the time.
Stacy Brenner: The breed bloom is where you struggle.
Lisa Belisle: Yes. Yeah.
Stacy Brenner: They like a pretty particular climate, most of them. What you’re essentially trying to do is mimic that. The bathroom with the steam from the shower is a really good spot but they like a nice diffuse bright light and they like humidity.
Lisa Belisle: Right. Not all bathrooms have that.
Stacy Brenner: Right. If you live in an old farmhouse in Maine, you probably have a pretty cold bathroom these days unless you’re in the shower.
Lisa Belisle: Right. Yes, no, this is true. I don’t feel as badly now then. I actually have an orchid that’s re-bloomed again now so what am I saying?
Stacy Brenner: Good. Good.
Lisa Belisle: Sometimes it just works out.
Stacy Brenner: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: There is something that what you’re saying is … Yes, to be able to take what you feel drawn to and then actually work it into a life, there are complications of that of course. You don’t necessarily have the business background, but you’re still describing to me this interest in dissecting flowers and the repeating patterns and you’re still describing to me this interest in birth and that process and making that into something practical so that transformation is … It seems like as difficult as it’s been has been worthwhile.
Stacy Brenner: Oh yeah. Definitely. I wouldn’t change it.
Lisa Belisle: Are you … One of your children I believe is older, 21?
Stacy Brenner: Correct.
Lisa Belisle: Emma is 21.
Stacy Brenner: Emma. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Flora is 10?
Stacy Brenner: 10.
Lisa Belisle: Over this process, what has Emma learned by watching you?
Stacy Brenner: She’s a junior in the nursing program at USM and she’s pretty drawn to women’s health. She’s taught me a lot about intersectional feminism in the last few years so we have lots of thoughtful discussions about … When I was in college it was women’s studies but now it’s women and gender studies so that’s pretty fabulous, exciting. It’s interesting, I find I learn more from her these days then I imagine she learns from me. She’s gonna kill me. She came home the other day and she told me that she was going on and on and on about how she wants to be a sex ed teacher and that was pretty exciting and fabulous but I felt myself blushing.
Lisa Belisle: Even with your background as a midwife.
Stacy Brenner: Yes, yes, yes. That was very exciting.
Lisa Belisle: That’s interesting. Why were you blushing?
Stacy Brenner: That’s a good question, I don’t know. I don’t know, but it was very exciting. It’s interesting over the last few years a lot of her friends have come to us looking for farm apprentice positions and have been interested in being a part of the farm so she … I think this is pretty common for most small businesses, family businesses, but she doesn’t work in our business. She doesn’t want to work for us. She doesn’t want us to be her employers. In a pinch, I can get her to help me out with something if we’re in a real tough moment and things are wild but she has a great appreciation for the food we produce and for the meals that we’re able to make from the farm and she’s pretty excited to have her friends around on the farm and it’s I think increased her appreciation to see her friends and her peers excited about the work that’s happening and around local agriculture in Maine.
Lisa Belisle: It seems like that’s actually pretty common that our kids will appreciate us but they appreciate us even more through the lens of their friends.
Stacy Brenner: Exactly. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: I have also a 21 year old daughter and also having obviously, you and I have somewhat parallel paths. I had my son when I was in medical school and so I have definitely been a working mother and work outside the home I need to say because all mothers are working mothers, all parents, are working parents, but my entire life, I have never not done these things. Now my 21 year old who also has a gender studies co-major, she is telling me stuff and having conversations with me and bringing stuff up and I’m thinking, “Oh, that’s so interesting.” It all circles back around again.
Stacy Brenner: Totally. Yeah. It’s very exciting.
Lisa Belisle: And the perspectives. The perspectives have shifted in the last two decades, imagine that.
