At Union we have developed close relationships with both co-operatives and individual producers over many years. As we have close ties with farms in so many countries, we can help to pass on techniques and up to date advice, particularly in areas where industry education is sporadic and there is poor access to resources.  Pascale also visited farms in Guatemala with ANACAFE, who work with local farmers both on site and through large scale events.

We visited six parcels in Huica, a village located in the mountains of Huehuetanango and around a 45 minute drive from La Libertad.. It is a small village and not all houses and parcels are accessible by car. This year there are several new female members from this village, many of whom are widows or divorced so now they have to take care of their parcels alone.

We visited these parcels with staff from ANACAFE (the national coffee association in Guatemala) that monitors coffee producers and gives technical advice across all coffee-producing regions of Guatemala. Their engineer came to advise how to tackle problems. Although producers are very experienced in producing coffee, in many cases they do things because that’s how their parents or neighbors do so, and this is not always the most efficient way.

Up to date advice from agronomists and engineers is very much appreciated by the producers. For me it is also interesting to participate in these kind of events, I am a development/agricultural economist with modest  but rapidly increasing knowledge of crop cultivation. A day in the field like this helps me a lot in expanding my knowledge.

It’s also important for producers to share knowledge with each other. As well as the growing and care of the plants, they need to understand how to properly commercialise their crops, what’s involved in international export and crucially, how to raise the crop’s quality to the highest levels possible.

We also visited a group of 55 producers located in San Miguel Ixcahuacan, San Marcos Guatemala. The cooperative started this project because they hope that other producers can benefit from their experience with the high quality coffee market. These San Miguel Ixcahuacan producers approached the cooperative with for help in independently exporting their coffee.

Transmission of knowledge is not always easy.  These producers rarely have access to the internet or suitable reference books. For advice they depend on ANACAFE’s agronomist (the national coffee institute) but thave insufficient staff to visit all groups on a regular basis. Learning from the experiences of neighbours and fellow producers is therefore a convenient way of transferring knowledge.

Cooperativa Esquipulas R.L. originally started as a cooperative that focussed on credit and savings. Coffee is one of the principal income sources in the area so they have incorporated a dedicated team devoted to exporting high quality delicious Huehuetenango Highland Coffee that for Union they have named “Liberacion” …

During the harvest four or five people work exclusively in coffee administration. They are in charge of finding lines of credit to pre-finance the harvest, making payments to the producers, weighing and collecting the coffee, storing the beans, cupping and all administration etc.

The cooperative was established in 1964, and received legal status in 1979. Their mission is to contribute to the quality of the lives of their members in a positive way by providing services such as credits, saving account, health and sustainable projects.

Its health service is free for their members. A doctor visits the cooperative every Saturday and there is a pharmacy that offers medicine at fair prices.

Co-operatives perform a vital service for their members and also offer support to each producer to make sure that everyone in the collective can be successful, get the best price for their crops, and secure their future in the coffee industry.

 

Picking of coffee cherries from the tree is a very important part of the process of producing a great cup. Skilled producers know when is best to start picking and often work very long days ensuring that only the best quality cherries are selected, as fast as possible.  Pascale visited farms during the picking season and also tried her hand at it herself.

Coffee picking in Guatemala

It is always exciting to see (and taste!) red ripe coffee cherries. These are ready to be harvested, dried and processed into a nice cup of coffee. If you eat the fresh cherrries out in the field, the best ones are deliciously sweet.

Coffee pickers collect between 100 and 200 pounds (45 and 90 kg.) of coffee cherries per day. Only 20 percent of this weight is the actual bean. All coffee in Guatemala is processed with the wet method, this means that the pulp of the coffee cherry is removed from the beans within few hours of harvesting.  Even after a full day of picking there is still a lot of work to do.

Coffee Picking in Costa Rica

Here, Pascale joined in to see exactly what is involved in a day of picking – which is challenging work.

