How did we discover COCASMIL?

It has always been bit of a quest for us to find really tasty organic certified coffees that comply with our strict quality requirements. Finding a coffee with the flavour profile we look for and also certified organic that we can roast for our Organic Natural Spirit Blend has not been easy. Fortunately we were introduced to COCASMIL by Beneficio Santa Rosa in Honduras. We were excited because we weren’t offering any Honduras coffees. For many years, when talking about speciality coffee, Honduras was not an origin that popped to our mind and our concern was that harvesting techniques would not be to the stringent degree we require which would affect the flavour profile.

 

What impressed us about this coffee?

So when we first cupped COCASMIL, we were very happy. We found the coffee was exceptionally fresh, creamy and sweet with notes of vanilla, peach and fudgy-like finish.This is the first season we have bought from this producer and we are in that process of getting to know them and their coffee.  Pascale Schuit, who manages our farmer relationships, visited them in March to understand how we can developing a long-term Union Direct Trade relationship with them. She is hopeful because she observed how Beneficio Santa Rosa, the dry mill organization through which the coffee is prepared for export, delivers regular training on quality, and also on social aspects such as security and hygiene on the farm. Effective management is the key to success.

About these Producers

COCASMIL is a Co-operative; which means they are a group of 82 organized small-scale farmers, including 6 women, located in a mountain range up to 1700 mASL near San Miguel in the Intibucta department. The cooperative takes its name from this: Cooperativa Cafetera San Miguel Intibuca or “Coffee Cooperative San Miguel Intibuca”.  It started in 1999 and has built cement patios for sun-drying and an office for good administration; and now they work with the local school to provide books and help to support the health centre.

These 82 producers organized themselves to work together as a cooperative entity because they all have small plots of land for their farm. Each individual producer would never have enough coffee to export directly to Union Hand Roasted Coffee. They have different varieties, but mainly Catuai, Caturra and Villa Sarchi. Their coffee is washed and then sundried.

 

About the farmers

All farmers in the co-operative produce organic coffee. Each farm takes special care to weed by hand or using a machete, no herbicides are allowed and they apply microorganisms; coffee pulp compost and bocashi to enrich the soil. Bocashi (from the Japanese bokashi) is a highly effective natural organic fertiliser grown from microbial cultures from locally available organic material resources.

 

 Jorge Vásques

Jorge Alberto Vásques

 

Jorge Alberto Vásques is a member of COCASMI and he is committed to producing coffee through sustainable farming.

The technique of land management by terracing

 

The picture above shows terracing; a method used to transform steep sloping farms that can be unworkable, into areas with level strips of land that are easier to manage. Constructing these terraces is very labour intensive and very few farmers opt to do so.

Terracing manages soil erosion, avoids landslides and prevents fertiliser and mulch from washing away quickly.  They make working in the coffee more comfortable.

 

Meet Benjamín Mejía Vásquez

When Pascale was in Honduras earlier in the year, Benjamín Mejía Vásquez explained how he prepared cultures of microorganisms to apply on his farm.

Farmer Benjamín Mejía Vásquez

 

Benjamín collects layers of sand from high up into the mountains, an area untouched by human activity and where there is a vibrant and healthy ecosystem. The microorganisms present in the sand are brought back to his farm and applied to the soil; this can support re-establishing the equilibrium in the farms soil.

This in turn yields a healthier crop, with fewer problems from pests, and is a convenient and cheap way of managing soil fertility. Bejamín has a very small de-pulper and does not work with a washing channel.

The coffee is both washed and fermented in the same tank. On his cement patio it takes around 3-4 days to dry the coffee.

Benjamín’s de-pulper; simple but perfectly functional

 

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.

 

Our first exceptional lot from this up-coming origin finally arrived.  It’s been a labour of love to actually get our hands on this small parcel of great bourbon coffee, with our
journey starting back in August 2010. For those of you who follow our exploits, you may recall my first exploration of Burundi’s coffee production scene was on
Burundi-road-trip-june-2010 and with progress being made during the 2010 – 11 harvest season, the decision was made to apply to the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (A.C.E.) for
Burundi to be considered to host a Cup of Excellence Competition.

Wonderful Burundi print on curtains

 

Before any country can host the Cup of Excellence programme, countless operational challenges have to be overcome – from establishing the producer and chain of custody for all samples, through to ensuring adequate roasting and cupping facilities are professionally managed.  The most important aspect however, and one of the prime legacy effects of the competition, is the development of a team of national experts from the local industry that are capable of screening samples to the high standards expected by the international quality coffee market.   This National jury is responsible for screening all lots entered by farmers, repeatedly tasting until just around 40 – 50 samples remain for the invited international team and representing the best coffee that the country has to offer.

