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Field Trip To Central America Jan Feb 2012

It has been a while since I have been on a long trip to origin. I normally try to visit one or two countries at a time. But this time it has been imperative to pay a visit to our suppliers, especially to those recently added to our selected list of qualified suppliers. We keep increasing our presence in El Salvador as a source of one of the best coffees in the world and also as an origin that is actively pushing up the boundaries of quality.

I have tried new exciting coffees processed as naturals and pulped naturals which will be added to our finest selection of washed coffees this year.  I spent four days visiting some of the best producers of the country, from the top single estates to some model cooperatives. It was very interesting to see producers thinking long term and investing in improving the quality of their coffees as a way of facing the uncertainties of the market. It was a great experience as I was able to travel through nearly the whole Apeneca Illamatepec mountain range where most of the great coffees from the country are produced.

This trip to El Salvador has also been very educational. I was able to talk to very visionary coffee producers who have invested their money and energy in finding ways of keeping their coffee plantations sustainable in the long term. A lot of effort has been put into coffee varietals and production systems including Organic and Rainforest Alliance. It is very important to mention that the core and backbone of the El Salvadorian coffee production system, based on the Bourbon varietal, is under threat. There is an increasing pressure on the land by other users, housing and recreation, due to the relative short distance between the coffee farms and the main cities including the capital, San Salvador. San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica already experienced this situation when the value of the land made any agricultural activity uneconomical.

As we know the Bourbon system relies on the shade provided by native and exotic trees, about 40 percent of it with a low density capacity. A typical manzana (0.75ha) with Bourbon can carry about 700 to 1000 coffee trees compared with at least 3000 trees per manzana with Caturra and Catuai.  So there is an urgency in finding alternative production systems to keep the Bourbon and the other varietals sustainable. The factors mentioned above added to the biggest threat that coffee farmers around the world face – climate change – make the future of coffee production uncertain. Back in November El Salvador experienced one of the worst storms ever. In just 6 days the country received an unprecedented amount of water equivalent to 6 months of rain. The damage to the coffee plantations has been massive with an estimated loss of 40 to 60% of the crop.

Bourbon can carry about 700 to 1000 coffee trees compared with at least 3000 trees per manzana.

It was time to leave El Salvador to my next destination. Our friends from El Salvador helped me to get to the border with Honduras where I met the people we work with in this country. It was a pleasant journey all along with coffee farms, sugar plantations, and lakes lying on either side of the road towards the mountainous terrain of Honduras. The whole journey took me no more than 4 hours, I was very impressed and relieved, but I have to say that the roads in El Salvador were in better shape than in Honduras. The good thing was that the coops we work with in Honduras were located not far away from the border.

My experience working with the coops was great. As I mentioned on my report from my visit to the coops in May 2011, “things are changing”. Now I can confirm this, but the speed of it is amasing. Farmers were very motivated and their commitment to not only producing good quality and top quality coffees is there but their environmental credentials have been more than ever present. Coops are setting projects to manage the waste generated from the coffee production and processing, this at individual level and Wet Mills as well. Farmers have built small bio-gas digesters at the back of the homes and are getting up to 2 hours of bio gas a day which help them a lot to reduce their demand of wood for energy. On a larger scale, one of the coops we work with has built an ethanol processing plant which will reduce considerably; both the waste generated at the factory and their demands for energy to run the mill. Also I have seen some interesting tourism projects brought to the communities with the goal of diversifying the source of income that currently relies mainly on coffee. Of course, a lot of energy still goes into coffee production. We are actively supporting a project set up to make the best coffees produced by individual farmers known and recognised by their merits. The truly micro lot coffees have been processed with a lot of care and processed as naturals, pulped naturals and washed according to the demand of the market and the cup potential of the different varietals. Few years ago, It would have been very difficult to run this kind of projects as farmers and coops did not see the importance of producing quality coffees as the best way to improve their livelihoods. We will continue supporting these kinds of initiatives as we see that they are having a direct and sustainable impact on farmers.

From Honduras I flew home to Ecuador where I stayed for a couple of days before continuing with my journey to see our suppliers in Mexico. I had a great time there travelling from the north to the south of the country. The food and hospitality of the people was second to none, yes I had some lovely tequilas as well, eeehah…!!

As many of you know last year we brought some of the best Mexican coffees processed as micro lots. So it was time to pay a visit the people behind these lovely coffees and learn more about their work. A project to improve the livelihood of coffee farmers by producing and exporting top quality fully traceable coffees was established back in 1996 with just one group. Now this project has expanded nicely and covers most of the producer groups located in the Nayarit region. I was very impressed with the level of professionalism and cohesion of the producers.

Out of the 9 groups of producers present in the region 8 participate in the project. There have been some challenges but with the technical support of Cafes Sustentables de Mexico, a local company specialising in process and credit facilities to small farmers, some of the best coffees of the country have been produced. Also it is important to mention that a long term agreement and commitment is established among all the parties involved in the project, including the final buyers.

A very positive trip

Overall this trip has been very positive and has given me an insight into the strategies put in place by coffee producers, being individual private estates or cooperatives, to face the uncertainties brought by dealing with a product prone to many variables of human and natural character. Our role has always been in working closely with our suppliers acting as a catalyst between them and our customers as a way of keeping long term business relationships.