A visit to Blackburn Estate
While in Tanzania for the EAFCA conference I took the opportunity to visit Michael and Tina Gehrken at Blackburn Estate. This extraordinary farm is perched high on the slopes of the Ngorongoro Crater – reached from Arusha via a vertiginous ascent of the Rift Valley wall and a final spine-jarring half hour along a dirt road from Karatu town. Its coffee fields abut Ngorongoro’s unfenced national park, meaning elephants, buffalo, baboons and sometimes even lions roam its land freely.
Michael Gehrken is an unlikely coffee farmer. Born in Germany, he originally wanted to be an artist, trained as an economist (at his father’s insistence), and worked as an art dealer. When he arrived in Tanzania in 1983, with orders to turn around his father’s neglected estate and then return home, he had no farming experience, no Swahili and shakey English: “I didn’t know the difference between wheat and barley, or coffee and tea.”
However, after spending some time with him on the farm, his trajectory starts to make more sense – at Blackburn Michael has made both a science and an art of coffee farming. His attention to detail is remarkable – he has painstaking records of every piece of data you could wish for; he uses cutting edge GPS technology to map each lot; he zealously micromanages every stage of production; he has an economist’s understanding of market forces. And at the same time, he has created and nurtured an incredibly beautiful, pesticide-free environment where nature happily exists alongside agriculture – what Michael calls a “green corridor” between the exposed brown earth of neighbouring farms.
Michael’s father, a German who made his money in road construction, bought Blackburn in 1961– as a place to hunt game rather than grow coffee. Blackburn’s previous owner was a Scottish army officer who was given the land by the British government for his efforts in WW2 (the British had in turn expropriated the estate from a German farmer, who first planted coffee there in 1931). This Scottish officer, Michael swears, went by the name of Mr Ching – an honorary Chinese title bestowed on Ching’s father for his efforts in the Boxer Uprising in old China (or so the story goes). It was Scottish Mr Ching who gave the farm its name – black burn, after the heavily shaded river that flows through a deep valley dissecting the farm’s land (‘burn’ is a Scottish word for a stream or small river).
Michael never intended to stay in Tanzania permanently. When he first moved to Blackburn it was virtually derelict - “most of the buildings were falling down, there was no car, no generator, no money in the bank account, no crop. The first year was the hardest one I ever had.” First, Michael lobbied government ministers to increase his diesel allowance (at the time the standard quota for farmers was 30 litres per week). They eventually responded - with an allocation of more than he could possibly use. Michael used the surplus to build relationships in the area and drum up much-need funds for the farm. This, together with some savvy local investments, allowed him to build Blackburn’s basic infrastructure.
By this time, Michael’s Austrian wife Tina had joined him in Tanzania – Blackburn now operates very much as a partnership between the two. The pair had children and realised that they did not want to leave. “That is how I ended up a coffee farmer”.
Coffee only became a serious crop for Blackburn when the government began to free up the market in the late 80s (until this point the state officially ‘owned’ the country’s entire coffee crop). Then, in 1998, Michael and Tina decided to cease all use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. “The first year there was nearly no crop”, Michael says, laughing. “So it was a risk, but it was worthwhile.” Now the farm’s ecosystem has readjusted and “looks after itself”. The only obstacle between Blackburn and full organic certification is spraying for the ruinous Coffee Berry Disease (CBD). Michael hopes that a French-engineered organic product currently under trial – a bacteria that lives off the CBD fungus – could solve this problem.
Blackburn discovered - and was discovered by - the specialty market in the early 2000s: “We realised that the only way to earn something here was to get into specialty”. The estate has since developed something of a cult following among specialty roasters around the world. Mercanta has been buying from Blackburn since 2009 and our cuppers have been consistently impressed by the cup quality of its lots; if anything it has got better from season to season - brighter and more juicy. Michael’s secret? His answer is typically exacting: “Put in at least 300 dollars per hectare, whether you have a crop or not…and after the trees are established, don’t irrigate – that way the roots spread deep down”. He talks at length about mulch, organic preparations, magnesium, nitrogen, phosphorous.. His conclusion is deceptively simple: “Look after your soil, your tree, your whole environment – it all plays together”.
Blackburn is now one of the local area’s main employers, with around 80 permanent workers - swelling to up to 150 at peak harvest time - and four highly trained local foremen. Along with partners such as Mercanta, Blackburn has funded health and education projects in the local village of Mangola Juu. Rather than paying its pickers per the bucket, Blackburn offers a decent fixed daily salary, and limits its pickers to three 20L buckets a day. This ensures that the harvest is meticulous – only red cherries are selected – and pickers are not over-worked.
This policy caused problems this year, however. With auction prices for ordinary commodity-grade coffee above the price that top quality beans reached a year ago, some farms in the area abandoned quality concerns and strip-picked their trees (throwing green, yellow and red cherries in together). Workers flocked to these farms - where they could fill and be paid for up to ten buckets in a day - leaving Blackburn short of pickers.
Michael coped – and his crop was as carefully picked as ever – but this is a worrying trend, with potentially wider repercussions for the specialty market. If prices continue to rise at this rate, it is likely that top quality coffee will be increasingly hard to find in Tanzania (and the rest of the region): “The price here for mainstream coffee has nothing to do with quality”. Michael also points out that, despite price highs, production costs have increased sharply - some materials have as much as quadrupled in price in the past three years.
So what does the future hold? The farm is just finishing an epic project to install a new 1.5 mile pipeline that will channel water from high on the crater rim down through previously unmapped national park forest to the farm. This has been difficult and dangerous work - myriad snakes and big game inhabit this thick forest. It should, however, allow Blackburn to collect enough water to expand its area under coffee. The plan is to grow from 60 hectares to 75, or even 83 hectares of coffee.
From time to time Michael mentions retiring. He is almost 60, and talks of buying a small house in France, Greece, somewhere European... Somehow, though, I just can’t seem him and Tina giving it all up – or not for many years yet. They have built up Blackburn from near-ruin, and in doing so have created something very special indeed. And besides, Cup of Excellence is yet to make it to Tanzania – when it finally comes, my money’s on the artist-economist-coffee farmer from Blackburn.