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Fred Houk - Thoughts under the Shade Tree

I received word this morning that Fred Houk died Sunday morning. He was a good man, well, respected, and a friend too many – I won’t write of that here. What I will write of is of the power of ideas, and of how formulating the right phrase transforms and magnifies an effort, and creates long term lasting change.

I met Fred as a fellow UNC Football fan. UNC football fans take the long view; we have to. Some fan bases are content to win or lose each week, to experience pain or delight on a short term basis. UNC Football periodically raises itself up as a national power, slowly building over a decade. Then, following a coaching change, it crashes again, and the fan base wallows in misery for another decade. I came to Carolina near the crest of one such cycle, have lived through another, and am beginning on my third. Watching Carolina football teaches one to take the long view on things, and there is a special kinship among those who would get together to talk Carolina football during one of the lean decades.

Fred was a devoted bird watcher. His household was deeply imbued with environmental sensibilities; his wife, Virginia, is one of the top scientific evaluators for EPA projects. He also, as noted above, took the long view on any project he worked in.

Fred’s last career, one of several, was as a coffee roaster. His tales of tastings in Central America were imbued with national figures, random gun lords, and keen observations of the local fauna. Fred was a frequent speaker in coffee related forums when he was back in the US. What he said at one of those forums is what I am writing about today.

As I said, Fred was a dedicated birder. Most North American birds overwinter in Central America; there is a direct link between habitat there and birds here. Fred wanted to do something that had a long term continuing effect. He did not want another short term program. He knew too well how often good intentions leaving the US as dollars arrive somewhere else than intended. So Fred decided to change the game.

Fred introduced the phrase “Shade Tree Coffee” to the coffee roasting world. Coffee is naturally an understory shrub, growing under the canopy. Modern mechanized agricultural practice had moved coffee growing out into the open, in clear-cut fields where it was easy to harvest. Many believe that such beans lose some flavor, becoming the “California tomatoes” of the coffee world. Fred knew that such coffee plantations offered minimal habitat for birds.

Shade Tree Coffee was introduced as a way to get coffee that is richer in flavor, as well as ecologically more sound. Because of its better flavor, it could get better prices, prices that made up for its more expensive production. By linking economic benefits to best practices and better product, he created a whole set of economic practices that are far reaching. By coining and publicizing a name that is easy to recognize, he created a self-sustaining brand for better ecological practices.

Fred has been out of the coffee business for years. His old Company, Counter Culture Coffee, continues to roast some very fine beans. But Shade Tree Coffee is found in gourmet stores all over. There are even Starbucks blends that feature it prominently on the label.

Ideas are important. To make them have effects, they need to have a nice handle for people to use them. Fred gave one such idea a handle and so continues to improve both the coffee we drink and the habitats for the birds he loved to watch. He lives on each time someone goes outside to watch the birds gather for migration in the Fall or to come back in the Spring.

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Reader Comments (1)

One of the criteria of direct trade is the search for quality. My friend Fred Houk was a birder and coffee connoisseur. One winter when his driveway was impassible I trudged through deep snow up the hill to his sanctuary where he lived in the woods of North Carolina with his wife Virginia. We watched birds at his feeders through the windows and discussed the challenges of finding the elusive gems we knew were lost by being mixed into institutional coffees and of the effort of traveling the world to establish Direct Trade.

October 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Barker

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