Calvin: A Life in Stories: Part 5, Bolivia Redux

Each Monday for the next several weeks, I will be publishing one section of the biography on my father I created in collaboration with over 30 contributing writers. Each story brings a unique perspective about my father. Last week I shared part 4 of the writing project that focused on my father’s life as a grad student at The Ohio State University. This week in part 5, the focus is on my father’s life in Bolivia. Enjoy!


Introduction (here)
Part 1: Ohio (September 12, 1953 – September 1971) (here)
Part 2: Goshen College (September 1971 – June 1973) (here)
Part 3: Bolivia (September 1973 – September 1976) (here)
Part 4: Ohio State (September 1976 – December 1979) (here)
Part 5: Bolivia Redux (January 1980 – July 1992) (below)
Part 6: Pennsylvania (July 1992 – December 1997)
Part 7: Georgia (December 1997 – July 2004)
Part 8: Italy (July 2004 – December 2015)
Part 9: Virginia (December 2015 – Present)

(JANUARY 1980 – JULY 1992)

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Beans, Beans and more Beans
By Ken Graber (MEDA Colleague)

A little background to this story is necessary. For probably more than 10 years, there was a concerted effort in Bolivia to try to get people living in the lowlands to eat edible beans in order to get more protein in their diet, especially when they could not afford meat. Beans was not a part of the traditional diet anywhere in Bolivia at the time. The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the Bolivian Methodist Church and other programs tried many different approaches to encourage the introduction of beans into the diet, including the formation of a special program called PROFRISOYA (Promotion of beans and soybeans), all with minimal results.

Fast forward to around 1986 when Cal was now the Mennonite Economic Development Agency (MEDA) Bolivia Director. Cal realized that Bolivia’s neighbor, Brazil, was a major consumer of edible beans. Not only were they a major consumer, but they also had to import beans from other countries. At the same time, small farmers in Bolivia were struggling to make ends meet while growing only one crop a year. Cal introduced the idea to the small farmers of growing beans in the “off” season as a commercial crop for the Brazilian market. The idea started off small, mainly in the spontaneous colonization area of Berlin. It quickly grew with small farmers from other areas growing beans. Before long, it was necessary to organize the farmers so they could provide the export services necessary.

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The National Association of Bean Producers (ASOPROF) was officially formed in 1990. It consisted of 17 small farmer cooperatives with about 1,800 members. By then, it was exporting beans to both Brazil and Japan. In 1993, ASOPROF and MEDA joined together to form ASOMEX, which was a commercial venture, financed entirely by equity and debt. ASOMEX has diversified into other products and has continued to grow and is providing marketing services to thousands of small farmers.

A few years ago, my wife (MarthaJune) and I were asked to complete an assessment of a rural credit program in the colony area of San Julian. San Julian bordered the Berlin Colony. (A majority of the Berlin Colony was actually destroyed by floods and the farmers had to relocate.) One of the roles of MarthaJune was to assess the nutritional level of the people. In almost every household she interviewed, people were eating beans. Not only that, when we visited the main markets in San Julian and in the city of Santa Cruz, there were numerous varieties of beans for sale.

It seems like when the men started growing beans for export, they must have realized that they had some value and decided that if the Brazilians liked beans so much, that they should try them also. Not only was the program successful in raising farmer’s income but it was hugely successful in incorporating beans into the diet of thousands of local people. Cal’s work continues to make a major impact.

Something that might be of interest, Cal and I grew up within 15 miles of each other in Fulton County, Ohio. My first overseas assignment was with MCC to Bolivia. Cal’s first assignment was with MCC to Bolivia. I was the first MEDA Bolivia Director and Cal followed me in that position. I was the MEDA Program Director for Latin America in Pennsylvania and Cal followed me in that position. I was treasurer on the Board of SEEP and Cal followed me in that position. From there, our career paths diverged. However, we retired to Harrisonburg and it appears that Cal and Jan will follow as well.

Reflections on Cal
By Tim Penner
(Bolivian Co-workers)

Cal served as the Bolivia country manager for MEDA while I served as the Bolivia country director for MCC from 1986 through 1990. Cal’s dedication to making economic development happen for Bolivians was untiring. Cal and MEDA provided a key assist through the economic side of the development formula while MCC worked at community development activities in the same.

