Honduras Coffee Report - January 2018
“Coffee is hard to grow.” said one of the farmers from co-op at one point during our 4-hour meeting on Sunday January 14th. This is an understatement. We had just finished talking for several hours about all the challenges facing the co-op. There are so many ways to fail in the coffee business. During the course of the meeting we had probably talked about all of them. Twice. Our co-op’s coffee is even harder to grow because they are certified organic. But these farmers were excited that day. We were talking about a dream they have had for many years. We were talking about buying a lot to build an office and a small warehouse so they could get their co-op going for real. We were also talking about how to get higher education for their kids. So it was a conversation well worth having.
Some background: Farmer to Farmer has been importing coffee from Honduras for over ten years. Our partners in Honduras are the members of a co-op called COFEACOMA. All of the families reside somewhere on the Comayagua Mountain Range, which is a National Park just east of Comayagua, a large city of over 200,000 in central Honduras. The families live in the “buffer zone” of the park, which consists of the middle elevations, where coffee grows best. The higher parts of the mountain range are called the “core” or “nucleus” of the National Park and they are covered with a magnificent cloud forest. The cloud forest is a living net of vegetation that captures water from passing clouds and rainfall and fills the aquifers. By protecting the cloud forest, you can protect the water source for hundreds of thousands of people. People use the water coming off the mountain for drinking water, irrigation, and hydroelectric. Many years ago there was a push support the protection of the forest on the mountain, including sending Peace Corps volunteers like me. One of the pieces of this push was to create a co-op of organic farmers who are trained in how to care for the land using organic farming practices. The COFEACOMA co-op was created at that time, along with a women’s group who made handicrafts, and a group for nature guides. They built a park visitor center and a nature trail, and farmers were also encouraged to build “eco-huts” to house the predicted flood of tourists. It was a whole package deal. Some tourists came, but for the co-op, the main thing missing was buyers for their organic coffee.
Farmer to Farmer showed up in the early 2000’s because a F2F board member (myself) visited his former Peace Corps site and heard the story of the co-op. Thus we started a new brand of F2F coffee: “Honduran Cloud Forest Coffee.” Our goal was to help them get off the ground with the co-op and also begin to cultivate relationships of solidarity with the co-op families. We soon were visiting with a delegation of midwesterners every year and buying between 2000 and 13000 pounds of coffee per year. Every year, the farmers would host us and we would live through the ups and downs of their lives. Farmer to Farmer also sent co-op members to organic farming training centers and on trips to Guatemala. We sent money to improve their coffee drying methods. Our solidarity trips would inevitably include a trip to Rio Negro, where the nature trail, eco huts, and the visitor center are located. We would buy handicrafts and buy organic coffee. It seemed like the realization of dream of the early National Park promoters (myself included!). But there were problems.
Farmer to Farmer never has been able to purchase all of the coffee produced by the co-op. And they have had few, if any, buyers outside of F2F. So the initial group of farmers have almost all dropped out, leaving maybe a dozen left out of more than 60 who started out. They have never had the capital to pay the co-op members up front for coffee, so F2F has always had to pre-pay a certain percentage. The co-op has never had an official office or warehouse. Despite having skilled farmers and good soil, the co-op has also experienced quality issues over the years. The issues have to do with pests and diseases, drought, picking and drying, storage, and grading. Farmer to Farmer has worked with them to improve the quality every year. We live through the ups and downs. Outside of coffee, the co-op members have also seen the loss of what little tourism there had been, due to the gang-violence in Honduras (see the other blog post “People still live in Honduras”). The women’s group no longer exists, the visitor center sits empty, and the eco-huts are mostly being used to house coffee pickers during the harvest season.
