Ten years ago, while surfing at Montana de Oro beach in Los Osos, California, David Karr had his first sip of yerba mate. Served by his Argentine classmate at the California Polytechnic Institute, Alex Pryor, the earthy South American supertea (rich in vitamins, minerals, amino acids and immune-stimulating phytochemicals) filled Karr with a sublime buzz — a focus and energy he claims gave him a new lease on life. “I immediately fell in love with it. The energy lift was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” says Karr, now 35 and cofounder of Guayaki, the premier American purveyor of yerba mate. “I thought, ‘How come I’ve never heard of this before? I’m from California; we’re the ones who are supposed to know about this kind of stuff.’” A year later, propelled by that Californian curiosity and an entrepreneurial spirit befitting of an international business major, Karr took off for Argentina to find out more about its native yerba mate. He visited the lush rainforest plantations, where mate trees thrived beneath a canopy of hardwood trees, the cool shade helping to keep the mate leaves from turning bitter in the harsh sunlight.
When the eco-conscious Karr learned that creating more of that precious shade called for amping up rainforest conservation, he was quickly sold on the prospect of turning his fledgling romance with yerba mate into a potentially lifelong commitment. “Here was project that could integrate my goal of having a business that was socially conscious and still driven by a bottom line,” says Karr. He teamed up with Pryor in a high-energy endeavor that would ultimately land the littleknown “drink of the gods” on the shelves of natural-foods markets across the U.S., and earn the Socially Responsible Business Award twice at the Natural Products Expo.
Now, eight years after Guayaki’s headquarters moved from his apartment to an office in San Luis Obispo, California, Karr runs the flourishing company remotely, from his home on an organic farm on British Columbia’s Salt Spring Island. There, Karr shares 120 acres with a community of residents assembled by his wife Jennifer, whose mother owns the property. Bound by their love of the land and their involvement with an onsite wellness center called the Gatehouse, Stowel Lake Farm’s 15 residents live in five houses on the 20 acres of property that aren’t covered by forest, meadows, and sustainably harvested crops.
Geothermal energy powers Stowel Lake Farm’s two largest structures: the restored barn and the Gatehouse, where visitors can take classes in yoga and capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that Karr has practiced for five years. Although Karr admits that his own house isn’t “all eco-ed out,” he’s been experimenting with solar power and capturing rainwater. “I was using solar power until last year, but it was difficult because I’m running a whole business out of my home,” he says. Karr is also helping Guayaki lower fossil-fuel use through low-impact packaging and strategies like shipping in bulk directly to customers, and is supporting reforestation of South America through a variety of means.
Most of the wood used for the new buildings at Stowel Lake Farm comes directly from the property’s land — as does most of the food. “We grow about 90 percent of what we eat here,” says Karr of the five-acre organic farm. “It’s very grounding to be so connected to the earth.” That connection deepens each Thursday morning at 8:30 A.M. sharp, when all the residents meet to determine what work needs to be done on the farm. Then they spend the day weeding, tilling and harvesting, breaking at lunchtime for a community meal.
Community is crucial to Karr; one of Guayaki’s central missions is to deliver economic independence to the Argentines, Brazilians and Paraguayans who pluck and process the company’s mate leaves. “We go to South America and tell the farmers, ‘We’ll pay two to three times the standard price if you start to bring back the shade and go certified organic,’” says Karr. “It takes a couple of years to get going, and it costs us more money, but we’re giving farmers a fair wage and preserving biodiversity — and the quality of the product is so much higher.” Now helping to support more than 100 South American farmers and their families, Guayaki’s 30-member team has grown considerably since the 1990s, when Karr and his brother Steven painted a 32-foot RV with a rainforest mural, loaded it up with Guayaki samples, and traveled across the U.S. to hand out free yerba mate at natural-foods stores.
On those excursions — as he still does today — Karr hipped first-time drinkers to a South American ritual: Everyone sits in a circle and passes a mate-filled gourd counterclockwise, with each person drinking the entire “gourdful” before passing it back to the server to be refilled. “The gourd is a symbol of hospitality,” explains Karr. “Right away, the conversation starts flowing, people start feeling good.” And when the gourd gets passed around back at Karr’s homestead, all that feel-good fellowship comes full circle. “I really value the simple things in life — good food, good people, community — and my home is a reflection of that,” says Karr. “We’re all people living together to take care of this land.”
Story by Elizabeth Barker. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2006. The story was added to MNN.com in July 2009.