I specifically recall Thanksgiving Day in1987 when the Berlin colony cooperative building was dedicated. Cal served as a catalyst in assisting the local cooperative structure, CCAB, to not only build a warehouse, but to build an effective people organization in bringing together all parts to make an effective development organization that served that isolated rural region northeast of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. That day was a huge celebration time, showing how different people and different groups can come together for the good of all.

I would credit Cal for being an encourager to me in my career in economic development and business. Many of the concepts I learned in Bolivia I continue to apply in my work in business in rural Kansas and in my role as a member of the MEDA board. I truly appreciate Calvin’s deep dedication to making life better for many people. His influence will continue to spread for many years.

From Loans to Farmers to Love and Coffee
By Alejandro (Alex) Escobar
(Bolivian Co-workers)

I met Calvin in January of 1990. I was fresh out of college in the United States and I had wanted to go back to Peru, my home country, to work or serve in some capacity with my academic skills. Since I had studied computer science and economics, I wanted to explore how I could combine these two areas in a place where I could also have an impact. But Peru was out of the question. Submerged in a deep economic and political crisis, my parents suggested I look into other places.

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A friend of my father and alumni of Eastern College, Tim Penner, was head of MCC in Bolivia at the time, and opened the door for a short-term position for me there. I worked with MCC in developing economic and cost benefit models in Excel and DBase for a farm systems project they were developing in the Bolivian low lands of Santa Cruz. Working in the Berlin Colony in Santa Cruz with Hal Peacock, and understanding the complexities of diversified farm production systems was truly life changing for me, and I quickly decided that this would be the area I would work in for the rest of my life.

Working with Hal in developing these models is how I came across Calvin, who was at the time head of MEDA in Bolivia. Cal was working with the same group of farmers in Berlin, and San Julian, but more focused in the development of the farmer cooperatives, among them the Central de Cooperativas Agricolas de Berlin (CCAB). Cal was developing their financial, accounting and administrative procedures so that the cooperative could expand its loan program to farmers. When he learned my term with MCC was wrapping up, he quickly offered me a job to help with his project and I accepted. Working with numbers, formulas, credit programs and finance, all seemed to be the things I wanted to engage with. And thus a lifelong friendship was established.

To say that Cal was a mentor is an understatement. In my two to three years of working with Cal, I probably learned most of what I use today and have used in the past 20 years in my day-to-day work developing programs, projects and companies that serve small farmers. I worked under Cal for about two years in Bolivia but then also accompanied him in his many consulting assignments in Latin America, where I also learned the art of providing accurate, useful and down to earth advice to other similar programs that worked with small farmers. I recall our several trips to Paraguay where we stayed at Menno Center, and traveled to the Chaco and other regions providing advisory services to several NGOs and Cooperatives in how to establish credit and marketing programs for small farmers. During these short-term gigs I learned how to crunch out reports and work long hours to meet deadlines. Cal is a prolific writer in both Spanish and English, and I learned in those years much on how to write technical documents that were also appealing and easy to read.

During his last year in Bolivia I worked alongside him in developing the National Bean Association (ASOPROF), a farmer-marketing cooperative which had close to 2,000 farmers affiliated in an effort to export their beans to higher value markets in Brazil, Japan and Europe. The organization, which exists to this day, was lead by a young Bolivian, Juan Carlos, whom Cal had selected, and over the years proved to be one of the key elements in the success of the organization. Juan Carlos has since moved on to establish two other companies of his own that also export beans, sesame and other agricultural commodities. The impact of Cal’s work in this aspect in Bolivia has been incredible. I was always amazed by Cal’s capacity to engage with and work alongside Bolivians in difficult circumstances where local culture, organizational politics, and lack of resources limited how much could be done. And yet he seemed to navigate through all this in a very easygoing style that was respectful of locals yet knowledgeable of what it took to get things done.