2018 is the first year I have visited Honduras in four years. Circumstances in my life have prevented me from leading any trips, but we have been consistently buying coffee every year. Here are some updates from each of the areas on the mountain:
Los Cedros/Las Moras/El Matazano: These communities are all immediately east of the city of Comayagua. They are especially important to Comayagua, because many of the farms in these communities are actually inside the watershed for the city’s municipal water system. For many years, Don Marcos in El Matazano has been one of the co-ops strongest producers. Last year he did not send any coffee. When I asked about it, I was told that the Roya destroyed his whole farm, and he hasn’t been able to bring it back into production. Wow! Don Roman is our other stalwart producer. His coffee has always been “natural” in that he puts no inputs in, neither organic nor conventional. His coffee is mostly heirloom varieties and it is grown under forest shade. Roman has 6 daughters and one son, all in their teens and twenties. Roman traveled to Guatemala with F2F, and he sends greetings to all. This year when we visited his farm, Roman’s son Edwin showed us around. The organic plot has been been almost completely destroyed by the Roya. They are in the process of replacing all the heirloom varieties with resistant new varieties. We saw the young plants, some with their first ripe cherries. In visiting Roman, two brothers walked over from nearby Las Moras, Mancho and Benito. Benito is soft spoken, but he had the highest quality of all the co-op farmers last year. The brothers share a small greenhouse-style coffee drying shed, which they pointed out to me from a viewpoint. The greenhouse dryers were a project that F2F helped start many years ago. It improves the quality by having the drying take place off the ground on screens. The greenhouses also mean that the farmers can dry the coffee at their farms even in wet weather, keeping more of the profits versus having to sell wet coffee. Almost all of the farmers in the co-op have their own greenhouses now, although Roman dries his coffee in the open air on screens above the ground. In addition to Roman, Benito, and Mancho, we also met Patrocinio (whom everyone calls “Chino”) who will be sending coffee this year, and we received a sample from Don Luis, who would like to send coffee too. In Los Cedros we were introduced to the effects of the Gorgojo. The Gorgojo is the pine bark beetle, and it has come in and killed maybe half of the pine trees on the mountain. The dead trees are standing there all over the place. On the trip to Los Cedros, we also stopped by the farm of Hector Oviedo, who is a co-op member who lives in the city and commutes to his farm, which is fairly low on the mountain. Hector’s farm was just a dream five years ago, with a few tiny coffee plants and lots of weedy trees. He kept most of the shade trees when he planted his coffee and also has brought in thousands of bags of organic matter. His coffee is in full production now. The shade slows down the maturation process, and he was still harvesting in January when many of his neighbors were long done. This gives lower yield but is more sustainable for the soil and the farmer. Hector is also roasting his own coffee and selling it in Comayagua.
Rio Negro: Rio Negro is on the wet northwest side of the Comayagua Mountain. At first, Rio Negro was the main place for the coffee co-op. The leaders were all there, with some members from other communities. Rio Negro had the national park visitors center too. But over the years, Rio Negro farmers have slowly dropped off. There was a time when the expense of the Organic Certification costs seemed too much to them. Sometimes the conventional coffee prices would fluctuate up and they would lose interest in selling organic. And one of the strongest producers, Avilio Velasquez, has connections with family in St. Paul to sell coffee at a better price and he doesn’t need the co-op anymore. Last year, there were no farmers from Rio Negro who sent coffee to Farmer to Farmer. This year, Adalid (the co-op president) is finally going to send coffee after his farm has been replanted after being destroyed by the Roya. We also went to Rio Negro to visit Dona Cirula, who F2F has helped over the years. Cirula gets her own blog post (check it out!). The situation in Rio Negro is similar to in other places. The Roya came in and destroyed many farms. Those with the means to do it were able to replace the plants with resistant varieties. This wave of the Roya first came in strong about 5 years ago, so these farmers are just now coming back into production. Some of the new varieties do best in full sun, and they require extra fertilizer and herbicides. Under shady, low fertilizer regimes, yields are low. So many farms that were organic by default are now conventional because of the Roya and the new varieties. In fact, all of the co-op farmers on the mountain hedge their bets by having some organic and some conventional. In Rio Negro, we also saw many landslides. There were over 50 hectares of coffee fields that were affected by landslides in the communities around Rio Negro. The farmers were surprised by the landslides. It had never done it that bad before. They wondered if the blame could be placed on dynamiting for the construction of a nearby hydroelectric project. It could be, but it also could have been made worse by the loss of tree cover due to the Gorgojo or the loss of shade trees due to the need to grow full sun coffee to resist the Roya. This is likely a climate change problem. With climate change, the droughts are worse and the floods are worse. With climate change, the balance can tip in favor of the pests (Gorgojo) and the diseases (Roya), which can thrive in the warmer conditions. Rio Negro got the triple threat (plus possibly soil-destabilizing blasting), which caused deadly landslides. Our visit to Rio Negro included a visit to Avilio. He and Betilia usually host us, but they were not able to host this year because they had over 30 workers that they were housing and feeding for the coffee harvest. Avilio had expanded his farm and was harvesting like crazy. He was hoping for the prices to rise, because now they are barely above the cost of production.
