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.


Series about Union Direct Trade

In previous post about Union Direct Trade we’ve talked about how we’re gathering information from smallscale coffee farmers in Huehuetenango in Guatemala. This work has been undertaken by Pascale, a masters graduate in Development Economics from Wageningen University as a research project to define how Union can have a positive impact on the lives of coffee farmers.

Pascale has been in Huehuetenango for five months and now reflects on her experiences as she completes her first period of work there and prepares to move on to Costa Rica.

Emigration was one of the coping mechanisms to deal with the coffee crisis in the late 90s. It has become the major reality of rural economies Central America.

Of the 87 households I’ve interviewed here in Huehuetenango. I discovered that 72% have or had migrant family members. The majority immigrated to the United States
(89%) and 11% to Mexico. In 40% of the cases it was the farmer (head of family) who went to the United States. The reasons for migration are: earn money to pay off debts, buy land to cultivate coffee, buying a car, or construct a house.

Although migration and the money earned from this have positive effects, such as lower poverty rates there are many social costs; broken families, a reduction in labour supply, the risk of death, injury or imprisonment from illegal border crossing, and a reduction in knowledge and skill transfer since producers are not there to teach their children how to cultivate coffee. (Steven has previously talked about the impact on the women who are left behind – Abandoned in Guatemala)

Listening to the women farmers at Todos Santos

Fair and reasonable coffee prices and long-term commitment is therefore very important for coffee producers. As the groups I interviewed indicated, knowing that they have a committed buyer such as Union Hand-Roasted Coffee gives them just and spirit to keep on working to produce high quality coffee. The previous unstable markets impeded producers from investing in their coffee fields because prices hardly covered the cost of production, it also does not make any sense investing in high quality coffee if there was no premium for quality coffee. Quality coffee requires extra labour and money investments. Only ripe cherries must be picked and traditionally pickers get paid by piece (per
quintal (46Kg) of coffee harvested). A disadvantage of paying by quintal is that workers will pick as much as possible, to earn more. To incentivise pickers to only select the ripe coffee cherries, farmers pay day labourers a higher price per day.

Although these producers in Huehuetenango are on the right track, it is important that low interest credits to fund paying for the harvest becomes available to producers.  This will reduce their cost of production increasing the profits.

Guatemala is a beautiful country, colourful, rich in culture and tradition and inhabited by a population which is generous, hospitable and hard-working. Yet, Guatemala faces many difficulties. The country is very unsafe and Huehuetenango bordering Mexico is a collection of drug traffickers. Bad road conditions, landslides and (violent) demonstrations on the roads make it difficult or sometimes impossible to travel from one place to another. Especially during the harvest this is a serious problem for those preparing their coffee for export. Hence, I have the highest respect for those working under these conditions. The farmers of La Libertad and Todos Santos have faced many barriers, but they never gave up. “For every problem there is a solution” is their motto. I believe that the fair and transparent relationship that Union Hand-Roasted Coffee has with the organizations that form these co-operatives will contribute to the development of towns in La Libertad, Chanjon and Tuiboch (Todos Santos).

boarding the bus to agronomy classes

boarding the bus to agronomy classes


Transparency and traceability are two important aspect of a company’s business model. Only by being transparent in the whole coffee chain, can both buyer and producer be sure that the benefits really reach the producers.

Almost Integrated into Guatemala Culture !

Almost Integrated into Guatemala Culture !


My next stop is going to be Costa Rica; there I anticipate the situation with farmers will be completely different. Besides the fact that the country is much more stable and is classified as a middle–development country, Costa Rica has embraced a micro-mill revolution which Union has talked about before and I will describe more in my next post.



Series about Union Direct Trade

In the previous post Pascale talked about getting stuck into the interviews with farmers in Huehuetenango to obtain data for our Monitoring & Evaluation study. We have worked with these farmers only for two seasons, so are still in the early stages of our relationship. Pascale was learning more about coffee production in this remote region of Northern Guatemala. Here, she talks about what the farmers have been working for during the previous twelve months; receiving an income for their coffee.


Coffee payments in Tuiboch

Traditionally, farmers are paid in full at the end of the season, in May, at the final “liquidation meeting” of the coffee harvest. The timing of this payment causes problems because producers have large costs to cover during the year, particularly through season when fertilizer is needed, and during the harvest to pay for labour. Union pays part of the contract earlier to help with cashflow.

Cashflow problems mean that some farmers do not sell all their coffee to their co-operative. Instead, farmers sell a small amount to coyotes (middleman). Even though coyotes pay on average less than the co-operative, they pay directly in cash at the time of harvesting. Some farmers need this money to pay to the day labourers who harvest the coffee. This is why pre-finance is very important for small-scale farmers. Having some money in advance allows farmers to enter all their crop into the co-operative which pays a higher price than coyotes and more importantly will offer a sustainable price not only today but also in the future.

This “liquidization meeting” started with a visit from ANACAFE (Guatemala Coffee Board) who will help the cooperative to obtain a loan for their next harvest. Low interest loans with good conditions are crucial. Currently some farmers, those who are not members of the cooperative, have no other options but to pay up to 36% annually in interest. These are all cost which reduces the final amount of income available for investments in coffee production, education for children and health care.