Stacy Brenner: The one thing I didn’t realize, no one told me and I’m so excited because I have another chance at it with my 10 year old is that if you can brave those adolescent years and hold on tight and maintain the communication on the relationship as best as possible and sometimes you feel like you’re banging your head against the wall but on the flip side when they reach 21, 22 … You have this friend and this adult that you enjoy having for dinner and having a conversation with and your time with your adult child is gonna have so much more longevity than … You know, they’re 10 for a minute and they’re 11 for a minute and they’re 15 to 17 for a minute. Those years are so much shorter than the relationship you have with your adult child and your adult child in my experience comes out more like their 10 year old self, they sort of lose that adolescent bravado and start shedding away and they come back and the essence of who they are is back and that’s pretty special and exciting. I wish someone told me that because I think I would have appreciated the ride of adolescence a little more if I knew that on the other side there was this gift of a adult child that you really enjoy being with.
Lisa Belisle: I have three kids. My youngest is 16 and I had nine younger brothers and sisters and I think I had a sense of that but I think while you’re going through it … there’s just… It really doesn’t matter what somebody tells you. You just have to take it and show up and be willing to ride the storm a little bit. I think there’s something that you’re saying that’s bringing something up for me and that is that typically adolescent has this very specific I guess juju around it in our culture, that we all believe that all teenagers have to be rebellious and they’re all gonna slam their doors on us and that we should just leave them alone and they’re all gonna … I don’t know do the things that “teenagers” do but I actually disagree with that. I actually think it is possible. Teenagers are very difficult, but it is possible to hang in there. It is possible to have an ongoing relationship and I agree with you that you can get to the other side and have this really wonderful relationship with another adult that happens to have been your child.
Stacy Brenner: Yes, yeah. I don’t think they want you to leave them alone.
Lisa Belisle: I think that’s true.
Stacy Brenner: Yeah. They want to know that they can push this boundary and they’re gonna hit it and then someone’s gonna come back and give them feedback and check in with them and be present for them but they don’t want to hit the boundary and then just keep … They don’t want to hit and keep going. They want to hit something and feel secure and stable and that there’s home.
Lisa Belisle: Yes. Yes. I absolutely agree with that. I mean, there is something about what we’re describing which is also related to farming and growth which is this investment, this ongoing investment in things like soil or in employees or in relationships with people who come to the farm. It really is, there’s a persistence that’s needed in any of those situations.
Stacy Brenner: Right, right. Yeah. Soil’s really interesting. I think that’s a great topic. What we’re learning about soil management and especially with organic farming but with all farming is that there is this fabulous layer at the top of the soil, first couple inches, where you have this really rich soil microbial environment and you really want to manage that environment as well as possible because that’s what allows for all of the nutrient absorption to really happen well and for moisture retention in your soil and for your soil structure to stay strong and so tending to that for many years builds the nicest, thickest, richest soil microbial environment that you can find. That’s what really yields strong and successful farms because they tend that soil well.
Lisa Belisle: Do you notice over time differences in your flowers?
Stacy Brenner: Yeah, so it’s interesting. We have all different kinds of ways that we produce different crops based on how we’re planting it, whether it’s going in direct seed or whether we’re starting it as a transplant in the greenhouse and then transplanting it out into the field. Some of our fields get covered with a thin layer of plastic on the row where the plant is gonna be planted and then in the walkways we layer so neighbors and landscapers drop fall leaves for us and then we’ll mulch those walkways with the leaves and we’ve come up with a system that we can mechanize with some large farm equipment and that way we’re not asking people to take wheelbarrows down the field which is what had initially been happening.
Under both the plastic and the leaf mulch layers, you are not disturbing the soil, so you’re really allowing that microbial environment to develop. Every time you weed or scratch or till or do anything with that first layer, you’re disturbing that environment. You want to do it as infrequently as possible. The flowers are all grown primarily on that model and that field is just as rich as can be. It has a really nice high organic matter level and when we do the soil test each year it always seems to come back pretty optimum conditions and so that’s exciting, versus some other fields where we manage where it’s on bare soil and we’re weeding and cultivating and scratching the surface to kind of keep the weeds down and with minimal tillage we’re able to still manage a nice soil microbial environment in those fields but the ones that are covered in mulch are far superior.
Lisa Belisle: I feel like you and I have a lot of things we could talk about but I need to throw out a question about compost because everybody that listens to the show knows that I love compost. I’m a huge fan of compost. How about compost on your farm?