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During those years it was clear to me that Cal had a good eye for picking the right people for the right job. He also had an eye for matching people up, people with the right sets of skills and capacity and effort to work together. And also, as I learned later, matching people who could end up being life long companions. MEDA and my time with Calvin in Bolivia were not only good for my professional work for years to come, but it was also the place and time where I met the person who I would end up sharing my life with. I met Marialy in 1992 in MEDA. And we shared an office space for the first few months I was there. The funny thing is that we did not get along. We would argue about our approaches on how we worked with farmers and our views on some of the products we were developing, and even the people we were hanging out with were not common. I think Cal saw right through this “issue” we had between us, and he asked us to work on a couple of projects together, “forcing” us to travel together and spend hours in front of a computer to develop the right materials for communicating our work with farmers. It was there that we realized that we actually cared for each other much more than we knew, and we harnessed a love that has lasted through the present. Marialy and I have a special place for Calvin and Jan in our hearts, and we married a few years later in Bolivia when Calvin was already living in the U.S. We always remember him as being the one who “set us up” to work together and eventually become man and wife.

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As we moved back to the U.S., I worked with MEDA for a couple of years out of the Lancaster office, then took a job in the private sector and eventually ended up at the Inter American Development Bank (IADB) in Washington, D.C. Calvin and I had been consultants for the IADB on several occasions providing assistance to some of the IADB projects in Paraguay, Guatemala, and Peru, among others, so I was quite familiar with the organization. In those consulting assignments and trips, I also learned a lot from Calvin. He had a way to provide crucial technical guidance in his slow yet effective way of speaking, never being arrogant or presumptuous. Be it humble farmer leaders of cooperatives or ministers of agriculture with whom we met, he always had the right set of words and advice. At the IADB I put into practice a lot of what I had learned with Cal with regards to development of markets and credit programs for small farmers. I funded and designed dozens of projects to assist small farmers reach markets and access much needed credit.

During these last few years, as our kids started to enter school, Marialy and I discussed opening a coffee shop, as it had been a dream of ours for some time to create a gathering place to have people and friends from the community meet. But a retail business just did not seem to be the best option for us for a number of reasons. So we started thinking of coffee roasting and importing as an option. While visiting some of the farmer coffee cooperatives in Peru and Central America for my work, I learned a lot about coffee quality and production. I also learned that it was possible to bring small batches of green coffee to the US and roast them at home with a very small home roaster. Which is how we got into coffee roasting. For the first year or so we experimented with roasting different bean varieties out of our kitchen and garage. But once we had no more space for coffee sacks and packing and realized this could become bigger, we moved to a nearby warehouse facility, which is where we are now.

Today we import coffee from Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala and Nicaragua and we also source coffee from other parts of the world. We roast it and distribute it to dozens of locations in the D.C. Metro area. Our business has allowed us to maintain that connection with small farmers, which we learned to appreciate so much when working with Calvin in Bolivia. Our time with him and his family in Bolivia has had an impact in our lives in so many ways: from learning and working almost a lifetime in credit to small farmers, to love and marriage, and buying beans from small coffee farmers. I am so thankful to have met Cal.

Beans Inflate Farmers’ Fortunes
By Wally Kroeker for MEDA Marketplace Magazine

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Letter to Mr. Ordinary
By Judy Bietz (MCC Colleague)

Dear Cal,

You must have been an ordinary, everyday kind of person. I don’t remember you doing anything super embarrassing or stupid to be remembered and talked about, as was the case of many other MCC Bolivia volunteers.

I remember your excitement after the birth of your first child Raquel, and your sharing the experience with us at MCC’s ‘Granja’. I remember you being able to speak ‘Castellano’ better than most volunteers, but I have a feeling you were already fluent when you arrived. I have this memory of being in your home and you had a computer and were connected to the Internet. Was that even possible then? I thought I just heard how long we have had Internet and that certainly wasn’t 30 some years yet. I remember hearing that you had given your now wife Jan a sewing machine instead of an engagement ring, how practical?


You were a wonderful husband and father. You, Jan and Raquel were always such special friends to my daughter Angela and I. I may not have gotten to know you well enough to bring back a flood of memories at this time but if my husband Ron was still with us, I’m sure he would have lots of things to share. I know he respected and enjoyed working with you.

Thank you for your friendship,
Judy Bietz

Our Bolivian Adventure
By Jean Miller (Sister-in-Law)

Calvin has been a world traveler for most of his life. My husband Rollin, Calvin’s eldest brother, remembers before Cal first left to go work in Bolivia, he said, “I don’t want to fill a spot. I want to do things that will last a long time.” And we think he certainly was successful in that regard.