This year, representatives of the Co-operative were happy to announce they had a small victory; it was the first year that they succeeded in paying their farmers so early, in May. In previous years final payment was later than June. Waiting so long requires a lot of patience and commitment of farmers and can put them in a position in which they cannot pay off their debts and continue to pay interest. The commitment that farmers show to their organizations is strong; they really want to make this project work.

It is incredible to see how transparently the Co-operative works. Before farmers received their payment a presentation was given, clearly explaining how much coffee was received what the expenses were. The presentation was illustrated with pictures; many producers never (will) have the opportunity to see the beneficio seco (dry mill) in Huehuetenango and with these pictures they can learn about what happens with their coffee after they deliver it to their co-operative. Each farmer signs a form that states the amount of coffee that he delivered and the price he received. By doing this the co-operative can be completely transparent to Union Hand Roasted, and prove that they paid a fair price to their producers. From an outsider perspective this may seem obvious since co-operatives are owned by small scale farmers and consequently they should all have access to this information. Unfortunately, the level of transparency as we see here rarely happens within other cooperatives.  

Signing the act of the meeting

A copy of the coffee cupping evaluation form was also handed over to the farmers. Farmers can see for themselves how there coffee was cupped and which exceptional qualities their coffee has. If coffee showed signs of fermentation and was rejected, this is also listed on the cupping form. Hence, the form also serves as direct feedback, since fermentation can be avoided by handling the coffee carefully when processing the cherry into parchment.

A small talk was given about the history and reasons for the project for both new and existing members. Many small scale farmers have a rather short-term vision, rather than planning for their future, they sell to those who pay soonest if not the most. This is understandable.

The importance of a guaranteed minimum floor-price and having a long-term buyer-relationship may not always reach the minds of the producers. Their main concern is the price that they will receive for their crop that season.  Therefore, reminding them and explaining the goal and aim of the project is an important task of the co-operative.

It is not only time and labour intensive to cultivate coffee, but also commercializing coffee requires knowledge, time, negotiation and organization skills. After the coffee is harvested there is a lot of work to do. First samples of each “lote de cafe” need to be cupped to grade coffee on the basis of quality and lots are selected by Union Hand Roasted. Any coffee not suited for export, because it shows any defect, like fermentation, is sold at the local market.

The coffee needs to be transported to Huehuetenango City where the “beneficio seco” processes the parchment coffee into “café en oro”, coffee ready for export. Afterwards it needs to be transported to the harbour from where it is shipped.

Small scale farmers exporting coffee face many challenges and costs, not only in farming coffee but also in commercializing. Processing, transport and administration cost are uncured during the year. Yet they are devoted to producing and exporting top quality coffee. In the past there were many obstacles thrown into the path, and there are still obstacles to overcome. Yet, they are working hard on further improving the quality of their coffee. 

Saludos,           Pascale
A word from Steven…Again Pascale has talked frankly about the true hardships that farmers face on the yearly coffee cycle. Some good work has been achieved in creating loyalty to their cooperative. This gives the farmers direct access to the export market and opportunity for greater earning potential. It is clear how important the access to pre-finance is and this will be one of the main projects Union will be working on for next season.                    Steven


In my last blog post about Union Direct Trade I exlplained how we’ve developed a research project to examine the impact of our approach to coffee sourcing on the lives of coffee producers and on the quality of the coffee they grow. I can now let Pascale who is undertaking this research out in the field introduce herself and explain her thoughts when she arrived in Central America.


 I am happy to introduce myself to all Union Hand Roasted Coffee Lovers. My name is Pascale Schuit, 24 years old. Currently I live in Huehuetenango, Guatemala but my home is in the Netherlands. I have finished my Bachelor and Master International Development Studies with the specialization rural economics (at Wageningen University, The Netherlands). After five years of formal education on development economics and sociology and previous field experience in Costa Rica with (coffee) farmers I am now going to work in Guatemala and Costa Rica for Union Hand Roasted.

                                  Steven, Don Nasario & Pascale – Tierra Altos, La Libertad

As you all might know Union Hand Roasted Coffee selects from farmers who produce high quality and pay a premium price for this quality. Moreover, they develop long term relationships with coffee producers that are committed to produce high quality coffee.

My first experiences here show that these two aspects, a fair price and the long-term relationship are very much appreciated by the farmers and are most likely to positively influence the quality of coffee. The fair price and the guarantee that Union hand Roasted Coffee will buy from them reduces the risk that farmers take when they invest in their coffee fields.

To illustrate, applying fertilizer is expensive and one is not always sure where the fertilizer will actually improve yields. When a farmer is not sure whether and at what price he can sell his coffee, as is the case when selling to intermediaries or coyotes as called in Latin America, the decision to apply fertilizer therefore includes a risk. It is a big expense and the pay-offs are uncertain. Union Hand Roasted Coffee has a contract with cooperatives with specifies the quantities and a minimum price therefore farmers know how much room they have to invest.

However, there are many questions to be answered. One of them is what is this fair-price? How much do farmers need in order to maintain and invest in not only their coffee fields but also in their family, education, health etc.? Where do farmers face problems in producing a high quality coffee? And where do the strengths lie to produce the excellent cup of coffee that we all like to enjoy?! This is just a small example of the things that I am hopefully going to find out during the course of my 5 months stay in Guatemala and Costa Rica.

I will regularly update you! But now I first will enjoy a delicious cup of Huehuetanango Highland Coffee!  

                   Saludos y un abrazo


Any questions you’d like to ask Pascale about her research, please leave a comment below.

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