June 26, 2012 | By Christopher J. Long
Bill Eichner is an ophthalmologist and farmer living in Vermont. He is married to American-Dominican novelist Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Saving the World and a new non-fiction book A Wedding in Haiti.
For the last fifteen years they have been helping coffee farmers in the Dominican Republic organize and grow organic, shade-grown, specialty coffee (Café Alta Gracia) for U.S. markets.
Holly Robertson and I spoke with Eichner and Alvarez during the Nelson Institute Earth Day conference on April 16.
Roots in the soil
Eichner says the couple’s work in the Dominican Republic dovetails with the environmental movement through the sustainability movement. Initially, they had no thought of being environmentalists or being a part of any movement. In truth, purchasing and managing the farm was more of an accident than a well-laid plan.
Eichner was accompanying Alvarez on a writing assignment in the Dominican Republic when they met a group of coffee farmers struggling to farm in traditional ways in the face of the large-scale technification of coffee. The farmers’ struggle touched Eichner on a deep level, because his own father had been pushed out of farming in Nebraska when the large-scale technification of agriculture in the 1960s wiped out many family farms.
Here, Eichner talks about how the initial goals of the coffee farm relate to the larger sustainability movement.
Activism and leadership
Eichner doesn't see himself as an activist but he does believe that activism is important. And he believes that anyone who is motivated can make a difference on a local scale. Eichner believes in leading by example.
Strategies of working in foreign countries
Alvarez joined us halfway through the conversation and described the couple’s evolving success with the coffee farm like a dance: two steps forward, four steps back and five steps sideways.
One of the key events in the evolution of the farm was passing the management over to a local coffee farming family, the Ramirez family. After this, efforts to become organic-certified and identify U.S. markets began to blossom in unexpected ways.
This illustrates a pattern of social change described by Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark; Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities as "the indirectness of direct action.” It is not so much the physical direct action but the symbolism of that action that can transcend boundaries and take root in unanticipated ways.
The inspiration generated by the symbolic action can empower people and change the way they think. Like scattering seeds, inspiration can jump continents and generations and plant itself in foreign soils.
This is what Eichner thinks has been the couple’s greatest contribution to their farm in the Dominican Republic. Here is how he phrased it at the end of our interview.
Special thanks to Julia Alvarez, who contributed to the conversation off camera.blog comments powered by Disqus
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