Took me a while to get back to this. Sorry about that.
I was dragging on a bit too long in that last post about Guate, so here we go again. We're going to dive into AProCafé, the coffee farmers, and hopefully some prettier photos this time around, though I'm by no means a photographer.
As a recap, I was in Guatemala from February 27-March 5, and I spent Monday and Tuesday in Guatemala City with some of our export partners, before heading to Lake Atitlán to meet with AProCafé. Here we go.
Wednesday morning I met up with an old friend and AProCafé's head of operations, Pedro Izaias Gonzales, and agronomy supervisor, Danilo Cholotio. AProCafé's farmers are mostly split between farms that are on the San Pedro Volcano and some that are in San Juan and its surrounding villages, or aldeas. Wednesday we explored the volcano.
Two years ago AProCafé purchased a 2 hectare parcel way up on the volcano, at 1900-2000 meters above sea level, and planted it in quadrants with bourbon, typica, caturra, and catuai, the four arabica coffees most prevalent in Guatemala. The idea is to create a model farm where they can bring farmers to show how different levels of shade, pruning techniques, and fertilization affect plant health and productivity, all with the goal of helping farmers better manage their own farms. This was my first visit to the model farm, and it was awesome to see this project well underway. First harvest for these younger trees will be this upcoming harvest in 2017-2018.
We also spent a bit of time with Don Pedro Trejo, who we featured as one of our microlots last year, and visited the uppermost of his three parcels that sits way up on the volcano at 2050 meters. Pedro's coffee was top-notch for us last year, and it's clear to see why: ample organic fertilization, excellent shade cover, and a healthy mix of caturra and red and yellow catuai.
Pedro's land is in stark contrast to many of the other (non-AProCafé) parcels we walked through to get there. It's pretty clear how much global warming has affected producers around the lake. Roya, or leaf rust, is a fungal disease that has decimated Central American coffee over the last few years, and it is extremely prevalent in Guatemala. Previously only a lower-altitude problem, roya has spread to higher and higher elevations. It looks like small dots of rust on the underside of coffee leaves, and robs the coffee plant of nutrients it needs to produce ripe fruit. In combination with an earlier and more intense drought, this has been disastrous for many farmers, particularly those at lower altitudes, without shade, and without ample fertilization. Many farmers have abandoned their lands completely, and I saw many trees with cherries that have not and will never fully ripen, drying on the branch before they turn red. Thanks to better farm maintenance AProCafé's farmers are doing better than most, but nobody is immune.
Thursday we headed up to the aldeas to visit Don Manuel Tzic, Doña Lucinda Puac Pérez, Carlos Sabila and Don Santos. This year we're trying Don Carlos' coffee, too, and it's always a pleasure to visit Manuel and Lucinda, both of whom are sassy, smart, and dedicated to producing great coffee. Meeting with farmers is always a fountain of knowledge and it's always good to hear their practical concerns (I don't have enough space to dry coffee slower) vs. my quality concerns (please dry your coffee slower on raised beds), to see if we can find a middle ground that pays them for their efforts and doesn't place an undue burden on the farmers themselves. Manuel and Lucinda are truly model farmers in the organization, too, and can tell you exactly why they pruned this plant there, when they're going to replant one area of their land, how they make their organic fertilizer, etc. There's a reason why their coffee is so tasty every year.
On Friday we visited Beneficio Valle de Eskoll, the wet mill where AProCafé processes most of its coffee. Oscar Julajuj runs the show at Eskoll, overseeing the depulping, coffee drying, and storage for the bulk of AProCafé's coffee, all with beautiful views of Lake Atitlán and Volcan San Lucas. Danilo Cholotio also runs a composting operation here, where he uses bacteria and enzymes to break down the de-pulped coffee cherries into organic fertilizer, which is then distributed to AProCafé's farmers.
We were here to load up 50,000 lbs of coffee for an upcoming export shipment, and I tagged along for the ride. I have a tough time sitting idly while others are working, so I gave it a go, but I was lucky to be able to take Huckleberry photo breaks. The workers at this mill work harder in a day than I think I have in any whole week of my life, and even when I was trying to keep up, were moving at least twice as fast as me. From farm to beneficio to export cupping lab, there are a lot of hands on coffee before it even leaves its origin coffee. For me, it's awe-inspiring to see the level of hard work that goes into the coffee we enjoy.
Before I left San Pedro for Denver, I had a bit more time with Pedro and Danilo. These guys effectively run the show at AProCafé, are the main source of quality improvements in the organization, and are my main point of contact in Guatemala. So we did a bit of roasting.
Huckleberry is trying to help AProCafé continue to produce great coffee and earn a fair price, and a lot of the time, coffee growers don't get to taste their own coffee. This year I brought a popcorn popper down to Guatemala, and left it in the hands of Pedro and Danilo. It's not the best way to roast coffee, but with a little work, it's not the worst either, and it's small enough that Pedro can take it in his backpack when he goes to visit farmers. We spent a bit of time going over roasting and basic cupping, and our hope is that by giving farmers the chance to taste their own coffee vs. some of the association's current baller status members, they'll be able to see how better farming practices lead to better quality and better livelihood.
There was a bit more to the trip, too, but I'm back in the Rocky Mountains now, and it's good to be home.
So what's the takeaway from this trip?
On one hand, it's a bit disheartening to see the affects of global warming and leaf rust on Guatemala. Out of necessity, I think that a lot of farmers will move towards other crops or lower quality varieties of coffee that will resist rust, but probably not fetch the same prices. As a lover of good coffee, it's sad to see this shift taking place, but I understand that it's a matter of necessity for many farmers.
On the upside, the coffee quality is still high, and I think the farmers in AProCafé are in a unique position to not just stand up to the challenges ahead, but also improve their quality of life through the process. El Grano has helped AProCafé with its composting project and other initiatives, and has been extremely successful in finding buyers for the whole association's coffee. By being a part of an organization that provides pre-financing, farm assistance, and good access to the US market, AProCafé's farmers stand at an advantage.
Huckleberry is also doing its part. This will be our third year purchasing single farm microlots at a high premium, and the goal has always been to use our coffee community connections to expand these higher prices beyond our means. We can only roast (and buy) so much coffee, so last year Buddy Brew in Florida hopped in with us to expand the price premium microlot program. Buddy Brew is back along for the ride with us this year, and we're going to send out samples to other friends in the world of coffee to see if we can grow AProCafé's esteem in the US coffee community, and increase the amount of high premium prices headed back to the farmers. Ideally we'll be able to find buyers for 2-3 times the volume we could purchase ourselves.
And, thanks to your support of our Sister Winter Holiday blend this year, Huckleberry will be supporting AProCafé's leaf rust prevention efforts for the second year in a row. Danilo Cholotio makes an organic-approved sulfur calcium treatment that inoculates the roya spore, and that the organization will apply to plants between harvests. For the second year running, Huckleberry will use a portion of Sister Winter proceeds to buy all of the raw ingredients for this treatment.
So, buena onda (good vibes), Guatemala. It's always a pleasure to visit, and I'm looking forward to some great coffees later this year. We're digging in for the long haul, and despite the challenges, we have good feelings about our community in Guatemala and the beautiful coffees we'll be able to roast for you.