Coffee picking starts early in the morning, when temperatures are more pleasant. Depending on the size of the harvest and the amount of labourers available (after picking the coffee needs to be processed within a few  hours)  normally a day of harvesting ends between 3 and 4 o’clock. As Union Hand Roasted Coffee buys only the best quality Arabica beans it is important to pick only the red ripe cherries and separate these from the green ones. Beans should be picked selectively, ideally by hand rather than machine, and not stripped from the tree.

In the village of San Jeronimo the pickers are mainly family members – wives, siblings and inlaws and sometimes neighbours too.  Both men and women participate in the coffee harvest.

Picking only the red ripe cherries is easier said than done. I really tried, and was picking the slowest of everyone, but after an hour I only managed about a quarter of a basket. It didn’t help that the basket, which you wear around your body, fell off…so I spent quite some time collecting cherries from the ground. I dont think I’ll be offered a full time job next season.

What is a cajuela?

So how did Pascale do? Looks like she maybe filled a “cajuela”.

The wooden box being filled up with cherries is called a cajuela, the volume measurement used in Costa Rica to measure the amount of red cherries harvested. It is a rather complicated system to explain.

“What is a cajuela?”

“Well, a faneja has 20 cajuelas.”

“So what is a faneja then?”

“A faneja will give around 46 kilograms of coffee.”

A roaster might buy 400 fanejas of  coffee at one time, but because here at Union we handroast in bespoke quantities, we can take much smaller quantities of very special beans.  Some of our microlots may be as few as 10 fanejas, making them rather rare indeed.

USEFUL TO KNOW:

1 fanega in coffee cherries equals 250 kgs. gross weight, once it has been pulped and then dry milled this equals 46 Kgs.  Which is 1 quintal of green bean net weight.

So for example Union bought 345Kg of coffee from Finca Genesis, which is 7.5 quintals. To produce this required 10 fanegas (or 2500Kg) of coffee cherries to develop this microlot.

 

 

 

One of the most important aspects of coffee cultivation, in addition to being vigiliant about disease, is ensuring correct inputs for nutrition takes place. Pascale saw some of the different methods in use on the farms in Guatemala when she looked at coffee planting.

How coffee gets good nutrition?

Coffee trees need to  receive essentional nutrients. In Guatemala producers usually clear the area surrounding the coffee plant first, and then throw three neat handfuls of compost fertilizer  and NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorous & Potassium)  around the base. Coffee plants are fertilized up to three times a year. The frequency mainly depends on the cash that producers have available to buy the products. Fertilizing is one of the most expensive activities for these producers.

In La Libertad and Todos Santos in Guatemala, coffee is grown in shade of other crops. The leaves that fall off the canopy trees also serve as an organic material to enrich the soil. Organic material is important because of the nutritients  and mineral material that it returns to the earth.

If you understand Spanish then you can probably guess what is inside this structure, hidden away under a canopy from the sign on the top.

It is full of worms! Some producers in Todos Santos produce their own organic fertilizer. It is a cheap and convenient way of producing organic material. The biggest risk is not covering the infrastructure and giving the birds a nice dinner!

One of the frequently used components of this compost fertilizer is discarded cherry skins, which are removed during post-harvest processing of the beans.

Coffee plants, if properly tended, can continue to produce viable coffee cherries for up to thirty years. However, given that they can also take between three and four seasons to start producing fruits, it’s a case of investing now for reward later when starting out. An outbreak of disease can be devastating for producers, especially if the more mature trees which produce the bulk of the crop, are affected.

Commonly found diseases in coffee

Pascale found out more about some of the most common diseases that can affect coffee in Guatemala when she visited farms with ANACAFE.

Ojo De Gallo

Coffee is susceptible to disease such as Ojo de Gallo or Rooster’s Eye. In Huica, where we visited some parcels which are old in coffee terms (30-40 years) and therefore even more susceptible. We found many cases of Ojo de Gallo. This is a fungus, Mycena citricolor,  that can severely harm the plant, but develops slowly. First, the leaves develop  a marking pattern called “rooster eyes”, then the leaves will fall off and beans will be affected too and finally the cherries will rot on the tree.  Severe crop loss may occur and less coffee means less income.