Rollin and I were able to see firsthand some of those accomplishments when we flew to Bolivia to spend a couple of weeks with Cal, Jan and their family in March of 1992. They had asked us to bring some supplies down for them and Cal suggested we bring any extra farm hats or “caps” we had on hand to give away. They were very popular in their area. We packed about 75 caps and as we went through customs they were checking everything. When they found the caps, we offered them some. They took their choice of caps and passed the rest of the luggage without opening them. Cal was there to meet us and we loaded everything into his Jeep and headed home to see the rest of the family. We had a wonderful time getting reacquainted with everyone. We spent much of our time touring the many areas where Calvin was working with the Bolivian people to help make a better living for themselves and their families. We visited his main MEDA office and the people he worked with. We also visited the smaller towns and villages where the cooperatives he was working with were located.

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One of the highlights of our trip was our excursion by Jeep out into the jungle to the Berlin Colonies where he had been working with the Bolivian farmers to increase their income by raising better crops, putting in local wells and listening to their needs. There had been a lot of flooding in the area and some of the villages now had the river running through them and the families had been displaced. Whenever we stopped near a well or a small village, people would come and surround Cal, telling him what their needs were. They seemed to know he would help make something happen in their area.

We needed to cross the wide Rio Grande River and that was quite an interesting experience. We drove the Jeep onto a large wooden barge from shore, trying to miss the deep ruts that had been made by the larger farm trucks hauling crops, people, animals or whatever else they were trying to get to market at a larger town (sometimes all of the above on the same truck – quite a sight!). Once on the barge, there was a rope tied on from the other side of the river, and an old, small motorboat pushed us out into the river current. We were slung, literally, across the river, where men on the other side helped catch and pull the barge to shore, where we could drive off onto the beach on the other side.

We arrived where MEDA had built a room to use whenever Cal or other MEDA workers were in the area. He opened the door, tossed in a bug bomb and closed the door. After an hour or so, we opened it and swept out the room. This was where we stayed while Cal went around to the area villages to check out the damage done from the flood. This central town had a water tower with plastic pipes that had been buried six inches or so underground. The pipes went to each lot to an outside flat log in the corner of the lot. It was kept outside of the house to keep the water off the mud floors, but they had running water!

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Where it had flooded really badly, the mud brick houses turned into a pile of mud. The stick-built houses plastered with mud had the mud washed off but the house still stood. Some of the people saved their house roofs by putting them in the trees when the flood came. There were places Cal wanted to go that could only be reached by boat. He and Rollin went out one day to boat but when Rollin saw the “boat” – a bunch of wood slabs and boards nailed together – he decided to stay in the village they had driven the Jeep to and let Cal try to “boat” to the other village.

When it was time for us to head back to Santa Cruz, we headed out on the narrow jungle road. While on the road we met a man running a road grader who had stopped to kill a snake on the road. It was an eight-foot snake that was very poisonous. I was extremely glad we were headed back to civilization and didn’t get out of the Jeep unless it was absolutely necessary.

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It started raining and Cal was concerned that the road might become too slippery for us to continue. There were gates every so often and if the roads got too bad they would close the gates until the roads dried off and were safe to travel again. We slipped and slid a few times but made it past the last gate. We used a different road to go back so we crossed the wide Rio Grande River using a railroad bridge, timing it so we didn’t meet a train.

Calving was very successful while working for MEDA in Bolivia. He helped improve rice production, introduced winter crops of edible beans and potatoes to help increase the net farm income of farmers and helped increase employment. He helped form cooperatives and built storage buildings. He had earned the name Cal “Beano” for introducing the growing and marketing of carioca beans (similar to pinto beans). He taught Bolivians how to use beans in their home cooking. With Jan’s help in experimenting and developing new recipes using beans, they created a bean cookbook for home use.

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We think his greatest success was the connection he made with people. He lived and worked with them as equals and showed Christ’s love for all people in everything he did. Before he left MEDA he had turned over eighteen village cooperatives to the leadership of local Bolivian management. He certainly did things that would make a difference and last a long time.

Ruts, Rafts & Rice
By Wally Kroeker for MEDA Marketplace Magazine
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