El Tamarindo/El Horno/El Sute
These communities are on the south side of the Comayagua Mountain, and they are in the rain shadow. The weather comes in the Caribbean in the north and runs into the mountain. The clouds dump their moisture on the northern ¾ of the mountain, and leave much less for the south side. The native vegetation in the south is pine, which is more drought tolerant than the broad-leafed trees that dominate the coffee growing areas in other parts. Traditionally poor, mostly indigenous communities have lived on the south side of the mountain. They have only recently gotten road access, and still do not have electricity. Visiting these areas is like going back in time in Honduras. The Gorgojo has hit these areas hard. There had been a massive push to replant pine trees in the area, and this was a major step backwards. The government went all out to stop the Gorgojo, including cutting down vast swaths of healthy trees to try to create breaks to stop the spread. One of our co-op members, Alexis Gonzales, was killed a couple years ago by a falling tree has he worked on a government crew trying to create a Gorgojo break. On this trip, I was able to meet his son, Ariel Gonzales, who is sending coffee again this year. We also saw Don Polo (Leopoldo Euceda) from El Tamarindo, who has hosted us before and spoke passionately at the meeting about being proud of the high quality coffee that he has been sending. El Horno and El Sute are right next to each other. We did not get any coffee last year from Don Salvador of El Horno, who is on the board of the co-op. When I asked about it, I was told that Don Salva had lost his organic coffee to the Roya. Our biggest producer is in El Sute, and he is named Don Francisco Alvarado. He is called Don Chico, and he is like a model for the other farmers in the community. He has improved his farm with 3 different drying sheds, an improved depulping machine, and a warehouse. He is doing everything so his grandkids will be able to have a better life. Don Chico has not been hit by the Roya yet, and will hopefully have a lot of coffee to send. His brother, Santos Mendez is also sending coffee.
In general, our conversations during this trip brought to the fore how hard it is to grow organic coffee. The consensus was that the organic yields are about half of conventional coffee (when fertilizer is applied to conventional coffee). In order to get those mediocre organic yields, you have to haul a lot of chicken poop and other fertilizers and organic matter. The shade trees also limit yields in the short term, although it is more sustainable in the long run. There is no local market for organic coffee, so most of the coffee produced by the farmers gets sold as conventional and gets mixed in for export. Drying the coffee on the mountain is hard because the rain and fog in the higher elevations make it nearly impossible to sun-dry coffee, even with a greenhouse drying shed. The Roya is the worst disease, but we also saw “Ojo de Gallo” and “Hielo” which can easily destroy a plantation. The “Broca” is an insect that enters the coffee bean and hollows it out from the inside. Some years it is worse than others. Don Polo has a recipe for a natural Broca trap! The cycles of drought and flooding have been getting worse with climate change. With all of these difficulties, the co-op also has the problem of needing Organic Certification in order to sell on the international market. Every year, they have to raise the funds to pay the nearly $1500 to pay the costs for certification. This has proved a challenge, because the co-op only has only been selling to Farmer to Farmer and we have only bought a few thousand pounds each year. It makes little economic sense, so we have been helping them pay some or all of those costs so that they can keep a few more dollars each year and stay committed to the effort of going organic.
It has been a long haul with this group. They have all improved their drying and storage of the crop. Many have received training in organic farming practices. They have learned to process, bag, and label their own coffee. They have learned to pick and select for quality beans. They have learned to work together to get the coffee ready for export every year. For all of this work, they have received an average of about double the price of the conventional coffee. And they have the confidence based on many years experience that we will continue to buy from them. It is a big deal, but we still buy only a fraction of what they could be producing.
During the meeting we spoke about how the co-op needs to step up to the next level. They need to be able to gather and store coffee in the warm, dry Comayagua valley. They need the capital to develop and staff a warehouse and office, so that the co-op can build inventory to sell to other buyers. They have received a grant from their Organic Certifier (who took pity on them) to get two free years of Certification. They are going to use the money saved from that, and other money from selling a plot of land, in order to buy a small lot in the valley to build a warehouse and office. Their plan is add a couple rooms so that high-school aged children of the families could come down from the mountain and go to school in the city, and in the evenings they would be a presence in the warehouse compound to deter theft. It is an exciting idea. It combines institutional strength with education. With a warehouse, they could begin to function like their own middle buyer, keeping a greater portion of the profits for their coffee, whether it is organic for Farmer to Farmer or conventional to sell on the commodity market. It is a risky proposition.
The group is meeting next week to decide what to do about the warehouse idea. I told them that Farmer to Farmer could likely help if they had a good plan that everyone was behind.