Ojo de Gallo can be prevented by proper management, since too much moisture & humidity promotes the development of the fungus. High rainfall and too high shade density preventing good air circulation are all contributing factors. Good fertilization and composting to ensure healthy plants also helps with prevention. If coffee parcels are old, the plants can also be removed or pruned to prevent further spread of the disease. Chemical anti fingus applications also can eliminate Ojo de Gallo, but prevention is preferred. 

Mancha del Sol

Cultivating coffee is not easy. Although Ojo de Gallo is prevented by providing enough shade, too little can result in Mancha del Sol. They are also easily confused, although Mancha del Sol is characterized by the yellow circle around the black spot. Fortunately, producers in Guatemala do not have to combat diseases such as Roya de café (Hemileia Vastrix) which is one of the biggest problems in cultivating coffee in countries like Colombia – an outbreak can destroy up to 70% of a parcel.

We visited a group of producers in San Miguel Ixcahuacan and went with them to another co-operative at La Libertad. They visited parcels and then also worked with the cuppers from Esquipulas. These type of interactions are important, as producers are more likely to adapt cultivation practices recommended by visiting agronomists when they can see with their own eyes that these practices improve the conditions of the parcels. If you hear you will forget, if you see you will remember…

Producers share knowledge with the help of organisations such as ANACAFE and we at Union also run seminars and workshops for them. We believe it’s really important and we’ll be discussing the role of the co-operative in more detail next time!

We’ve talked about  what a coffee bean is – so now we take a look at whats happening in the field?  We may undertake around twelve ‘origin’ trips a year on average, to visit the farmer partners and producers we source our coffee from and to learn more about changes during the season on the farms. Pascale, a development economist reseacher who’s been working with us, has also been visiting producers’ co-operatives in Guatemala. She had the opportunity to observe more about planting coffee and also what other crops are important to the farmers to diversify their income.

How is coffee grown?

Young coffee plants are grown in nurseries, shown here which is in Guatemala. 

Here coffee producers grow new young coffee plants in a special format so they can be transplanted into the land parcels within the first year. The plants are either grown in plastic plant pot-bags as in the picture or directly into the ground. The plants are placed neatly in rows because one needs to have room around the plants to fertilize and to weed the surrounding area (to avoid disease transmission).

Why is crop diversity important?

The farmers often grow other crops too, for a variety of reasons; to give shade to coffee plants, to provide for their own food needs, and to have other sources of cash crops to contribute to their  income outside of the coffee season. Here’s a great project in Huica that Pascale visited:

The women of Huica have a mushroom project, which not only provides an alternative income source but also diversifies their diet. They grow the mushrooms in an old barn that has the correct moisture and light levels.

There are different ways to cultivate mushrooms. These women use maize stalks as the growth medium, which are abundant because tortillas which are made of maize dough feature in every meal here. Mushroom growing does not require a great investment, only the seeds and plastic bags need to be bought every time.

After approximately 45 – 60 days the mushrooms are ready to harvest. The crop can be susceptible to disease, but if taken care of properly a substantial harvest can be managed in relatively little space. The harvest takes place every two months and the sales at local markets and to friends and neighbours provides regular cash flow. During the coffee season, women often stop mushroom cultivation, as coffee requires all of their time.  And they need to use the barn to dry and store their parchment coffee.

Coffee ready to be picked:

Still green and immature coffee beans are shown here together with new coffee flowers not yet opened. The flowering of the coffee plant is dependent on several factors, most importantly rainfall. 

With the first rains during the wet season the coffee plant starts to flower with coffee blossom.  This is not only a magnificent sight, like these plants in Tuiboch, Todos Santos, but also brings with it a delicious aroma of jasmine.

One can often find banana or plantain trees in the coffee fields, planting both cash and food crops in the same area is an optimal way of using space.

Next time I want to discuss some of the problems and issues that can affect coffee plants during the growing season – and how farmers overcome them.

 

Page 1 of 3123