Stacy Brenner: Yeah. We got big on compost a few years ago. We had got an NRCS cost share grant to put in a cement pad so that way we can minimize runoff of nutrients on the compost pad. The pad gets layered with everything nitrogenous, so any poo-poo from the cows and the sheep. We keep a couple dairy cows that we milk for family and then we do buy in some chicken manure and we’ll mix that with these leaves that we’re getting from neighbors and landscapers along with any vegetable scraps like yesterday we cleaned out our walking cooler from the winter from storage crops that had started to go by so all that gets mixed in so you want this really great balance between carbon and nitrogen so that you’re getting a really hot pile and for an organic certified compost material, you need to heat that up three times and you’re turning it and heating it three times in order to make sure that the entire pile has reached temperature and that you’ve killed off any pathogens that could be dangerous.
The interesting thing about compost that people don’t talk about is finished compost will be cool. It will have cooled down and it is a product that can add organic matter to your soil, so it adds fluff. That gives you more capacity to hold nutrients and it gives you more capacity to hold moisture. When it’s cool, it means that the nutrients are gone because you burned them off. You actually don’t have much left in the way of nitrogen or phosphorus or potassium in that compost. You might have some micronutrients but what you’re adding is organic matter so you’re fluffing your soil up and you’re adding an environment that makes it really favorable for your soil microbes to grow. What you want to do is you want to fluff your soil up and then you want to be able to add whatever fertility you’re gonna add. If you’re using unfinished compost that’s still a little bit hot or you’re gonna put manure on your field, for getting certification there’s a waiting period for when you can harvest your crops so that you’re not exposing your customer to any potential pathogens. Based on whether you put a finished compost product down or one that’s still a little bit hot. We use both and depending on what the crop is that we’re growing …
Like lettuce for example, we can’t use anything hot because it’s growing right on the soil and it’s a fast grower. Herbs like a cilantro or dill or something like that. A more compost-based product with a granular organic fertilizer.
Lisa Belisle: Now I’m very glad I asked that question because I’ve learned something even more about compost.
Stacy Brenner: Yeah. I think the industrial compost programs that are popping up around Southern Maine are super exciting.
Lisa Belisle: I completely agree. Anybody who’s not composting has no excuse now because they make it very, very easy.
Lisa Belisle Stacy, I am excited to have had this conversation with you. It makes me want to go over to your farm when the flowers start growing, be right there to pick them. I love flowers so I encourage people to look into the work that you are doing at Broadturn Farm in Scarborough. I’ve been speaking with Stacy Brenner who along with her husband John Bliss and two daughters lives in Scarborough. Actually one daughter, she’s still living with you?
Stacy Brenner: Oh yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Still living with you.
Stacy Brenner: She is.
Lisa Belisle: Great.
Stacy Brenner: She likes the food too much to leave.
Lisa Belisle: That doesn’t surprise me at all. Keep up the good work. I really appreciate your coming in here today and having this conversation and good luck with your growing season.
Stacy Brenner: Thank you Lisa.
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Lisa Belisle: It is my pleasure today to have in the studio Mike Mwenedata, co-founder of the Portland-based Rwanda Bean Company along with Nick Mazuroski. The company buys coffee beans from coffee farmers in Rwanda and invests 50% of its profits back into the communities from which it sources the coffee. Thank you for coming in today.
Mike Mwenedata: Thank you for having me.
Lisa Belisle: Why did you become interested in coffee?
Mike Mwenedata: That’s a good question. Coffee back home is the first product that the country export and 85% of population lives on agriculture. Everyone who really needs … Some people who need some kind of resources of income they get involved in the coffee. When I moved to the United States I didn’t know that coffee is business like I saw. Seeing how people come in the shop from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. spending $4.00 for a cup of coffee and I keep wondering why people back home still are poor if one coffee cup can feed the whole family back home. That really hit me hard and that’s how I started figuring out what is missing and why really they are poor over there if everyone who needs money gets involved in the coffee. That’s how the idea came in.
Lisa Belisle: In Rwanda, do people drink a lot of the coffee?
Mike Mwenedata: Not really. They drink tea.
Lisa Belisle: They drink tea?