In common with Rwanda’s own debut into the competition, and before final approval could be given by A.C.E. that Burundi possessed the organisational strength and resources required, a test event entitled the ‘Burundi Prestige Cup’ was held in August 2011 that would replicate and examine all procedure and protocols for competition. Having been so closely associated for around 10 years with the development of quality coffee in neighbouring Rwanda, I was delighted to be invited to participate in this inaugural panel and to
have the opportunity catch up with some of the people I had met a year earlier.

Jeremy cupping action with Steinar Paulsrud (Kaffebrenneriet, Norway) and Head Judge, Paul Songer (Songer Associates, USA)

The National Jury working under A.C.E. Head Judge, Paul Songer, who has also been heavily involved in Rwanda’s successful rise as a quality coffee producer, worked their way through 96  samples eventually passing 46 as being representative of the highest grade of coffee.  Along with 10 other experienced cuppers from the USA, Norway, Australia and Japan we then spent the following week tasting and re-tasting again to eventually pass 22 lots as being representative of a cup of excellence finalist selection.  Significantly, one lot achieved a score of over 90 points, qualifying for what would in a formal competition be a Presidential Award –a great achievement considering that the washing stations and cooperatives here had only had one season experience in producing for the quality market.

Burundi smallholder awards

Looking back over my notes from the previous year’s tour, it was quickly apparent as we got into the real business of cupping that there had in the past year been some real improvements in many areas of Burundi coffee production.  Many of the samples that we cupped showed good characteristics overlaying clean and sweet coffees, and with
consistency over the week as samples passed through each round. (we only know the identity of lot numbers at end of the week and through tracing these back
through the rounds scoresheets).  At the most basic level, the incidence of potato taste, a defect that is prevalent in this region of East Africa was far lower than expected, and lower than I experienced on the previous year’s tour.  Given the scale of many of the washing stations so far constructed in Burundi, I had expected this issue to be more obvious, and it is testament to the process management improvements that this has not been seen to be so.  More exciting however was that for the first time, I started to get some real East Africa/Great Lakes regionality with the Bourbon character coming clearly and cleanly through, and a range of cup styles from light floral sweet citric, through to rich raisin sweet bodied cups.  Diversity arises from soil and microclimate differences but without careful growing and clean processing, these vibrant characters just won’t be found.  Through the week there were interesting comments from different Jury members and clearly there were coffee styles here to suit all the Judges (we are all buyers) personal and national style needs.

Usually when attending Cup of Excellence as a jury member, the results are declared at the end of the week with a big ceremony and awards before the coffees are sold on the internet auction some three months later. One of the perks of being invited to such a test competition however is that the winning lots which have been held back from conventional sale are auctioned between the invited international jury members on the final morning of the week.  With only 10 bidders in the room and without the luxury of hiding behind a screen in another country, we raised arms to bid under the eye of the Burundi Coffee Sector directors and government representatives.  As ever, our Japanese
and Nordic representatives were not shy of high prices and with a few keenly contested lots I kept having a go to see what I could get for our friends back
home.  After a few technical problems with the auctioneers bid recording, and having just been edged out of a lot that I thought I had bought – until the hammer came down – I finally and very happily secured a lot from the Kinyovu Washing station in the northern Kayanza District that had got everyone talking about in round 1, had shone in round 2
before dropping down the rankings due to just one cup on one of the very final tables that didn’t present as well. Very happily, this was one of the stations and areas I had visited the year before and which I knew had good altitude in the surrounding hillsides (around 1880M)and good regional support for the coffee sector. My final score for the coffee was 87, just shy of our own 88 point Microlot selections but a really good effort given we are in year -1 of the competition!

Twa (Pygmy) tribe women at Busekera Village, a crafts village where the women make traditional clay pots and earthenware.

 

Burundi clay pots

It’s an understatement to say it’s taken a number of months to get the coffee ready to ship due to the fact that it’s a very small parcel and in the height of the season, the mills preparing coffee for export really don’t want to have to look out for just a few bags.  We waited until after the main export season therefore so that we would be able to control the milling quality and ship the coffee along with some additional coffees from the region.

Having seen this coffee from the beginning of the competition through to roasting here in East London we are delighted that the quality has held up so well. I hope that you will enjoy drinking it as much as we are– the cup shows many of the aspects I love about this region; silky body and mouthfeel, great delicate milk chocolate praline undercurrent and a wonderful sweet delicate acidity, less aggressive than other East African coffees.

This parcel only represents a tiny amount – about 3 sacks of coffee that will not last long. Seek it on our online shop. If the quality improvements seen this last year continue, then Burundi may become as important an origin for us in the next ten years as the wonderful Rwanda had been over the last.

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.

 

 

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