Why We Visit Guatemala Coffee Farmers
By Pete Huff, Farmer to Farmer Board Member
It’s not about the coffee. It’s about the often overlooked journey Farmer to Farmer coffee takes to reach us and the remarkable stories that are hidden amidst the unassuming beans. These are the stories of the women farmers who climb the steep Guatemalan highlands to tend their coffee trees every day. It’s about their families that rake the drying beans on rooftops under the January sun and their neighbors that pile heavy burlap coffee sacks into the back of pickup trucks to slowly descend the dry mountain for the long journey north. These stories transform coffee into an opportunity for people from different languages and cultures to connect across borders to find common ground. Coffee is just an excuse to start the conversation and learn the story.
These stories and the relationships they create are why Farmer to Farmer board members and supporters make the journey to visit the farmers who grow our coffee each year. We arrive in Guatemala with rough Spanish and navigate the bumpy roads leading to the farms of the mountainous Huehuetenango region in the country’s northwest. It’s a long drive through rural landscapes dotted with towns abuzz with street markets. Second-hand t-shirts imported from the U.S. sit alongside traditionally woven huipil shirts on the passengers of motorcycles that weave through the traffic. Brightly colored buses and smaller vans filled with people move in every direction the road will take them, all laden with bags of fruit and clothing on the roofs. This is the land of the Mam people, indigenous Maya who have grown corn and beans in the highlands for thousands of years. Once we arrive at our destination - the office and warehouse of the Asociación Unión de Pequeños Caficultores (UPC), who buys green bean coffee from the small farmers in the region and sells it on to Farmer to Farmer - we climb in the back of a pickup truck that carries us across rivers via swinging bridges and up dusty roads to the homes of the farmers. As the truck slowly climbs, we’re clearly an unusual sight for those who live in a region that isn’t often frequented by tourists. We stick out like sore thumbs, maybe because we struggle to stand in the back of the moving truck (a standard way of getting around in the region) or how we can’t stop taking pictures of the plunging cliffs cleaved by rushing rivers that are revealed with each turn. Luckily, our UPC friends guide us along the ever-branching roads and shout greetings to those we pass.
When we make it to the homes of the farmers, we find some of the most humble, hard-working and kind people on the planet. These are women-owned and operated farms, so each farm begins with an introduction to the matriarch. We meet Elsa, who has fifteen grandchildren and outpaces all of us down the hill in her leopard print shirt; we meet Carmela, who has been growing coffee for nearly five decades; we meet Carolina, whose can’t help but smile as she shows us the incredible beans she grows; and we meet Matilda, who stands strong and proud on her stoop as she tells us about how she and her husband have grown the size of their organic coffee farm over the years. They welcome us with chicken soup made from scratch, cups of honey from their beehives, slices of corn cake and - of course - coffee with a lot of sugar. We talk about the coffee as children hover in doorways and dogs sniff for crumbs. Amid the stories about the cost of organic certification and the challenges of dealing with the devastating effects of the coffee-killing La Roya fungus, we get to know the farmer as more than just someone who grows some of the best coffee we’ve ever tasted. We get to know a person that was born on the farm where we now stand and who carries their family forward toward dreams of a better life. We get to be part of their easy humor and patient determination. We learn about their children who are simultaneously precocious and shy when the conversation turns to them. We see the person who has struggled with the hardship of mass migration to the U.S. as husbands, fathers, brothers and sons leave in search for something better, perhaps never to be heard from or seen again. We learn how our coffee puts money in their pockets to pay for education, land, equipment and security when harvests struggle. As we finish our coffee and climb back in the truck for the long drive down the mountain, we carry these stories with us along with a deepened commitment to sharing them (keep an eye out for upcoming profiles of the individual farmers). Buying Farmer to Farmer coffee and supporting our mission honors the stories and the hard work of the women coffee farmers we work with in Guatemala. It's a simple act that reaches across borders to create meaningful relationships built on respect, cooperation and an extra teaspoon of sugar in that afternoon coffee.