Mike Mwenedata: Coffee is the first product to export and tea is the second. Most of the people, they don’t drink coffee, they drink tea and I didn’t drink coffee until I came here. They don’t drink coffee, sometime they do, sometime they don’t and as you know the final product is too expensive so sometimes some of them if a coffee is like a dollar or something, that’s a lot of money for them to spend unless they can prepare it themselves to get the cup so otherwise go to the shops and they spend a dime on it to buy the cup. It’s too expensive I would say but tea’s easier, it’s cheap, so I think that’s why most of them drink tea.
Lisa Belisle: In Rwanda people also grow tea?
Mike Mwenedata: Yeah. We grow tea.
Lisa Belisle: What type of tea is grown over there?
Mike Mwenedata: It’s black tea.
Lisa Belisle: You grew up in Rwanda.
Mike Mwenedata: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: You came to Maine when?
Mike Mwenedata: Seven years ago, eight.
Lisa Belisle: Seven or eight years ago.
Mike Mwenedata: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Why Maine?
Mike Mwenedata: That’s a good question. When I moved to here, when I immigrated to here, I was in Boston and then after that I moved to Maine when I was looking for a place to go to school. I was looking school that are affordable and then when I kept looking it looks like was the one state that I can maybe start to live and beside that I [inaudible 00:33:19] Africa and I like soccer so one I came with a group of guys to play soccer here and I made connection and we start talking like that. I think here in Maine it was easier to connect to people because of the community and down there it’s a big city, you don’t see that much people going around. I think there is so many societies up here that people get connected with others easily done. In Boston it’s so … When I moved here I loved it and then I stayed.
Lisa Belisle: Do you still play soccer?
Mike Mwenedata: Yeah, I do play soccer, twice a week.
Lisa Belisle: Twice a week.
Mike Mwenedata: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Why did you leave Rwanda?
Mike Mwenedata: We had the history and that history was somehow affected some people in any ways. Some people don’t have family, they are still looking a place where they can start life. Some other people are struggling, who we’ve deported, genocide, the conflict that were still going on so there were so many reasons that people came, leave the country so it was one of that.
Lisa Belisle: What about your family? How was your family impacted?
Mike Mwenedata: My family, they died in genocide.
Lisa Belisle: Your family all died as a result of the genocide?
Mike Mwenedata: Yeah. It’s a long story.
Lisa Belisle: That’s terrible.
Mike Mwenedata: Yeah. They died.
Lisa Belisle: You came here because you needed to have a new life.
Mike Mwenedata: Yeah, you know. I think I will say sometimes when you grow up you start looking, the opportunity based on maybe, your history, what you connect to. Sometime when you get a chance you grab it. It was one of those chances and then I grabbed it and now I’m here.
Lisa Belisle: You’re working towards your MBA at the University of Southern Maine?
Mike Mwenedata: Yeah. It’s not easy. It’s tough. Because you know, when you move here speaking another language and then you try to get education in the language you didn’t grow up speaking which is in high education so it requires so much resources and you have to focus. I think education was … In the family I grow up education was a big thing in our family so I remember my dad used to say that you can lose everything in life people can take because of what was going on with the conflicts. People lose their jobs, people lose their homes and they always say, “You know, we can struggle but when you go to school, you can start to avoid and to try to.” I never lose that focus and that’s why also in the percentage as we grow, we gonna be giving back to the farmers, the operational rate is gonna be to help other kids over there to go to school.
Lisa Belisle: The 50% of the profits from your company, that’s part of what you’re hoping to accomplish.
Mike Mwenedata: There is so many things to accomplish with that 50% because sometimes people don’t know how value Rwanda, what impact to Rwanda can make over there so with that 50% we are looking to find a way to help farmers be more sustainable, help them get connected to this market, produce a good quality of the beans, but also help them improve their lives. That includes some of them, even if they are in the coffee business, they can’t afford to send kids to school. Sometime those farmers, their children are relying just on coffee business so that means if they can’t afford to go to school when they grow up after they finish elementary school or high school they start helping the parents and somehow they end up in that way and the country is coming over tragedies they went through and they tried to develop the business where everyone is involved and I believe education is one key to help the country, society grow more and I think education can reduce that 85% of population relying on subsistence agriculture. Create more jobs and so … it’s just the beginning but I hope a small step can take you to a big step. It’s a beginning and I want to see it grow and see where it takes us.
