BeanScene Magazine

Cofi-Com’s Elizabeth Barry discovers a visionary man

From the June 2014 issue.
Cofi-Com’s Elizabeth Barry discovers a visionary man

Elizabeth travels to Pearl Mountain Coffee and the Ratnagiri Estate in India.

News has reached me here at CofiCom that a new crop of Pearl Mountain Peaberries is steaming its way toward Sydney. At once, I’m spirited far away from my desk to the Western Ghats of India.

Memories flood back from my visit to the coffee-producing region of Karnataka and to a recent conversation with Ashok Patre about the rich history of his family, the Ratnagiri Estate and their famous coffee.

The story goes that an Indian Muslim Saint, Baba Budan, while on pilgrimage to Mecca, snaffled seven coffee beans in the lining of his clothing from Yemen to Mysore. Once home, he planted them in the Chandragiri Hills. Although it was an illegal act to remove the green coffee seed from Arabia, the number seven is sacrosanct in Islamic religion, so the smuggling was considered a religious act. This was the beginning of the coffee industry in India and cultivation soon followed.

Not so long ago, in 2010, weary from two weeks in the frenetic heat and chaos of Mumbai, I made the journey to Bangalore and onto Karnataka to learn more about Indian coffee production. It was a wonderful relief to watch the urbanised sprawl of Bangalore slip away as I drove into the cool of the mountains. I was immediately overwhelmed by the inherent sense of care and order evident in the plantations. Great towering teak trees provide shade for the coffee while serving as a perfect structure to support pepper vines, which are successfully intercropped to provide an additional income for the farms.

The estates were beautiful: each one a verdant, calming oasis nestling in the rolling hills. I travelled to Coorg and Chikmagalur, driving slowly through the winding hill roads through tea and coffee plantations, greedily breathing in the mountain air.

Ashok Patre is a proud and driven man, imbued with an infectious sense of history and tradition. Today, he confidently builds upon the considerable legacy of his visionary grandfather, Patre Shivappaiya, who in 1923 purchased a forest to cultivate coffee.

Ratnagiri literally translates as Pearl Mountain. It is located high in the Baba Budan Mountain Range, more elevated than most farms, producing around 125 tonnes of specialty washed Arabica annually.

Spread over 117 hectares, Ratnagiri has an impressive yield of around 1.65 metric tonnes per hectare. There are three rounds of picking during the season to ensure the cherries are always harvested at their optimum ripeness and 25 dedicated permanent employees who live and work on the farm. The estate has its own water supply from two fresh water streams and a sophisticated water and waste usage system, which adheres to the Indian Pollution Control Board – an ominous body renowned for imposing strict regulations.

One of the first things that struck me when I visited the region was how many of the plantations had a commitment to environmental conservation and sustainability. They cared for their workers too – good quality accommodation, schools and health clinics were established on many of the estates. It became clear that improving working conditions has been crucial in the fight to encourage people to remain in rural areas like this. The ferocious pace of urbanisation in India has left coffee producers with an uphill battle to maintain a dedicated effective workforce. Labour costs have soared in recent years and farm work has developed a social stigma – too redolent of poverty and the past.

To read the aricle in full, see the April issue of BeanScene. Click here to subscribe

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