Breaking Boundaries with Higher Grounds

The Higher Grounds documentary tells Panama’s story of international recognition through the growers of the country’s sought-after coffee.

BY EMILY MENESES
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE

Photos courtesy of Higher Grounds

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This sentence is the driving force behind the coffee growers of Boquete, Panama—home to some of the most sought-after coffee in the world. In their film Higher Grounds, Stuart and Nanette Svenson join forces with Wilford Lamastus Jr. and José Guardia Davis to tell the story of how these underdog coffee farmers eventually rose to the forefront of the global coffee stage, helping to transform the industry along the way. 

Panama’s International Film Festival (IFF) dubbed Higher Grounds “a fantastic story of national pride and international boundary-breaking.”

The film traces the coffee growers’ journey beginning in 1989, with a global coffee crisis that followed the United States’ withdrawal from the International Coffee Agreement. This decision wreaked havoc for coffee farmers around the world, and coffee prices plummeted from $1.30/pound to $0.59/pound. What Panamanian farmers had once relied on as a dependable crop was no longer lucrative—the cost of producing coffee now often superseded the price that they could sell it for on the global market.

This predicament, in addition to a post-Great Depression demand for “cheap” coffee, gradually led to a severe decline in the quality and taste of coffee in the states. Coffee was now only consumed under a heavy mask of cream and sugar, and a handful of large brands rose to dominate the market. While these companies were making tremendous profits, coffee farmers were living in extreme hardship; one of the most consumed beverages in the world now relied on a system that made the rich richer, and the poor poorer.

Despite these odds, a group of Panamanian farmers decided to continue growing coffee. Several years down the line, coinciding with the rising trend of specialty coffee and the United States’ creation of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), these growers formed the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama (SCAP). SCAP President Wilford Lamastus would eventually sign a memorandum of understanding with the SCAA, the first time that the American organization had made any moves outside of the states. This was significant because it created a market for Panama to send coffee to: a market that was willing to pay more for coffee growers’ extra work. For the first time in a long time, coffee growers were moving forward on their journey toward fair compensation. With their coffee now garnering global attention, Panamanian coffee growers knew they had to find a way to prove a truth that they knew deep down: that there was something very special about their coffee.

The film then follows these growers’ journeys through learning to roast and cup their coffee, then market it to others. The farmers began to understand what exactly made their coffee so good, including their land’s unique climate and geography, their soil’s abundance of minerals, and the area’s ideal levels of moisture and wind. Eventually, they would go on to grow and sell Gesha coffee, an extraordinary variety that would sell for a record-breaking $1,000/pound.

Higher Grounds tells an inspiring story of how farmers joined together to protect and uplift a crop that their families had been growing for decades. In the face of adversity, these growers perfected their craft, pushed industry boundaries, and became innovators and leaders in a market that had once considered them an afterthought.

As coffee farmers around the world continue to fight for labor rights and fair compensation, the Higher Grounds story reminds us how important it is to look to farmers not as the shadow of the coffee world, but as the shining light that makes it all possible. By recognizing their coffee’s worth and defending that worth on a global stage, the coffee growers of Boquete, Panama, were able to remind us of the artistry and humanity behind coffee—the immense love and labor that goes into every single cup.

Whether you’re a professional in the coffee industry or are just dipping your toes into the specialty coffee world, Higher Grounds provides an enthralling look at the world’s most sought-after coffee and the road it takes from farm to cup. Pituka Ortega-Heilbron, founder and director of Panama’s International Film Festival (IFF), calls the film “a fantastic story of national pride and international boundary-breaking,” while current SCAP President Plinio Ruiz says it is “the first serious documentary about specialty coffee in Panama … [that] brilliantly captures the essence of the growers’ journey.”

Go here to view Higher Grounds on Vimeo and experience the journey for yourself.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Based in Los Angeles, Emily Joy Meneses is a writer and musician passionate about culture and collective care. You can regularly find her at Echo Park Lake, drinking a cortado and journaling about astrology, art, Animal Crossing, and her dreams. Explore her poetry, short stories, and soundscapes on her website.

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