Lisa Belisle: When you go to a coffee shop and you see somebody spending at least $4.00 for a cup of coffee and you know that $4.00 back in Rwanda.
Mike Mwenedata: Can feed the whole family.
Lisa Belisle: Feeds the whole family.
Mike Mwenedata: A day.
Lisa Belisle: For a whole day.
Mike Mwenedata: Then maybe someone is buying two cups a day, so that’s like a meal of two days. That’s how I try just picturing and then I’m like how can I sell them more coffees and then I can …
Lisa Belisle: So you can send more dollars over.
Mike Mwenedata: We don’t focus just on giving back because we also buy the beans at a premium price. We are not buying through the middleman so we’re bringing in the beans direct from them so but the whole system is to help them. Some of the farmers don’t have access to the resources they need to be able to provide the final product which is the beans we bring here because they can’t afford it. We have a structure for business of giving back, we gonna be building those kind of resources that is owned by those co-ops, those farmers. That means even if we can’t buy all the product because we don’t have the market yet but they can still not selling the beans as cherries, they can sell the beans as a final product. That means that we are bringing value to their products so that’s the whole thing, that’s the program that we’re trying to accomplish.
We’re still figuring out how to make it happen but I believe this is our third year and I believe we have run because when I come in the coffee business, I did not know anything about coffee so I run every day, every day. I speak to them every day. I speak to people who drink coffee. I know people want to like really good coffee here and I know people have to feel like what they are spending is getting back to the earth, where does the product they’re eating or drinking come from. I try to be like a bridge that connected those farmers and the consumers and see where it takes us.
Lisa Belisle: Where is your coffee sold now?
Mike Mwenedata: We are online on our website so people can buy the beans and roasted coffee on our website and then it is shipped to them. We do wholesales in local stores like Scratch Bakery in the South Portland, the Farm Stand in the South Portland. Lois’ Natural Market in both Portland and Scarborough. Iron Cheese in Scarborough, Cheese Iron …
Lisa Belisle: Oh, the Cheese Iron in Scarborough, yes.
Mike Mwenedata: We are in Aurora Provisions in the West End. AC Store up here on Washington Ave. Arabica in a few restaurants, EVO, The King’s Head, so we are … Those are small shops around the city but we hope to expand it as we grow.
Lisa Belisle: Your co-founder is Nick Mazuroski.
Mike Mwenedata: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Are the two of you responsible for getting the coffee into the wholesale locations or into the restaurants? Are you the ones who are convincing people to put your coffee out there.
Mike Mwenedata: Yeah. We go there, door by door, we talk to them. We have a few tours that we use. We try to get the order and then we know the coffee’s really good so we know when it gets in their hands there is a big chance they will have it. We try just to get the order and then see what happens.
Lisa Belisle: Once people try the coffee, then they’ll keep buying the coffee.
Mike Mwenedata: Yeah. Because what we focus on is the quality first then all other things comes after because we want … If we want you to drink coffee and we want you to have impact, first you want to make sure you are drinking coffee and then you feel good about all you’re doing with it. Once we get the coffee there our job is done, we are waiting to see if you really are drinking it.
Lisa Belisle: How many other people work in your company?
Mike Mwenedata: By now I will say it would be me and Nick but most of our jobs we hire like third party contracts as we hire agencies and companies to do some of our job. We haven’t been focusing much on business development on branding development so I think now we are working on expanding the team and bringing in more people in the area where I would need to and then working from there.
Lisa Belisle: How many farmers do you work with in Rwanda?
Mike Mwenedata: Right now we are working around 300 to 400.
Lisa Belisle: These are farmers that work within a cooperative?
Mike Mwenedata: Yes. That’s one co-op.
Lisa Belisle: That’s one co-op.
