Coffee Picking on St Helena Island

“Shopping ethically can empower others, change lives, and impact the world on a greater scale”. Molly Stillman

Two black wrought iron gates are suspended between two white pillars. On the face of one pillar is a sign, Rosemary Gate. At the end of the driveway sits a Parisian-styled house. The splatter of red berries could be mistaken for grapes, this could be a vineyard. It isn’t. It is home to one of St Helena’s coffee plantations. Rosemary Gate Estate Coffee (RGEC), which was established in 1994.

In 1981 Bill Bolton visited St Helena for the first time, he liked to visit islands. Yet, when he arrived on St Helena, he chose not to pursue another island retreat, St Helena was it. He was coming ‘home’ to retire from the steelwork industry in Sheffield, UK. Instead of retiring, he found himself planting one coffee tree, then another and another. So much for retirement. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Bill gazes out over the plantations and says, “St Helena and its people have given us so much”. An inward investor, yet he and wife Jill pride themselves on keeping the coffee and proceeds predominately circulating within the island’s economy.

I ask Jill whether Bill loves the coffee plantations more than the steelwork. “They are two separate kinds of love”, she says, “Bill has always had incredible discipline and passion when it came to business”. Bill had grown up in the steel industry as his father was a metal specialist.

The plantation and coffee shop (which is located at the Seafront) also employs local people, some islanders have worked for RGEC for nigh on thirty years. This kind of loyalty is rare, especially when an employee is still happily working and smiling after such a length of service.

A light drizzle cools the air as I set off with my bucket for the first day’s coffee pick. I’m paired with Suzy who is there to lend a hand should I get confused about what tone of red berry I am meant to be picking. Suzy has worked for RGEC for a very long time. I can feel that there is a genuine love among the workers and owners as Jill also starts picking and chatting.

As the sun exerts its power across the landscape, I am thankful for the straw hat that I brought from the UK. Mercifully there is also coffee to be picked from the base of the tree, so I use this time to grab shade from the sun’s ferocity. I’ve acclimatised to the island weather, and the beautiful South East Trade Winds provide plenty of relief. It’s truly wonderful to drink in the views. Bill says, “when I step outside and look at the surrounding views, I can only suggest paradise”.

I was having a conversation a few days prior about the fact that no matter where one lives on St Helena, there is beauty to be had. In many large countries, beauty is a concrete wall, a sparse bit of unkempt grass, peeling recreational areas, cars fleeting by on a motorway in people’s haste to get somewhere. Regardless of what kind of house one lives in on the island, it is not the property but stepping outside, or gazing through polished windows that offer the wealth of the island, it is free, it belongs to us all if we choose to enjoy it. Never have I felt so grateful for this tiny little rock in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.

The bulging beautiful red berries sometimes burst in the hand as they are plucked from the branches, out of them seep a thick translucent sap which protects the bean to fruition. The smaller buckets are full in no time, I’m trying to compete with Suzy but she really is a pro when it comes to picking efficiently. By the end of the day, a large rubber bucket of cherries is collected by James, who will manage the next process of pulping (separating the skin from the bean).

The green tipped Bourbon Arabica coffee was first introduced to St Helena from Yemen in 1732 by the East India Company. There is no other type of coffee on the island and it is hoped that it will stay this way. There is the danger of other types being introduced and the unique blend and history of the current coffee being lost.

Solomon & Co Plc (St Helena) and a few independent businesses grow the bean. Jill tells a story about how a small portion of their coffee ended up in Harrods, Knightsbridge, London. Her Mother attended an event and there was a coffee buyer for Harrods, the rest as they say, is history. Harrods would take more coffee if they could get it but RGEC are committed to retaining as much of the investment internally.

The process of picking, pulping, fermenting, drying and hulling is done on the Estate. It’s very interesting to walk the entire grid but my favourite stage has got to be the roasting stage. Jill shouts, “Bill’s roasting Addie!”

“I am too!” I was about to shout. “Oh, you mean he is roasting coffee?” And the divine smell of coffee roasting fills my senses as I I breathe in every last whiff. It is a blend to be proud of. It is organic and is not crushed and then mixed with all sorts of other flavourings and nasties. It is 1% caffeine. Who can boast such a wonderful combination of selling points? St Helena Island coffee can, which is why it is vital that potential investors / growers appreciate these factors and respect the product as a story, a journey, not just a number on the balance sheet.

Picking with the guys who have been working at the plantation for many years is a joy as I am tickled with tales. This is my home, yet so much of this has long since passed me by as  a ‘town girl’ and then a visitor of sorts. “I should know all this, shouldn’t I?” No time like the present to be entertained!

More adventures on St Helena Island. More insights into the way people live. Most of the coffee pickers have other vocations (I have since realised that a lot of people on the island have multiple jobs to make ends meet) or are retirees. Phyllis is 80 years old and still picking coffee in the heat of the sun. Tough gal!  But then so is Bill, 80 that is. He and Phyllis had a joint birthday recently and what did Bill do? Swim from wreck to wreck in James Bay for charity. That’s why Bill and Jill have settled so well on the island. They have been blessed with their business but they have had to work hard for it, growing slowly and cautiously and they have given much back to the island and keep giving. They did not take any stimulus packages from the Government during Covid, yet there are a few inward investors who did.

A word of warning to investors coming in with exploitation in mind. “You’ll stick out like a sore thumb on an island which is still very much a community as I have found it and you’ll gain no friends if you try to go down the exploitative route”. Saints are not stupid even if the actions of a few in the past have portrayed us as such. With this new Ministerial system comes a due diligence that the island has long since needed. Some may see it as tardy but ‘slowly slowly catchy monkey’. Humans are not very patient, Covid has taught us a new level of patience. I do not court a lot of politics these days but I understand its importance. It is such a pity that many of us do not see the impact we can have when employing our energies ethically and without ‘me’ at the forefront.

This story had to end at the Coffee Shop at the Seafront with Lorraine and the ladies. It is a beautiful Thursday morning, I stopped drinking coffee a few months back but this isn’t just instant black stuff masquerading as coffee, ground down for mass consumption. This is an experience. The familiar waft of fresh organic coffee, picked, pulped, fermented, dried, hulled, sorted, roasted and ground, right here on St Helena Island. How more authentic can a business journey get?

The birds are singing, the trees and umbrellas offer some shade from the warm day, the refreshing blue sea awaits that moment when I throw myself headlong into it once I have posted this story. The coffee, the moment, the life.

Another holistic experience that has evoked senses beyond words.

Bottom Note: I would like to say a huge thank you to Bill and Jill for accommodating my inquisitiveness. Thank you to Bo for giving me a lift to White Wall on the journey home from the plantation. Thank you to Sybil for introducing me to coffee picking. Thank you to the coffee picking team for welcoming me and sharing tales and laughter.

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