Mike Mwenedata: Yeah. In one region. There is more than 200,000 farmers in Rwanda, coffee farmers and Rwanda, it’s a small country. It’s a third of Maine. You can fit three Rwanda country in the state of Maine but it’s 13 times population. So Maine have 1.3 population, Rwanda has 13 million. You can imagine if you are working with 300 coffee farmers, that’s a small number compared to how small the country is and how overpopulated it is. That’s just one small region. That’s one co-op. I always get calls, text message from people from Rwanda asking if we can work. I just fly back from Seattle to the Coffee Expo, all these coffee experts and I was lucky to meet people from Rwanda who are there to talk about the coffee, talk about the products, and so I got a chance to meet all of them and every one is like how can we work together. That really shows you the inability to access to the market and I think finding a way to connect to the market would be a great way to improve what they do and see if the magic happens.
Lisa Belisle: How much coffee are you able to bring into Maine and the United States right now?
Mike Mwenedata: We don’t it on a big scale, as I told you. Focusing on branding development but we have access to the inventory. We have warehouse. We have been focusing on bringing in the quantity of the beans that we are able. We to move, but we can bring containers and containers with just working on the access to the market, coffee business is a very competitive market. It takes the time to start trusting your brand and to start knowing you are out there to know your quality so … I think we are moving towards to bringing as much as we can, as grow the market as much as we can. We are right now getting involved in a few products so we are launching like cold brew that is gonna be in the bottle so that’s another piece of the market that we are bringing in so if that’s increased the quantity that we really want to bring in, then that’s how we’re trying to walk step by step.
Lisa Belisle: What have you learned through your MBA studies that you’ve been able to apply to your coffee company?
Mike Mwenedata: I have learned maybe how I would say to be professional but I wouldn’t say that what I’m doing I learned from the MBA. What I’m doing comes from my heart. That’s what I really wanted to do. I wasn’t even thinking about owning a company. Just when I saw the coffee situation, I just say I want to do something from school but I will say it’s not like skills that I learned in school that I’m applying to the business, not really. It’s just things I love to do. I like to do something socially that have impact to people and makes me feel good and I like to be connected with people so for me it would be amazing to see the company succeed by connecting people here and people back home and see good things happen.
That is not something I learned from school. It’s just I love people and I want to do something to improve their lives. I want to provide good coffee to people who love drinking coffee but I also want to do amazing things to people who grow that coffee. But, you still need to know how to navigate your numbers and the prices and the taxes. Those are where the school comes in. I will say it’s a complement, it’s not just saying you’re good at what you do but sometimes there is some things you have to learn when you want to throw the rose in so those are stuff you have to get educated on and I think I will say just having to do things doesn’t meant you do it right so you always have to comply with the laws and what you are not doing, make sure it all flows together. I would say education comes in and complements what I try to do and I will say it’s all vice versa.
Lisa Belisle: Your father was right about education, that it’s important. It’s not everything but it is something that once you have it, nobody can take it away from you and it’ll become what it needs to be in your life?
Mike Mwenedata: The reason why my father will said that he was really hard on us when it comes to education so if you don’t have good grades he would be yelling at you but he want to show you he’s not getting at you because he just wants you to perform well. He just want to show you how important is the education and I believe in that. I believe education is a good tool for people to have and it’s important because I think it opens up your mind to analyze what is going on but also enable you to do, to be an employee or employer of something so you will see when there is not any application where even if it’s serving in a restaurant, it’s always asked to have you wait sometime when I lived there and they say at least you need to have education in high school. It is always something you have to learn from school and I can second my dad saying that education is something that is important and I think he was right.
Lisa Belisle: I have been speaking with Mike Mwenedata who is the co-founder of the Portland based Rwanda Bean Company which buys coffee from coffee farmers in Rwanda and invests 50% of its profits back into the communities from which the coffee was sourced. Good job with what you’re doing. I appreciate all the hard work you’re putting into this and I thank you for coming in today.
Mike Mwenedata: I really appreciate the opportunity you guys gave me and thank you.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, Show #301, Farming Flowers and Cultivating Coffee. Our guests have included Stacy Brenner and Mike Mwenedata. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit LoveMaineRadio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. We’d love to hear from you, so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. I hope that you have enjoyed our Farming Flowers and Cultivating Coffee show. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your day. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producer is Paul Koenig. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com.
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